City & Politics, Essay

Changing communities: Griffin

The rural Saskatchewan community where I live was once the sort of place where you only had to lock your car doors in September, so you wouldn’t find your back seat filled with extra zucchini from the neighbour’s garden when you came out of the post office.

But a booming oil field has brought a lot of change to Griffin, Saskatchewan.

Griffin is a small town in southeast Saskatchewan with close to 100 residents. To be more accurate, Griffin is not technically a town. In fact, it’s not even a village. Griffin is an “unorganized hamlet”. This isn’t a shot, it’s the actual term for a small community that’s administered as part of the surrounding rural municipality.

The nearest “big city” to Griffin is Weyburn (population 10,484). It’s about a 20 minute drive to Weyburn from Griffin. Or, if you live in Griffin and the choice of one movie a week at the Weyburn theatre isn’t enough for you, you could also drive about 85 kilometres southeast to Estevan. Estevan is only a bit bigger than Weyburn, but the theatre does have two different shows a night.

While there are quite a few people living in the surrounding area and quite a bit of oilfield traffic, services in Griffin are limited. If you want to do something besides pay your property taxes or mail something at the post office (which you can only do before noon, when it closes), you’ll have to drive somewhere else. Griffin has no restaurant. No coffee shop. One woman took a stab at running a small convenience store out of her house, but that didn’t last long. Today’s business options are a far cry from the heydays of the 1920s, when Griffin was booming with a grocery store, a bank, and even its own saloon.

Although the population isn’t what it once was, it’s been growing in the past few years. The population of the village of Griffin and the surrounding rural municipality increased by 19 per cent between the 2006 Census and the 2011 Census. Of course, the total is still only 398; we’re not ready to challenge Manhattan when it comes to population density. But a 19 per cent increase brings a lot of change.

A lot of the new realities in southeast Saskatchewan are fantastic.

When my husband built a farm house out here on a gravel road five miles south of Griffin, he considered the expense a sunk cost. For a long time, nobody was buying farm houses. Many stood empty for so many years that nobody but a gopher would even consider moving in. But with all these new people around, living space is at a premium. Retiring neighbours have sold their farmyards as acreages, raking in what we would have called “crazy city prices” a few years ago.

You don’t move to rural Saskatchewan expecting that your child will have a lot of playmates his age. In fact, just a few years ago the elementary school at Griffin closed due to low enrollment (there were barely enough kids to field a decent curling team). But now I need both hands to count the number of kids within a year or two of my son’s age within a ten mile radius. A few more years of this and I may need to take off a shoe.

Although there are still only three movie choices within a one-hour drive from our farm, having more people in the general area has attracted a lot of new services to Weyburn. Tim Horton’s. Boston Pizza. Urban hipsters might not see this as a great leap forward, but they do mean more choice.

As yet, there are no new services in Griffin, but that could change anytime.

A lot of benefits have come with all of this activity, but it’s not all upside.

As is the case in any city with a lot of transient workers, the Weyburn and Estevan newspapers are packed with stories of drug and alcohol abuse, crimes and domestic violence. Of course, this doesn’t mean the women of Griffin have any reason to be afraid to walk down the streets alone at night. But it does mean that our children (who are bused to school in Weyburn) will have a lot more options when they’re old enough to go looking for trouble.

Unfortunately, one of the options my little boy won’t have is the chance to ride his bicycle from our farm to play with the neighbours’ kids. Kids in the area used to rely on bikes to meet up with friends when their parents were too busy to drive them. But these days, semis hauling oil and drilling supplies drive by our house at all hours of the night and day. While there are cautious drivers, we see a lot of them speeding while they talk on cell phones. Add that to the dust that a semi kicks up on a gravel road, and bicycling is dangerous. If the boy is going to ride a bike, I’ll have to load it into the truck and haul it to his friend’s house.

I tell people that “every time I take a drive through Griffin, I notice a new house.” While it’s nice to have new neighbours, the town has a sort of temporary feel. Almost all of the new houses in Griffin are ready-to-move houses, without basements, that could be picked up and moved again with ten minutes notice.

I’m not railing against change, cursing the oil industry, and holding up a sign that says “bring back 1982”.  It’s great to have friendly new neighbours, and new playmates for my son. And who doesn’t love a Tim Horton’s iced cappuccino on a hot summer day?

But keeping the car doors locked when I grab the mail and not knowing all the people I see in the post office isn’t what I signed up for when I moved to a Saskatchewan farm.

Hopefully, some of these new people will take some of the extra zucchini off my hands.


Leeann Minogue is a Saskatchewan-based writer.

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