In her book On Fire, Naomi Klein describes a conversation with farmer-poet Wendell Berry. In their discussion, Klein asks Berry for advice “for rootless people like me and my friends, who disappear into our screens and always seem to be shopping for the perfect community where we should put our roots down.”
Berry replied, “Stop somewhere and begin the thousand-year process of knowing that place.”
Klein’s conversation with Berry raises an integral question for many young people: how to gain an attachment to a place against the constant pull of greater opportunities.
Throughout the book, Klein discusses the importance of rootedness and knowing a place in the process of defending it. She argues that people have to feel a sense of attachment to where they call home to rally together for a brighter future.
This discussion has a lot of weight for many Winnipeggers. Between July 1 of 2021 and 2022, Winnipeg experienced a net loss of 7,140 people to interprovincial migration, according to Statistics Canada.
For decades, urban decline has challenged young Winnipeggers. Deindustrialization and the decline of wheat markets have eliminated some opportunities since the 1970s. Additionally, Winnipeg has never had the stature of Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver to replace these industries with a contemporary financial economy.
Growing up in Winnipeg, I felt the constant pull to get out of the city. The seeming vacancy of opportunity left me feeling like there were no career opportunities outside of education, healthcare or public administration.
Having access to the privileges that allowed me to dream of elsewhere, I always saw Winnipeg as quicksand sucking people in. I felt a constant need to run away.
If I wanted to work in the arts, be surrounded by culture or interact with the cutting edge that the world has to offer, I had to leave Winnipeg.
For a variety of reasons, I chose to remain, but I always felt like I was wasting my time in a lesser place.
Reading Berry’s reply to Klein ignited something in me. I realized the value of ending the fight, ceasing to run and, instead, stopping somewhere.
Once embracing, or succumbing to, the city’s pull, I began the process of setting down roots.
For me, rootedness took the form of learning and listening: learning about the history that came to make this place and listening to the contemporary life that surrounds me.
By taking stock of what has happened and what is happening, I could appreciate what was around me, the various lives being lived, the ideas being formed and the futures being made.
I would not say the journey is over. I haven’t figured it out, and the reality of urban stagnation in Winnipeg stays in the back of my mind. But stopping here creates its own set of opportunities to build community, relationships and a sense of place.
Patrick Harney is the comments editor at The Uniter. He’s slowly coming around to being known as a “Prairie boy.”
Published in Volume 78, Number 10 of The Uniter (November 16, 2023)