Manitoba’s newest city still has that small town appeal

Morden, Manitoba

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September 16, 2012

MORDEN, MB, Sep 16, 2012/ Troy Media/ – It’s the sleepy end of summer; a white-hot day under a big blue sky, and we’re peeling down Highway 3 to Manitoba’s fastest-growing community, the almost-twin cities of Morden and Winkler.

Not so long ago, they were towns.

Winkler became Manitoba’s ninth city in 2002. Morden officially made the civic leap last month, becoming No. 10 with a bullet.

The fertile Pembina Valley region is growing so fast, it earned a spot on the province’s electoral map last fall, electing Tory MLA Cameron Friesen.

‘We have the most prosperous and progressive community in the province,’ Morden’s mayor Ken Wiebe said this week. ‘Our unemployment rate is almost zero.

‘We’re crying for people down here. We could have two to three hundred people show up today and they’d be employed tomorrow. Recession? Where?’

Morden has grown by about 20 per cent in the last five years, to more than 8,000. Just a few kilometres along the sunflower and cornfield-lined highway, the City of Winkler’s population is well over 10,000. Combined with the RM of Stanley – which surrounds the two communities – and you’ve got some 30,000 people.

The secret to their success? An aggressive immigration policy, and a doors-wide-open business community.

More than 300 people have landed in Morden since February, says Wiebe.

Cheryl Digby, the city’s hard-working community development officer, brought in more than 60 families from Kazakhstan alone last summer.

‘They’re coming from all over,’ Wiebe says, to work in trucking, manufacturing, the service sector and yes, the agriculture industry.

‘Most of the jobs we have pay $15 to 20 an hour,’ Wiebe says. ‘Which is nothing to sneeze at.’

You can live well on that here, he adds – provided you can find a place to sleep.

‘Our biggest challenge is finding a place’ for all the newcomers, the mayor said, noting rental housing is at a premium, and several new housing projects are quickly going up.

But both of these prairie cities still exude a small-town appeal. Take a walk down their wide and tidy Main Streets, and everyone greets you as you pass; smiling farmers and sturdy Mennonite women in ankle-length dresses.

Many of the newcomers are Russian Germans, along with folks from Ukraine, India and the UK. Nearly one in five residents in the new Morden-Winkler riding is an immigrant. More than one-third of them arrived in the last five years.

On quiet residential streets, garage doors are left open, bicycles are casually propped, unlocked, beside back doors.

The social highlight of the year is Morden’s Corn and Apple Festival, held on the last weekend of August. The province’s largest homecoming attracts more than 50,000 people.

‘You look at the streets from the Ferris wheel at one end of town – you’ll see nothing but heads for eight blocks,’ Wiebe says. ‘The streets are full.’

Morden also has two arenas, and ‘hockey tournaments going pretty much all winter,’ plus a fossil discovery centre boasting an 80-million-year-old mosasaur.

‘You could come for a weekend and go on a fossil dig with a paleontologist,’ Wiebe said.

More than half of Morden actually liked the way things were already, thank you very much. Sixty per cent opposed becoming a city in a poll last year – including the mayor’s wife. It takes more than 7,500 people to qualify for the status upgrade in Manitoba. (Saskatchewan has 15; its bar is set a little lower, at 5,000 willing citizens.)

But there’s no stopping progress – a subsequent survey of the business community yielded a resounding yes, and council decided to forge ahead. The changeover cost about $2,000, but for Wiebe, it was a small price to pay for a big leap forward.

‘You talk ‘city’ and right away it opens people’s minds to more possibilities, shows that the community is growing, that it is moving forward. It opens up opportunities.’

The upgrade is so new, Wiebe said tongues were tripping at this week’s no-longer-town council meeting.

‘It takes some getting used to, rolling it off our tongues, the City of Morden.’

But change is inevitable, Wiebe shrugged, unfazed by a letter in the local newspaper trying to drum up support for a repeal.

‘Whether you want to come along kicking and screaming, it’s going to change. You can’t have hundreds of people coming from 20 different countries, you can’t grow from 4,000 to more than 8,000 in a few decades and not change.’

As for Digby, she was unavailable for comment.

‘She’s in Ireland right now, recruiting.’

Troy Media Eye on Manitoba columnist Margo Goodhand is the former editor of the Winnipeg Free Press. She is currently working on a history of the women’s shelter movement in Canada.

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