[Warning: This one is a bit long. Helpfully, however, it is divided up into manageable pieces, with headings. You can read it over several days. Pretend it is five different blog posts, if that helps.]
At one of our coffee meetings to plan our tour – which I was beginning to refer to as “The Tri-Province Mid-Life Crisis on Wheels” – Scott had an idea.
“I think it would get the audiences positively engaged, more “on our side” right off the bat, Ross, if you started each show with a story specifically about the town or city or region in which we’re performing. You know, like Stuart McLean does on his tours. People just love it.”
“Great idea, Scott. And will you also be composing special songs for each stop on the tour?” I [should have] said, earnestly.
“I’m pretty sure Stuart McLean has some kind of intellectual property claim to this ‘appealing to the locals’ idea. We don’t want a lawsuit,” I also [might appropriately have] said.
“Okay, Scott,” I [actually] said.
So, what follows are the charming bits I said at each of our stops in an effort to get people to like us. I’m not sure how well it worked, though I know it was more effective than starting with an expression that had become my signature opening – “According to my notes, I’m delighted to be here.”
I really had nowhere to go but up.
My first intensive exposure to this town came on a cold, wet spring thirty-six years ago. I was working on a road crew for the Department of Highways and we were camped in ugly yellow bunkhouses at the gravel pit north of here, half way between town and the Number One highway. I don’t know exactly why we weren’t allowed to set up in town – I’m sure they knew what they were doing.
We camped out there for about six weeks that spring, while we worked on Highway 21.
We worked all day, then ate usually at the Gulf out at the turnoff, which is long gone. We drank beers and “rye presses” and played pool at the Jasper and the Commercial hotels most nights. We mostly stayed out of trouble. I never got into a fight. I never won a game of pool. I don’t know if those two are connected. There were a few Maple Creek guys on the crew – Trent Curry, Grant White, Harold Palmer, the loader operator. In later years, Blair Watson joined us.
I worked on that crew for a long time and we spent a part of each season in this town.
It was out on the 21, and the Red Coat Trail and all the other endless stretches of highway in the southwest, that I found Home.
I’d always been a town kid or a city kid growing up – my Dad was a banker and we moved every couple of years. But, until I spent those interminable hours out there in the sun and the wind, I’d never felt truly connected to a landscape, never felt like I was where I belonged.
It is, I suppose, a cliché to talk about how big the sky is. Until you experience it. There is nothing cliché about it. It overwhelms you. You want to take it all in. But you can’t. The land spreads out in front of you, seemingly forever. You can see everything. And, much of the time, you can’t see any people. You can feel like you’re the only person in the world. When I’m out there, I am so at home and so comfortably alone. Not lonely. Just alone. Complete, in solitude. Out there, if it’s not too cold or too windy – you never want to give it up. You never want that sense of awe and wonder and timeless peace to end.
I have all sort of other connections to this place, of course. My sister, Heather, and my sort-of sister, Lou Ellen, married guys from here – older guys, but nice guys – guys that are probably peculiar to this region. And they raised their kids here – about fifty of them, I think. I’ve been in this church on Christmas Eve a few times, and last year when we said goodbye to Peter’s Mom, Irene. Over twenty years ago, my parents moved to the Park and attended this church – my Mom still does. I’ve brought my family here countless times to visit their grandparents, aunt, uncles and cousins. My kids can’t go past the Red Hen without stopping for five-cent candy. I learned to downhill ski at the Park. I have been on a float in the Cow Town Parade.
My sister, Heather, as you all know, is a very talented musician and organizer of musical stuff in this town. She’s always telling me about these great musical events she puts on – not just the kids’ musical plays, but the concerts where the Dazzlers and others perform. As you know, they are real family affairs. Heather plays and sings, as does her son Andrew and her daughter Christine. Let’s not forget Chelsea, who is, for tax purposes at least, a member of the family. Heather’s mother [my mother] Jean, plays the piano. Oh what a talented family Heather has.
Well, I am her brother. When we were growing up, it was pretty clear to me, at least, that I was the talented one. And yet, year after year, Heather puts on these evenings – and never once, ever, has she invitee her brother to come to Maple Creek and perform. Did she just forget how talented I am – just slipped her mind? Or was she afraid? Chicken? How many of you even knew she had a brother?
So, although Scott and I are here in Maple Creek to have fun and see the country and share his music with you and flog his CD – we’re really here because I just really needed to share the stage with my sister, at long last.
I have a personal recollection of Eastend – a story that does not involve dinosaurs or Jack’s Café, or Sharon Butala or actually the town of Eastend, really
I first came to Eastend thirty-eight years ago. Because of a family connection, I was able to snag a summer job with the Department of Highways. That was pretty unusual – highways didn’t usually hire high school kids. All the guys on the crew – and there were about twenty of them – were older than me, and quite a bit, let’s say, “rougher”. I was just out of grade eleven, seventeen years old. A sensitive lad – school choir member, church goer, non-smoker, keen student. No criminal record.
The first night out in the bunkhouse in Eastend with my new colleagues involved a road trip to the next town – Shaunavon – to take in the festivities at Shaunavon’s annual summer fair. I wanted to appear to be a team guy, wanted to make the right impression. I had to establish that I was not the fresh-faced little mommy’s boy dweeb that I appeared to be – and was, in fact. So we all loaded up into a crew-member’s big black car with a case of beer and off to Shaunavon we go. I decided it was important that I appear to be drinking, but it was essential that I maintain a firm grip on my faculties. I was anticipating trouble. And there was. A lot of drinking. And fights. With drunk guys. With drunk girls. I remained in the car through much of it, avoiding eye contact with the locals, while mayhem surrounded me.
Finally, having had just about as much fun as can be had on a drunken fair night in southwest Saskatchewan, around three in the morning, we loaded back into the car – a little more crowded now, because one of the guys had fallen in love over the course of the evening and had his soul mate in the front seat with him, and headed out of town with another case of beer, maybe two.
The Mounties stopped us, because this perfect evening just wouldn’t be complete without the involvement of law enforcement officials with guns. As soon as we stopped the car, one of my fellow highway guys got out of the car and ran off. Since this was my first day, I didn’t know his name. I only knew him by his nickname – Herbie. The Mountie in charge, immediately recognizing me as the weak link in this criminal enterprise, questioned me aggressively about the identity of the escaped Herbie. I was relieved that I lacked sufficient knowledge to betray my new friend – so was spared that particular moral dilemma – but I was concerned that my insistence that I did not know Herbie’s real name was frustrating this Mountie to the point that I might find my young self in jail for the night. Oh how I longed to be in my bunkhouse back in Eastend.
Eventually, Herbie returned. I don’t know where he went, or why he came back. I suppose he figured it would be a long walk back to Eastend, so he might as well face the music. The Mounties gave us two liquor tickets and sent us on our way. No hard feelings. I never did learn Herbie’s real name.
Another thing I think of when I think of Eastend, besides Shaunavon and Mounties, is the Redcoat Trail. Highway Thirteen.
My parents bought a place in the park at Cypress Hills back in 1991. So, every holiday weekend, from the Victoria Day to Thanksgiving, my wife and I load up our kids and head out to the Park.
Back in the early days, the TransCanada from Webb to the Maple Creek turnoff was single lane. I cheerfully referred to it as the “Ribbon of Death”. It was always a busy, dangerous stretch, but more so on long weekends when there would be an endless stream of menacing trucks and cars from Alberta carrying people home to Saskatchewan to visit family. Add some darkness, maybe some rain …
The trip was very tough on my sensitive wife, who was raised in Toronto, where people do not drive both ways on the same highway – because they value human life there, especially the lives of children. So, to avoid the trauma of a return trip on the TransCanada, we would often take Highway 13 back home.
What a relief. It’s a bit longer and slower, but it’s a more peaceful, less death-defying experience. You can’t hurry, so you settle in, relax. You notice that there are people in those cars and half tons you meet and pass on the way. It’s more personal. When you’re on the Redcoat Trail, you’re not on a highway – you are part of the landscape. You’re not riding above it, you are immersed in it. The fields and weeds and livestock and the farmers are right there at eye level. And the highway is so soft, especially on hot days.
When it’s over, you feel like a traveler, not a survivor. You’re happy to be home, not grateful to be alive.
Now that the Number One is twinned the whole way – we don’t take the Redcoat Trail anymore. We get home faster. The kids’ whining and complaining and fighting is over sooner. We feel safer. But I think we’ve lost something in our haste. The Redcoat Trail makes it easier to recognize the truth of that old expression, that it is not the destination that matters, even if that destination is home – it’s the journey.
Scott and I both live in Regina. We’re very happy to be in Saskatoon tonight.
I know you’re all thinking – well, of course – anyone who lives in Regina is happy to be in Saskatoon. Saskatoon is just way better. The weather is better – especially this time of year. The wind doesn’t howl all the time, blowing dust and garbage and small animals all over the place. Saskatoon has better weather generally – it’s practically “temperate” here – like it’s intended that people would live here and not just animals with hides – like buffalo. The winters are less lethal. The summers don’t bake things till they turn brown and crack.
Saskatoon is also a much cooler place – not “cool” as in temperature, but “cool” as in attitude. It’s a hip, happening place, compared with buttoned-down, uptight, dorky Regina. Saskatoon has this big University – so it’s full of smart people. Regina has the government – politicians and bureaucrats – a different, less cool kind of smart. Saskatoon is big picture. Regina is painful details. Sure, we dress better, but we’re less relaxed. The Birkenstock store can barely make a go of it.
Scott is from Nova Scotia – so he hasn’t grown up with this Saskatoon/Regina thing.
I’m from Swift Current, the second coolest city in the province. In Swift Current, we believed quite strongly that Regina was near the worst place on earth – not just the worst place, but the worst place imaginable. We knew this without ever having spent any time in Regina – or anywhere else for that matter. We knew it with a firm though ignorant certainty. Regina was a dark ugly and dangerous place, to be feared and avoided.
When it came time to go to University, well, duh. Swift Current kids headed up North to the U. of S.. Saskatoon was a magical place, with a shopping mall downtown, lots of relatively safe bars like the Hop House and the Pat and the Apollo Room at the Ritz, the big beautiful University campus, the river, the bridges, the Bessborough Hotel, Broadway Avenue, Homestead ice cream.
I came here in the last half of the seventies and first half of the eighties. This was before Saskatoon had a jazz festival, but you had to know that if anyplace in this province were to have a jazz festival, it would be Saskatoon. Saskatoon is a jazz place – off beat, improvised, swingin’, cool.
If Saskatchewan were a high school, Saskatoon is the guy who wears skinny black jeans, rolls his own smokes and grooms himself in public with a rat-tail comb. Yes. That cool.
Now, I have lived in Regina for twenty-five years and raised my three boys there. I love Regina and have no desire to live anywhere else. But, nonetheless, in the Regina Saskatoon rivalry – Saskatoon wins, hands down.
Sadly, however, almost out of spite, Regina refuses to participate in this competition – a competition it is so clearly losing. In fact, Reginans don’t appear to be aware that there is a rivalry. Saskatoon is nice, sure, but it’s not Regina. Regina doesn’t compare itself to Saskatoon, any more than Rosthern compares itself to Maple Creek or Medicine Hat compares itself to Brandon. Actually, it is worse than that. Reginans don’t address their minds to the question of which is the better city or which is the best city. Other cities, other places – other people – simply do not exist. Regina defeats the whole idea of competition by being utterly insular and inward looking. Regina is not the best, it is the only.
Sorry, Saskatoon. Smug beats Cool.
I lived in Saskatoon only as a student. I was here for seven years, though only during the last three did I live here year-round. So, my experience of Saskatoon was, and my enduring perception of Saskatoon is, bound up in that time of my life – youth, coming of age, undergrad enthusiasm, the excitement of limitless potential, of the future, of new independence.
Saskatoon’s historical role has been to take custody of the young people of this province at a crucial and impossible stage in our development – that stage where we have seemingly outgrown our hometowns and any and all adults who live there. We are all placed into the hands of your city by our parents, who are confident that this city will finish us off, one way or another, and turn us into adults.
I have been back here countless times over the thirty years since I left, but every visit evokes a flood of feelings – as it does for thousands of graduates all over the world. Saskatoon was a place and a time of innumerable “firsts” in our lives, many of them accompanied by the declaration “I am never, ever, doing that again.”
Saskatoon is the site of our most dramatic transformations, of youthful indiscretions, excessive enthusiasms, earnest inquiry, lost innocence and the seeds of wisdom.
I often think, if I came back and lived here – if Saskatoon became my home – would I walk around this city with that sense of wonder and hope and faith that falls over me every time I visit?
I hope that I would.
Almost a year ago there was poll published, declaring Saskatchewan to be Canada’s Ugliest Province.
To be completely accurate, the euphemism used was “least beautiful.” And, the designation referred to Saskatchewan’s scenery, not its people.
To celebrate Canada Day, some outfit called Abacus Data invited Canadians to rank the provinces in a number of categories — taxes, government management, friendliness, scenic beauty, business climate, etc. And now, thanks to this hitherto unknown company and its cruel poll results, we are the butt of “your province is so ugly…” jokes.
It’s not a big surprise. If you ask us what we love about Saskatchewan, we’ll say “oh, it’s the people” or, “it’s a great place to raise a family” or, “there’s such a sense of community” or “I got a job and had to move here.” For most of us, then, Saskatchewan is charitably described as “the girl with personality,” the kind of province for whom friends have trouble finding a blind date. We’re the province who took her dad to the prom.
Stubble-jumpers reacted defensively on Internet comment boards, listing all the very beautiful things to be found here. The saddest, but most frequent comment was this: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Right. So is ugly.
In a special betrayal, it turns out that Western Canadians, including Saskatchewanians themselves, were more likely than anyone else to rank Saskatchewan as least beautiful.
How can we expect others to love us if we don’t love ourselves?
How did this happen? Surely, people from Fort Qu’Appelle asked this question more than the rest of us. When you get up in the morning, look out the window, go for a walk or out for a drive, “ugly” is not what you see.
I think we all know the problem – It is the TransCanada Highway.
The really distinctive thing about Saskatchewan, what makes this place so different from the rest of “Oh-So-Freakin’-Beautiful Canada”, is that the southern third of province is dominated by the Great Interior Plains. If you drive through here on the TransCanada, which is all anyone ever does, it’s all you see.
I like the prairies – but eight hours straight of nothing but straight and flat – that’s just too much. The engineers who designed the TransCanada weren’t looking for a challenge. Straight and flat appealed to them. It wasn’t their job to showcase Saskatchewan’s beauty and diversity.
When people responded to this Abacus survey and objected to its conclusions about our lack of beauty – the most common reference was to the Qu’Appelle Valley and how beautiful it is and how, if people just spent more time here, their view of Saskatchewan’s beauty would be entirely different.
It’s true. If the TransCanada just meandered a bit more, dipped through the valley then up through the parkland, into the shield and down through the Great Sandhills and the Cypress Hills – yes, it would take five or six times longer to get to the Rockies, but they wouldn’t be calling us ugly.
Calgary and Edmonton
This is the first trip out of Saskatchewan on this tour. And, it is fitting that we come to Alberta, because Alberta is where everybody from Saskatchewan goes.
Scott is from Nova Scotia, so he’s not as acutely aware as I am of this cultural demographic phenomenon. I’m from Swift Current, sort of a breeding ground for Albertans. Virtually everyone from Swift Current moves here as soon as he or she can. We drove by Swift Current yesterday – I’m surprised there is anybody left.
I went to law school in Saskatoon; it was the same thing. All the good students moved to Alberta when they graduated. We have our University of Saskatchewan class reunions here in Alberta.
It’s like Saskatchewan has a maximum legal capacity – there can’t be any more than one million people there at one time, or the province loses its liquor license or something. Mostly, it is about opportunity. If you don’t have a job in Saskatchewan, you leave, immediately. Saskatchewan may be home, but it’s not a place you want to be sitting around waiting for something to happen.
We don’t expect people to stay in Saskatchewan and we’re surprised when they do – and slightly suspicious. If you don’t leave home, something is wrong. We don’t even require our Senators to live there. We always swell with pride when we watch football games on t.v. and notice that, everywhere in the league, half the people in the stands are wearing the green and white. That’s right, we swell with pride at the idea that most people from Saskatchewan leave so they can cheer for the Riders in someplace with better weather.
And, it is an easy transition, moving to Alberta. We feel at home here. The people here are very similar. Albertans are really just Saskatchewanians with confidence and money.
Like Saskatchewan, Alberta has the two main cities. We have Saskatoon and Regina, you have Calgary and Edmonton. Naturally, there’s a rivalry. You have the Flames and the Oilers. The Stampeders and the Eskimos. The Dinos and the Golden Bears. We wish we had rivalries like that in Saskatchewan. There isn’t enough people nor enough stuff for a two-city rivalry in most things. No NHL. One CFL team. One big university. We do have a lingerie football league franchise in each city – the Saskatoon Sirens and the Regina Rage – but that rivalry hasn’t caught our imagination just yet.
We can’t really decide what the rivalry is – Saskatoon wants the rivalry to be about which city is more scenic and beautiful. Regina wants the rivalry to be about which city really cares the least about what the other city thinks of it. Regina wins that one hands down.