When city staff in WestLake-Gladstone, a rural municipality in southwestern Manitoba, returned to work in January 2020, after the Christmas break, they discovered nearly $500,000 missing from local coffers. The money had been siphoned off in an alleged cyberattack over the final weeks of December and the early days of January. Behind the scenes was a flurry of phone calls and meetings with lawyers and cybercrime experts, but the outward appearance was one of normality. For nine months, the municipality held back information from residents, who knew nothing of the incident.

Then, one afternoon in October 2020, mayor Scott Kinley and chief administrative officer Coralie Smith held a small press conference. To a crowd of onlookers in a boardroom in the municipal office, Kinley read out a prepared statement, revealing the loss of the money, which he said had been removed in forty-seven electronic withdrawals of nearly $10,000 each. The total was not insignificant: the municipality’s annual budget hovers around $7 million. Half a million is, for instance, roughly the price of a new road grader, of which the municipality was in need.

The rural municipality, or RM, of WestLake-Gladstone is primarily agricultural, with the majority of its land owned by farmers who know the area they have worked in their entire lives extremely well; their livelihood depends upon such refined, hyperlocal knowledge. Take someone beyond the locale they know to one they don’t, say from Helston to Grass River, and in those forty-three kilometres as the crow flies, it will become apparent that the knowledge they hold goes far deeper than it does wide. As a result, RMs like WestLake-Gladstone are highly concentrated, both in their sense of community and in their sense of principle. The opinions of those who have lived for generations on a piece of land carry weight, and any decision made or action taken by the local government—which is, after all, composed of community members themselves—is taken not just seriously but personally.

These are not reported facts alone but rather information I’ve gleaned from living there. WestLake-Gladstone is my home: the place where I was raised and schooled, where I learned what a community is and is not capable of. Here, I am not simply myself so much as I’m the son or grandson of so-and-so. To me, twenty kilometres will never be an abstract measurement but will forever be roughly the distance between my family’s farm and the town of Gladstone. West will never be the direction of the Rockies or the Pacific Ocean; it will be the left—toward the Helston grain elevator—if facing Bear Creek. So foundational are our homegrown intimations that they form our perceptions of absolutely everything. If something is rotten with home, something is rotten with the world.

For months after the announcement of the missing money, wild theories simmered among the townsfolk: the thieves were disgruntled municipal workers or corrupt elected councillors or it was a conman who had skipped town. People offered evidence both true (that it had taken nine months to release the information) and false (that the municipality didn’t use online banking) to corroborate their theories. There was no sign of the money being returned, and answers from the municipal council weren’t easily forthcoming.

In the spring of 2021, a year and a half after the money went missing, I stepped out of my door not as a resident of WestLake-Gladstone but as a journalist, which is what I am professionally. At first, my questions were simple: What had happened to the money, and what efforts were being made to track it down? Who might be accountable? It became clear, though, that an air of mistrust and despondency pervaded the community and was changing it into something I didn’t recognize—a place more bitter than brotherly. Complaints about municipal affairs weren’t new—grievances about poorly graded roads and spats over the garbage dump were common—but this episode exposed a deeper kind of rot. People had lost faith in their government and, increasingly, their will to care about the town. If it could happen here, I thought, it could happen anywhere.

Tenets of a strong community—social trust, neighbourliness, tolerance—are not innate. They are nourished by accountability and integrity. They are also frail and choke on rumour and bad faith. Once these tenets are lost, a community’s sense of identity and, with it, residents’ sense of belonging can disappear.

The town of Gladstone is the epicentre of WestLake-Gladstone, a block of 1,800 square kilometres about 150 kilometres west of Winnipeg. Cradled in an elbow of two intersecting highways, Gladstone’s almost 1,000 residents are served by two churches (five more around the municipality), a bakery, a post office, a grocery store, and a Legion hall. There’s a hardware store and a grain elevator, a health clinic and a nursing home. Vehicles run the main street free of traffic lights and pass a few vacant storefronts. The recent arrival of Filipino immigrants has breathed new life into the community, and it continues to experience population growth. An additional 2,000 people live across the countryside—farmland marked by 850 kilometres of roads as well as wending rivers and gulches of woods. There’s also the Big Grass Marsh, a 5,000-hectare haven for waterfowl and the first Canadian project of the ecological conservation organization Ducks Unlimited.

As legal subdivisions with limited power, Canadian municipalities are often referred to as “creatures of the province.” Designations may change—from townships and counties in Ontario to villes in Quebec and rural municipalities in Manitoba and Saskatchewan—but all local governments function by making large decisions for relatively small areas or populations.

In the case of municipalities in Manitoba, elections, held every four years, lead to the appointment of a mayor and a municipal council, formed by elected councillors whose purpose is local governance and policy making. In turn, it falls to the chief administrative officer (CAO) to ensure that these policies and decisions are enacted in the everyday, meat-and-potatoes work of government—the street cleaning, snow clearing, grass cutting, garbage collecting, and so on. In other words, elected people determine what to do, and hired people determine how to do it. The duties of a municipal councillor are born from the desires and demands of constituents.

On paper, it’s the most transparent form of government. Most decisions, with only a few exceptions, must be made in public at a council meeting. There’s no caucus. There’s no platform. There are no party whips. But, in reality, small towns—whether they have a rural municipality or a municipal government—across Canada often suffer from little public or journalistic oversight, and so these small governments are highly sensitive to accusations of manipulation, autocracy, and corruption. In the absence of proper communication and transparency, the seeds of mistrust are planted deep by allegation, rumour, and supposition.

Ian McCormack owns an Edmonton-based company called Strategic Steps that provides guidance and advice to municipal governments across Canada. “When we see problems,” he told me, “oftentimes they’re superficial symptoms of something else. Unless you address that something else, the problem’s not going to go away.”

I began visiting residents across WestLake-Gladstone to look for that “something else,” to put a name to that source of discontent. Ushered into backrooms and porches, I felt there was a sour repetitiveness to the dissatisfaction residents felt and to their almost unanimous insistence on anonymity. “I want to interfere to improve things,” one resident told me. “But I know how these people work.”

Prior to amalgamation in 2015, the town of Gladstone and the individual RMs of Lakeview and Westbourne were separately represented by elected councillors within a highly localized ward system. The councillors were responsible only for small areas where they were well known and knowledgeable about the local issues. Following amalgamation, the ward system was dropped, and the residents of the new municipality of WestLake-Gladstone were represented by councillors-at-large. As one former employee of the RM told me, removing the ward system was meant to keep favouritism and cronyism in check. Under the ward system, they said, “if you didn’t get along with your councillor, you were screwed.” The first election held under the new system produced three councillors and a mayor from Gladstone and three rural-based councillors. But large areas were left with no representation whatsoever. For many, this was just democracy at play. For others, particularly rural residents living where no councillor had been elected, it was the beginning of taxation without representation.

Many people I spoke with had been employees of the municipality. It wasn’t the work they had trouble with but the atmosphere: they described a work environment where gaslighting and bullying were part of the culture. Some imagined that just talking to me would result in an escalation; their worst nightmares filled with extremes including dog killings, house fires, and damage to crops. Some people feared that going public would bring future litigation. All this had a predictable effect on morale. “I don’t want anyone to turn around and start suing me,” one former municipal contractor said. Another former municipal employee described finding fish hooks threaded into the carpet of their office.

Fear of isolation, of embarrassment, of being cast out, is always present in a small town. Neighbourliness is not an indestructible concept. One farmer was certain the council was trying to put him out of business by intentionally diverting water onto his land. After years of arguing with the council over water drainage and suffering income losses because of flooded fields, he’d lost faith in the municipality. “It’s very deterring as a young farmer to have any dealing with this municipality,” he told me. “I swear that they’re trying to make me broke. If you don’t have the municipality behind you, you’re doomed from the beginning.”

A house of cards falling apart.

One man who had resigned himself to that feeling of paranoia was Arnold Coutts, a farmer who lives in the northern reaches of the RM. “The council’s already shot my reputation,” he told me. The day I visited him at his farm near Plumas, some thirty-six kilometres from Gladstone, the temperature was closing in on forty degrees. To cool off, Coutts took me for a drive in his old half-ton truck, past fields of canola and sunflower, their yellow flowers dulled by a layer of dust that rose from the road in great billows to settle over the fields.

Coutts had served as a councillor for the RM for approximately twenty-three years. “I’ve lived here all my life,” he said, jabbing a finger on the dusty truck dash, leaving a perfect print in the thick film. “I moved half a mile down the road from where I was born and raised.” In 2018, he failed to receive enough votes for reelection, but the experience seemed to have left him feeling remorseful rather than bitter. Before that election, he said, “I was good friends with everybody on council. Now none of them talk to me. They go the other way. In all my elections, this was the dirtiest.”

Coutts’s particular grievance with the council concerned an issue quite commonplace in local government: infrastructure and development. In late 2020, Topigs Norsvin, a Dutch swine-genetics company, expressed interest in building two industrial pig barns in the northern area of the municipality, only a few miles from Coutts’s home. Souring the proposal were accusations of negligence and insider dealing between the council and Topigs Norsvin. Coutts, along with dozens of other constituents, had written to the provincial government, opposing the barns and expressing concerns over odour, pollution, and the poor communication from the local council. (The municipality had begun shifting away from paper and toward digital channels, with a new website, an automatic text-messaging service, and a busy Facebook page. Yet, across the municipality, even according to the council itself, internet connections and cellphone service can be spotty. Many constituents continue to rely on mail flyers, community bulletin boards, and word of mouth to get their local information.) Repeatedly mentioned in many residents’ letters to the government was a concern about CAO Smith, who found herself accused by many in the municipality of taking advantage of the Topigs Norsvin deal to sell a plot of land for the pig-barns project. For over a month, I made several calls to the municipality’s office, wanting to schedule an interview with Smith. After weeks of unanswered emails and phone messages, we finally connected. But she wasn’t sure she wanted to talk, saying she’d been warned I was out to portray her as “malicious and authoritarian.” She agreed to consider an interview, but I never heard from her again. Smith did later note to The Walrus that she recused herself from council discussions regarding the pig barns and clarified that the land sold to Topigs Norsvin wasn’t hers but her husband’s.

Topigs Norsvin denied any impropriety, but Smith outwardly did little to deny the rumours, posting vague comments on Facebook in the following months—the likes of: “Repeat after me: I’m allowed to do what’s best for me, even if it upsets other people.” In another post, from June 2021, Smith wrote it was “sad that people chose to talk about us instead of talking to us. The rumors can stop! If you really want to know pick up the phone. . . . For the people who chose to stop talking to us take a look in the mirror. I can guarantee you you will find flaws! Lots of flaws!” (Smith maintains these posts were regarding personal matters.)

Much of the consternation in the RM was down to officials whose personal lives had brought alternative motives into question. One councillor, the owner of a speciality welding company, routinely received or won bids for municipal building-and-maintenance contracts; another councillor is employed by a real estate agency that received a contract to sell municipal properties. And, while those councillors recused themselves from the votes concerning their businesses, Coutts is positive it didn’t matter. “I know how councils work,” he told me. Sometimes, nothing needs to be said at all.

Certainly, there is nothing inherently wrong or rare about business owners being involved in local politics—succeeding in business is a common path for local leaders to rise in the public consciousness. But mixing the two raises complex questions of ethics and morality. Councillors usually have other jobs, as the position is essentially a voluntary one. (They do receive a small stipend and fuel reimbursement.) As one former municipal employee told me, “If you’re volunteering to do something, it’s always because you’re getting something out of it, whether it’s a feel-good feeling or a tangible something.” Locals speak of applications for work contracts they had filed with the municipality being denied while those put forth by the elected officials themselves being accepted. One man alleges that his trucking company had worked with the municipality of WestLake-Gladstone for almost seventy years, but since this council was elected, his firm had received not a single commission. Another person alleges his inability to get municipal contracts had him driving approximately 130 kilometres to find work.

It’s an emotional subject for many—memories of lost jobs and lost friends can have an aberrant longevity in a small town. “It makes you not want to live here,” one former municipal employee told me. “It’s just brutal to be personally persecuted and segregated and frowned upon.”

I met Mayor Kinley on a warm afternoon in the office of Gladstone Transfer, his trucking company. He described his mayoral style as “cautious conservatism” with a progressive tilt. Three years into his first four-year term, which began in 2018, he said his entry into the political ring was based on wanting to better understand taxation and to cut through the bureaucratic red tape he encountered as a business owner.

Kinley is the CEO of the company, which has been run by his family for generations. I asked if this personal work bled into his role as mayor. “When I wasn’t the mayor, I never worried about conflict of interest,” he replied. “I’m ten times more diligent now, and I make damn sure I’m not a part of any discussion that has anything to do with my company.” According to the municipality’s council meeting notes, shortly after Kinley’s election in late 2018, the council awarded Gladstone Transfer a multimillion-dollar contract to supply the municipality with its gravel and aggregate (the minutes show Kinley recused himself); in July 2019, Gladstone Transfer beat out three other aspirants for a subsequent gravel contract (Kinley did not recuse himself); and in June 2020, the company won a $20,000 bid for dirt hauling (Kinley recused himself).

When I asked Kinley about the missing money, he watched his words; the issue had escalated to litigation with the local credit union. “The council is very aware that the money is still missing,” he said, adding that the council is “dedicated to finding out who’s paying the taxpayer back.” The municipality, in its statement of claim, pointed the finger at Stride Credit Union, saying that it acted in “blatant disregard” of its obligations in a manner that was “callous, high handed, malicious.” In response, the credit union stated “the Withdrawals were made by a person or persons who accessed the RM’s Account using the RM’s password” and “that any loss or damage suffered by the RM was caused by or contributed to by the negligence of the RM.”

In June 2021, a year and a half after the money had gone missing, the council received a letter from Derek Johnson, Manitoba’s minister of municipal relations at the time, referencing several complaints his office had received regarding the municipality’s “general financial conduct” and requesting detailed information on, among other things, the theft of municipal funds.

The RM was at least taking some steps to remedy its own lack of understanding of cybercrime, with the council conducting monthly online cybercrime educational training, what Kinley called simple common-sense exercises. Whereas he’d found previous councils to be about “just rules and regulations,” he appeared to believe more in intuition: “We take a common-sense approach.” Common sense, of course, is only as good as the intent behind it and isn’t the basis of any solid governing policy. There was an indication from Kinley that some citizens are simply ungrateful, that we, as he said, “take for granted what we have in our municipality: We have peace and quiet. We have a relatively low crime rate. We have fresh air. We have drinking water.” Put that way, “be grateful” sounded similar to “don’t ask questions.”

Elections are the obvious opportunity to reset the political clock, but as they happen only every four years, the chance doesn’t come often enough for some. “Everybody says, ‘Let’s wait for the election,’” one former municipal employee told me. “Well, our municipality isn’t going to make it to the election. We’re going to go broke.” Recall legislation—under which the public can remove unwanted elected officials through a petition process—has found acceptance in Alberta and British Columbia but nowhere else.

Electoral regret isn’t uncommon, but it would be better solved by higher voter turnouts. In 2014, only 61 percent of Canadians voted in municipal elections, a figure slightly lower than for the turnout at the 2019 federal elections. In their paper “Why Do Municipal Electors Not Vote?,” Joseph Kushner and David Siegel attributed the poor turnout to a “lack of information about candidates, and the poor quality of the candidates.” Kinley admitted as much in his office: “When people who have the ability to do this job lose interest, those left are the people who shouldn’t be doing it.”

Municipal elections do not fundamentally differ from elections at the provincial or federal levels, in that a councillorship is a position anyone with the desire can hold. Name almost any job—welder, lifeguard, chicken sexer—and they all require some kind of definable skill set. While an aspiring councillor needs to meet certain requirements in financial and human-resource management, anyone can hold the office; there are few disqualifications—no skill test to pass, no debates to win. Apart from living in the town you want to represent, you don’t even need to be particularly knowledgeable about the place. Therefore, character counts.

Bud Sigurdson, who has served as a WestLake-Gladstone councillor over ten years and across three elections, didn’t seem overly concerned about, or even accepting of any, disconnect between the council and its constituents. “If people were really concerned,” he told me, “they would show up at a council meeting. But they never do. I’ve been on three different councils now, and I think we’ve had four people turn out in ten and a half years. The criticisms always come from the minority. It’s always the same five or six people.”

I heard the same complaint about poor public turnouts from Kinley, who said, “The public doesn’t want to be involved when you’re creating bylaws, but when that bylaw is working against them, they demand to be heard.” Invoking a “silent majority” of happy constituents, as Sigurdson did, serves not only to invent a convenient real citizenry but to assume that complacency, in some quiet way, equals satisfaction. (Kinley said as much when he told me, “The silent majority is by far the easiest to please.”) Believing oneself to be, as an elected representative, a friend of everyone is probably not rare.

As Sigurdson described a close-knit council that rarely sees a dissenting vote and a cadre of friends who go for beers after meetings, it was clear that the misperception of a satisfied public pervaded the council chamber. As one former municipal employee told me, “I’m not even sure if they’re aware of the severity of their perception. Internally, those three major issues [the conflicts of interest, the pig barns, and the missing money] are not issues. Internally, they’re not a thing. I don’t think council understands the severity of the situation they’re in.”

Like many municipalities of its size, WestLake-Gladstone has almost no media coverage. What little there was has further declined in recent times. Philip Slayton, author of Mayors Gone Bad, says that, in small municipalities across Canada, it’s hard for most people to find out what’s going on at the city council. “There is no one who reports on the council meetings or the general goings-on in the municipality,” he told me. “Nobody knows—even citizens who want to know can’t find out. The whole thing is kind of a secret operation.”

Just as the council’s external communications have undergone a digital transformation, face-to-face contact between the council and the public has faded—and not only because of the pandemic. There was a time when local news revolved around the coffee shop, the community bulletin board, and word of mouth. Those still exist, but as local announcements have transitioned away from hard-copy leaflets and in-person meetings, residents who were used to having more intimate interactions with their local government are instead met with screens and impersonal messages. While this is not inherently bad, social media has also created an echo chamber where rumours can grow without refutation. When people remain satisfied with conjecture and gossip, there is an opportunity for anyone to do real damage—against citizens and councillors alike.

Needless to say, small towns do not make for small politics. Politically, they are but a microcosm of how we act at the federal level. Socially, our neighbours form our general sense of community and belonging within Canada. The fundamental principles of any good government are trust and accountability. With officials chosen from among neighbours and friends, small governments rely as much on trust and good faith as they do on rules and regulations. In a 2013 column in the Toronto Star, Christopher Hume, writing about political disconnect across Canada, concluded, “It’s at the civic level that Canadians feel free to be themselves and show who they really are. . . . Behind the self-effacing façade of politeness and moderation, it turns out we Canadians are a pretty unhappy lot, more seething than soothed, less engaged than enraged, turned off rather than on.”

Our bucolic myths of small-town life can work against us, and for every person wanting to believe small towns are intrinsically trusting and honest, there is another willing to take advantage of it. And so actions that would stand little chance of escaping scrutiny in the sustained glare of a national lens are able to thrive at the local level. Rather than incidents like the disappearance of half a million dollars sparking a kind of local revolution, towns find themselves descending into spirals of silence.

In the middle of summer 2021, a special council meeting was held in Gladstone to decide the fate of the Topigs Norsvin barns near Arnold Coutts’s farm. The meeting began with Mayor Kinley reading from a prepared statement and citing an increase in the amount of criticism of and hate speech against municipal workers as the reason behind the RM’s discontinuation of Facebook as a means of communication: “The municipality believes Facebook is depraved not just from a practical perspective but from a moral one.”

Fifty people were in attendance, an uncharacteristically high number that might reflect the fact that many residents of WestLake-Gladstone have been looking forward to the next municipal election in October 2022, when an entirely new council is expected. The councillors’ votes were cast and the pig barns were approved, with one dissenting ballot. In the air hung a palpable feeling of disappointment but not one of surprise. After the meeting, I stood outside in the heat and chatted with Coutts. He’d spoken at the meeting, reiterating his disapproval of the barns. “They already had it in their mind,” he said. “But that’s what you got to do to stir them up. The passion’s gone. It’s all dollars. That’s all it is. Just right down to the dollar.”

What few residents knew then, some nineteen months on from the disappearance of the municipal money, was that only a week after the first announcement about it, in October 2020, the RCMP had closed the case as unsolved—a fact that was never made public. “Once viable investigative avenues have been exhausted, and/or if there is no likelihood of a successful prosecution, the matter is no longer actively investigated,” the RCMP wrote in a statement to The Walrus. “Some newcomers to Canada were unsuspecting participants . . . [after they] applied for a job that was posted online and believed they were doing their job while unknowingly assisting the scammers in gaining access to the funds.” Beyond discovering where the money went or who took it, there seems little hope of recovering it. Despite having coverage for cyberfraud, the municipality’s insurance claim was denied, and the amount of $472,377.15 has, to this date, not been reimbursed.

In July this year, the municipality published a press release:

We can advise the residents and ratepayers of WestLake-Gladstone that there is NO evidence the Chief Administrative Officer took or misappropriated the funds or was involved in any manner whatsoever with respect to the taking of the funds. In addition, given the very short time over which the money was removed from the account the Chief Administrative Officer handled the matters appropriately and followed office procedures and proper banking service reviews. We remind all individuals to refrain from any slanderous or libel allegations and request everyone refrain from making unacceptable remarks about or towards the CAO. Cyber crime is rampant and unfortunately, the Municipality and Stride Credit Union have been victims of it.

In his 1942 book The Small Community: Foundation of Democratic Life, Arthur E. Morgan wrote about what he saw as a worrying disinterest in small towns. The “controlling factors of civilization are not art, business, science, government,” he wrote. “These are its fruits. The roots of civilization are elemental traits—good will, neighborliness, fair play, courage, tolerance, open-minded inquiry, patience.” All of which, Morgan wrote, were nurtured in the small towns of the world. To erode small-town culture was to chop at the roots of the nation, leaving each neglected community “an orphan in an unfriendly world . . . despised, neglected, exploited, and robbed.”

WestLake-Gladstone’s loss of municipal money is serious, but the event also laid bare deep cracks in the community. Compounded by years of suspicion and consternation, the missing money, however it disappeared, has been for many residents more than a breach of public trust; it was the latest event in a community in danger of losing its way. Financial strains can be overcome; surmounting distrust is a tougher row to hoe.

J.R. Patterson
J.R. Patterson has written for Maisonneuve, the Washington Post, and the Guardian.
Pete Ryan
Pete Ryan is an illustrator based in Nelson, BC. His work has been featured in Time, The New Yorker, the New York Times, and Mother Jones.