RAVENSCRAG, Sask. – When one of her children was killed six years ago, Anne Arnal never dreamed she would have to go through the same pain again.
Three of her six children – her freckle-faced, youngest boys – have died in separate accidents on the family’s farm.
Arnal says most people can’t fathom the grief she and her family are suffering. “I could never imagine how or why I would be asked to have to do this,” she says.
“You try to figure out whether you’re supposed to gain something or whether you’re supposed to change somehow or what you’re being tested for … and I don’t have the slightest idea.”
Clifford Arnal grew up on the family homestead near the tiny community of Ravenscrag in southwestern Saskatchewan, where flat prairie turns into rolling hills and valleys. He and his wife raised their children there, and it’s where he and his brother and father spent decades harvesting crops and herding cattle.
Now the place is a reminder of his dead boys.
He hasn’t been back to the farm since he buried two of his sons last summer. He took a construction job and his wife, who has stayed at the farm, makes the five-hour drive east to visit him in Estevan.
He doesn’t know if he’ll ever be able to go back home, he says. The loss is too much to bear.
“It destroyed an entire generation that should be running that farm … There’s no future there now that they’re gone.”
Blake Arnal was the kind of kid who broke up fights on the school playground, played volleyball and badminton and, when he was home, worked hard to help out with the farm. He owned some of his own cattle and, in his early teens, started saving money so he could one day study agriculture at university.
On March 25, 2008, he was on an all-terrain vehicle, trying to tag a newborn calf, when the quad went over a ridge and crashed onto an icy creek below. He died instantly from a blow to the chest.
He was 14.
Sean and Lyndon Arnal grew up best buddies, two peas in a pod, who chased rabbits and raised pigs and often fell asleep together on a basement couch, once while keeping watch over a box of chirping newborn chicks under a heat lamp.
Sean, with a keen interest in cattle genetics, could often be found reading livestock catalogues. He bought his first pickup truck a year before he got his driver’s licence.
Lyndon was a goofball and a chatterbox, an aspiring baseball player who practised pitching by aiming at an old tire standing on home plate. Once, during a family trip to Toronto, he was so struck by seeing homeless people that he asked to tour a Salvation Army shelter and handed over the $60 he had in his pocket.
The two brothers were together on July 23, 2014, riding a tractor towing a baler toward home. The machinery was going down a hill when it crashed and the two died.
Sean had just turned 16. Lyndon was 10. They were buried together in the same coffin.
Cliff Arnal says all his children were part of the farm from a young age – Sean swung from a Jolly Jumper attached to the roof of a combine as a baby. He started driving a tractor at 11. Blake was running a combine by the time he was eight, the same age Lyndon was when he first got behind the wheel of a semi-trailer.
When Blake died in 2008, the father heard rumblings in the community that he, as a parent, was to blame. He says he had hired a farm worker to supervise Blake, who was a careful driver.
Anne Arnal says keeping her kids from farm work wasn’t an option, even after Blake’s death. Sean and Lyndon were energetic boys and she didn’t want them growing up in a bubble, playing video games in the basement. They wouldn’t have been the people they were supposed to be, she says.
Cliff Arnal believes the computer on the tractor Sean was driving failed so that when the machine went into neutral, he was unable to steer it. RCMP say they investigated but found no suspicious circumstances.
The family’s sad story reflects statistics of farm deaths involving children – most are boys killed by tractors and all-terrain vehicles. A study by the Canadian Agricultural Injury Reporting program shows an average of 104 farm deaths each year, 13 of them children.
Wayne Bircham, who owns a nearby ranch and knows the Arnal family well, says his two boys grew up doing the same farm work as the Arnal children.
His business is holding a cattle sale at Heartland Livestock in Swift Current on Dec. 8, and proceeds from three animals are to go to the Arnal Boys Memorial Bursary For Young Farmers.
The surviving Arnal siblings came up with the idea to fund projects for future farmers and have already received donations from strangers who’ve heard about the family. They’re also planning to start annual fundraisers around the three boys’ birthdays – a hockey tournament and skeet-shooting competition – that will contribute to the bursary.
Chantal Henderson, a 26-year-old nurse in Swift Current, Sask., is the oldest of the Arnal children. Dylan Arnal, 24, lives in Eastend, Sask., and does farm work for a neighbour. Olivia Arnal, 18, is studying business at the University of Regina.
With no children at home, and a husband who can’t stand to be there, Anne Arnal says days on the farm can be quiet.
When Sean and Lyndon died, a friend who’s a doctor visited her every day for two weeks to see if she was suicidal. She says she has learned to keep busy and find purpose.
On the first day of school, she bought a pizza lunch for Sean’s and Lyndon’s classmates to help them adjust to a new year without them. And she drove a combine for weeks at harvest because she wanted see the crops off that Sean had helped seed.
She doesn’t know if she’ll leave the farm for good. For now, she’s dealing with her grief the best she can – by keeping it in an imaginary box.
“I open it a little bit every day and I have my little bit of sad time and crying and whatever I need to do. Then I shut that box … I don’t have to throw it open and cope with it all right now.”
“I’ll carry that box forever.”