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Driving west across Canada, few travelers wonder off the Trans Canada #1,  especially on the asphalt runway connecting Winnipeg to Calgary. Drivers preferring to press on, letting the flat lands roll by as quickly as possible. This attitude of getting through there, only to stopping to gas up just off the highway, has left this part of the world neglected and obscure, barely dotted with forgotten towns.

Documenting the sparsely populated Canadian west visual sociologist Kyler Zeleny photographed 160 small towns and places for his new book Out West exploring their struggle to stay relevant in the 21st century. Zeleny is from one a disappearing western town, and is concerned about their heritage and stories, their built and community space, and that the future may continue to pull them down.

His work looks squarely at the small town and just records. Not judging but waiting for a true character to peek out, and then snapping a shutter to capture it. His images reveal surreal places, near pasts, without young adults and contemporary facades and colours. A realistic explanation of life in rural Canada between the coasts.

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Zeleny spoke a little to Mark Byrnes about the background of his project and publication produced.

What is your history with the West? I am a self-confessed ruralite. I was raised on a farm out west, but eventually moved to the city. Having been apart of both worlds, I understand the rift between a small towns fascinating past and their uncertain future.

What makes the Canadian West interesting to you? Western Canada was really the last quadrant of North America to be settled. So young,  it lacks a developed and identified history. Some rural communities are only now celebrating their centennials. Communities are clumsily marking their place, often go to the lengths of mythologizing a recent event, or simply conjuring a false history. They have a limited legacy, and that legacy has been trying to evolving for the last hundred years.

What are the issues facing these towns? Youth retention and branding. Ever since their inception, these communities have had to deal with”rural drain/urban gain”, and these rural communities offer many alternatives to urban living only if people can be sold on the concept. Rural spaces offer community, affordable housing, reduced levels of pollution, and—with the growth of online and digital experiences— there are job opportunities that did not exist fifteen years ago.

You talk about how these places have an “urban-rural time lag.” Can you explain? This occurs when places are remote. Rural parts deal with services and goods reaching them from urban centers, sometimes with a gap. This is true of power, water, and road services, and with the internet. It was only recently that reliable high-speed Internet reached the majority of rural communities (most are still not connected at all).

As you traveled through these towns, did you discover anything unexpected? One person who looked at the photos said, “The images all look the same to me.” I wasn’t happy with that response, but the more I thought about it I began to realize that these places share a similar history and are obviously the same. I also had gaps identifying where the images are from exactly, but they are all just parts of the Canadian Mid-West. That was the main reason I decided not to name the towns in the book. Instead, we placed the town’s population next to each image.

The United States has its own notion of The West, and it plays a big role in the way the country sees itself. How does Canada relate to their West? Photography and American visual culture combined produced an image of the American West. And perceptions of the Canadian West have been framed by the popular perceptions of America’s West and Midwest (pioneers, railways, gold rushes, etc). There are indicators that Canadians view their rural spaces in similar ways to their southern neighbors, and there’s even a possible conflation of Canadian visual culture with that of American visual culture. It’s an idea I will be exploring for the next few years.

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Mark Byrnes is an associate editor at CityLab
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