The community had always just assumed that there would be a college in town. It had been a feature of the local economy since its construction and grand opening in 1967 with many of the local kids starting or completing their studies in the institution, and many more young adults travelling from far and wide to study in the Kootenays.
The college was still a destination for people travelling long distances, however the reasons had changed. No longer were students experiencing the dichotomy of social freedom and pressing academic deadlines that is common in tertiary institutions, rather the facility had become a waypoint and distribution centre for migrants seeking employment and a new life in the Kootenays. Situated at the confluence of the Kootenay and Columbia Rivers, the location has been an important meeting place for generations, since the First Nations enjoyed the infamous salmon runs up the mighty Columbia, through the lumber and mining heydays, to the Doukabour settlements that brought agriculture to this land, the confluence has been an ideal location for parties meeting or working to change the course of history.
The academic programs first faltered, with the province claiming cutbacks and staff reductions were as a result of enrollment declines – everyone knew the truth, a town of several thousand can hardly support a “big city” institution, and even those big city universities and colleges were struggling to stem the tide of rapidly declining enrolments as fees skyrocketed and job placements for graduates declined. The local politicians of course made every effort to shame the province into propping up the college and the local economy for another year, as they had with the school districts, pulp mill and forestry jobs over the previous decades.
When the paychecks stopped coming, it didn’t take long for the building to fall into disrepair, and being isolated from the rest of the community, it became a haven for the homeless and vagrants. Interestingly there was a sort of homegrown law and order that developed between the new occupants of this land, there were no police to speak of, certainly none that regularly made it across the river in those days.
Scott remembered the business management classes he’d attended in this very building, everyone, including the lecturers were so naive about the future. Assignments on economics had nothing to do with the real world, or even the reality of economics without unlimited growth and unlimited debt accumulation. And the economics that was taught in this and many other institutions just like it, allowed no room for costs to include social or environmental implications, and as it turned out, these were the ones that bit western society the hardest when it came to the crunch.
The day had started early, shovelling last night’s skiff of snow from the entrances and walkways in preparation for a new batch of arrivals sometime this morning. He wandered over to the mess hall, this used to be the gymnasium he remembered, the days of pursuit of fitness were long gone, and instead providing food to needy folks was much more important. Already there were a few familiar faces sitting around the tables, mostly people who had arrived in the past weeks, searching for work, searching for an escape from the poverty that racked many of the cities across the continent. Scott headed up the team that tried to make sense of the demand for labour in the Kootenays, communicating with employers across the region and even across the country, helping the jobless find an employer looking for their skills; unfortunately there were just too many people on the move and looking for work to make a real dent in the tide of unemployed that passed through this valley. After collecting a meal from the kitchen, Scott sat down with Ben, a young man of about nineteen who had proved useful in the college’s indoor market gardens in the summer last year and was kept on staff – unpaid, but fed, clothed and sheltered – and free to do as he pleased outside of the chores and responsibilities of living at the college.
“So how’s the gardens coming along?”, a pause while Ben thought, slowly chewing his food.
“Well, were doing alright for the start of winter. Adjusting the mirrors during the day is making a huge difference to the available sunlight for the plants, we’re getting almost summer concentrations for at least six hours a day. And the thermal blankets that the ladies sewed up are keeping the temperatures up during the nights. At least it’s warm in the greenhouses”.
“The kale is amazing, you know, until last year when we started the heated greenhouses up, I never dreamed that I’d ever see a tomato in the middle of winter again, or fresh herbs for that matter!”
Ben beamed with pride, although he’d come on board while the project was already underway, it was ultimately his ideas for heating and accumulating the light that made the project a success in the winter months.
Providing food for the workers and the visitors was an ongoing challenge, particularly in winter, when there was a reliance on food canned the previous summer and the root vegetables stored in the basement of the college. Scott returned to his meal, this week breakfast seemed to be comprised of apples, cheese and canned plums with a slice of bread. The milk from the cows and goats dried up several weeks ago, just before they were serviced in preparation for next year’s births. SO, milk and yogurt were off the menu, but there were several varieties of cheese that were produced right at the College as they had some of the best pasture lands and the best kitchen and processing facilities in the Kootenays. Scott considered the irony that this facility which had been the place of dreams of education and future hopes now provided a means of survival for many of the same people.
Taking the last of his bread, and carefully wiping the plum juice up off the plate with it before finishing it off, Scott looked up as he saw several newcomers walking in the door, looking cold tired and hungry – “Where had their journey begun?” he wondered, “and how did they end up here, in the middle of BC?“.
Saying goodbye to Ben, Scott cleared his plates and walked to his office where, already a pile of applications lay waiting for his consideration. “The process is just a little above the ancient practice of trading slaves“, he thought to himself, “is this what life has come to? That you need to trade your services to the one who will feed and clothe you“.
He chuckled, remembering the heated discussions in the various academic disciplines; whether philosophy, sociology, ethics, economics – back then the discussions skirted around the fact that most adults in Western Societies were little more than debt serfs, although no one wanted to admit it, or give it a name, deep down everyone knew it to be true. And the names of men on the list before him showed how hard man will try to escape the futility of being a number to a large corporation when pushed to the brink – they will go as far as placing their life in another man’s hands, just for the hope of the impossible – dignity. He shook his head and settled down to the task of sorting through the applications and trying to match them with the latest information of job openings.