Leaf Rapids, Man., used to be a bustling mining town, decades ahead of its time. Founded in the 1970s, it was developed as an experimental model that other northern communities could replicate: urban amenities in a rural environment.
The town is an 11-hour drive north of Winnipeg, and, in its heyday, boasted a population of 2,356. But since the closure of the copper mine in 2002, the population has dwindled to a mere 582.
Leaf Rapids recently had an election this past fall, and Ervin Bighetty became the town's second Indigenous mayor — and the youngest at 27 years old.
Bighetty is Cree and grew up in Granville Lake, an Indigenous community 42 kilometres southwest of Leaf Rapids, which was evacuated in 2003 because of unsanitary living conditions.
"Manitoba Hydro had set up running water and sewage in the community of Granville Lake, but that backed up. Everyone started getting sick and there was sewage all over the community, so we had to leave," Bighetty said.
After that, many from Granville Lake moved to Leaf Rapids. And because the mine closed a year earlier, there was housing available for those who had been evacuated.
The community is now mostly Indigenous, according to Bighetty. People have come from Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation, Pukatawagan Cree Nation and South Indian Lake.
And while Bighetty misses his home community, since landing in Leaf Rapids, he has stayed put and doesn't plan on leaving anytime soon.
"The only reasons I wanted to leave, at one point, were personal reasons and the current state of the town," Bighetty said.
"But now that I'm in a position to change it, I'm not going to leave until I actually do something."
Bighetty's journey to becoming mayor wasn't a conventional one. He never had any interest in politics, but one of his friends suggested he run, since he likes to prove people wrong.
"Six years ago, I started working at the local Co-Op, but before that I had no job. Sure, I was part of the volunteer fire department, but I was on welfare and I was struggling," said Bighetty.
"People thought I wasn't going to make it without a job, but I proved them wrong."
And he plans to prove that he can succeed as mayor too.
"I'm trying to learn as much as I can so the work that I'm doing is beneficial to the community," he said.
Bighetty is dealing with many issues since taking the post: vandalism, higher crime rate and a boil-water advisory. His biggest commitment, however, is to let the town know he's for the people.
"I explained to a lot of people before I ran and during the campaign that I have no self-serving agenda, this is your agenda. Like, I'm not here to make money, I'm here to help you all," he said.
If you Google Leaf Rapids, there are an array of videos that come up showing the town's desolation, and news articles about the community's brushes with violence. This has painted a bleak picture that there's nothing good happening in the community, and that it's basically a ghost town.
But Bighetty said that's not the case.
"There's so much to do outside here, we have a great beach and fishing, we have two greenhouses, a football field, two baseball fields, a tennis court, a volleyball court, two gymnasiums, a golf course with nine holes and the mall complex."
Like many small towns, Leaf Rapids struggles with its outside perception and how to draw people in. Bighetty thinks a larger social media presence and food opportunities will help.
"I want people to know the town for what it is today," he said.
"You know, I'm a member of the Northern Manitoba Food, Culture, And Community Collaborative and I've been a gardener for a long time. I have plans, I think food is what will drive people to come here."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article and its headline stated that Ervin Bighetty was Leaf Rapids' first Indigenous mayor. He is the town's second Indigenous mayor and its youngest.
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