Don Snethun is holding an orange Black & Decker drill. He inserts a red device that looks like a branding iron into the drill’s chuck, where drill bits usually nest. The thin apparatus is half a metre long.
“It is a paint mixer,” he says. That, and a homemade potato masher. “Beats the hell out of doing it with the stick.”
Mr. Snethun had 50 pounds of tubers to mash for Buck Lake’s annual Fall Supper, a cross between a community fundraiser and communal harvest dinner. Fall Suppers – or Fowl Suppers, depending on your generation and geography – are the rural equivalent of urban block parties. Fall Suppers reflect decades of tradition, cultural heritage and community composition. The Alberta town’s Fall Supper in late September looks and feels much like it did decades ago, save for creative culinary devices.
Buck Lake is about 150 kilometres southwest of Edmonton. Statistics Canada counted 51 residents in the 2016 census, but the official number is low given the seasonal lake residents and surrounding rural residents. The area, as with much of Alberta, is thick with people supporting the Conservative Party of Canada. Here, folks blame Justin Trudeau, who leads the Liberals, for crushing the oil patch. For ignoring them. For blowing climate change out of proportion. For illegal immigration.
But the Conservatives are not without fault with this crowd. Because the Tories ignore them, believing they’re a sure thing. Because some of their policies are too far to the right. Because there’s just something about Andrew Scheer that doesn’t feel right.
Andrea MacKay-Grace helped organize Buck Lake’s Fall Supper. Mr. Trudeau, she says, has to go.
“I have no respect for this man at all," she says. "Our Prime Minister is a joke.”
Buck Lake is in the riding of Edmonton-Wetaskiwin, and energy is a key part of its economy. Ms. MacKay-Grace will support the Conservative candidate, despite her reservations about Mr. Scheer.
“I’m just not sure on this guy,” she says. But she can’t pinpoint what bothers her about him. “There’s just something. I’m not sure. But he’s gotta get pretty boy outta there.”
‘It’s everybody being together’
The Buck Lake Ag Society puts on the local Fall Supper in the community hall. A handful of women are buzzing around the hall’s cramped kitchen. Mr. Snethun and Curtis Begg are the only men helping out at crunch time.
The kitchen’s island hits the middle of Mr. Snethun’s thighs. The potato pots are tall, similar to the ones used to boil lobsters in cartoons, and top out at his lower belly, four buttons down from his collar. He puts the makeshift masher in the first pot and revs up the drill. The zear-zear-zear spinning sound slows as he bores his way to the bottom of the pot and accelerates as he lifts the tool upward through the smoother stuff.
“Curtis,” Mr. Snethun says, “can you get me some milk out of the fridge? The homo milk.” Mr. Begg, who has been promoted to sous chef from dishwasher, adds the milk to the mixture.
“Jocelyn, do you want potato water?” Mr. Snethun asks. Jocelyn Gomolchuk is in charge of the gravy. Of course she needs potato water.
Carrie Gohrbandt delivers pitchers of potato water to her fellow volunteer at the stove. The water looks like dirty lemonade, with steam rising from the pitchers. Ms. Gomolchuk stirs her gravy for more than half an hour as the human conveyor belt of ingredients terminates at her station.
“If we run out of gravy, you know that’s a catastrophe,” Ms. Gohrbandt says. “People love gravy.”
Charity Malka is also lending a hand in the kitchen. She moved to Buck Lake from Drayton Valley, about 50 kilometres away, six years ago. She is a Fall Supper rookie, and enjoying the camaraderie.
“It is that closeness. It’s everybody being together,” she says. “Our social lives are taking everybody in different directions and nobody knows what community is any more."
Fall Suppers, like potato mashers, evolve. Years ago, they were well-planned potlucks. Someone would bring pies, others would take care of the turkey, locals would clean out their gardens for fresh veggies. Health inspectors, however, now value food safety more than tradition, which means Fall Suppers now require proper kitchens. Grandmothers leave their famous butter tarts at home now. In Buck Lake, the pumpkin pies and trays of dainties are from Costco.
Buck Lake’s local butcher will later arrive with a 60-pound roast he cooked in a smoker oven all day. There are chicken breasts, coleslaw, pickled beets, peas, carrots. The mashed potatoes are creamy.
When it’s all done, the community donates the leftovers to a soup kitchen, Drayton Valley’s Warming Hearts.
This year, patrons pay $18, with the cash going toward keeping the hall in good repair. Town halls are crucial in small towns. They play host to weddings, funerals, family reunions and dances. Students sing carols in the rough vicinity of the proper key at Christmas pageants. A town hall’s floors give away its vintage: Wood for old-timey venues, tiles for additions or new halls and fancy new ones come with extravagances such as floor markings for basketball keys and volleyball courts. Attendees were encouraged to trade a loonie for a membership in the Buck Lake Ag Society. The more members the organization has, the more government grants it receives.
About 90 people attend this supper, sharing the communal meal at 20 long, rectangular tables covered in seasonal tablecloths. There are door prizes and a donation bucket for a family dealing with a health crisis.
‘Gotta take the best of the worst’
Folks volunteering at Buck Lake’s supper believe Mr. Trudeau let down the oil patch. And that makes it difficult for Jaime McKay, a swing voter, to decide whom to support.
He says, while washing dishes in the kitchen, that he is increasingly upset with Mr. Trudeau. “Scheer is the only other viable alternative."
But the Conservatives have yet to secure his vote. Mr. McKay says he is not confident that the Conservative Leader has the backbone to stand up to Quebec’s opposition to the oil sands and pipelines, and Mr. Scheer is too right wing for his tastes.
“In Canada, usually when it comes to the federal election, you’ve gotta take the best of the worst."
Dwayne Patten runs the bar at Buck Lake’s Fall Supper and earlier this year drove his truck and camper to Ottawa, as part of the yellow-vest movement. The Liberals, he believes, are damaging the country.
“We need to get things straightened out in Canada and if we don’t, we’re headed down a pretty sad road,” he says. “We just can’t take four more years of it."
Mr. Trudeau, as Prime Minister, purchased the Trans Mountain pipeline so the Liberals could make sure it never went ahead, according to Mr. Patten. George Soros is among foreigners funding the anti-pipeline campaigns, he says (citing a conspiracy theory). Conservatives, however, best not take folks like him for granted.
The Buck Lake area is short on campaign signs, and the Conservatives, Mr. Patten says, invest little time and money campaigning around here.
“Maybe it is a little pompous on the Conservative side of things,” he says.
The clock soon hits 6. The buffet tables are covered with salads and crockpots.
“Take the lids off,” Mr. Snethun says. “It is time to rock 'n' roll.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included a suggestion from one person that George Soros is among those funding the anti-pipeline campaign. The article should have made clear this was citing a conspiracy theory with no evidence.