Vive le Saskatoon libre

sobriquet for a town that began as a site for buffalo kills, became a temperance refuge, and is now situated in a province of declining population, but Saskatoon may yet …

sobriquet for a town that began as a site for buffalo kills, became a temperance refuge, and is now situated in a province of declining population, but Saskatoon may yet live up to its own billing. The Paris tagline has been around for years, and the locals enjoy the cheek of a frontier town with modernist sensibilities — a small, cultured outpost, always under the radar. Not a government town, not a business town, Saskatoon sets its own pace, so treasuring its distinctiveness that while the rest of us spring forward, fall back, and obey the dictates of US President Bush vis-à-vis daylight saving time, Saskatonians never change their clocks.

“Winnipeg can be Canada’s gateway to the Prairies,” a proud resident told me. “And look at Calgary, on the treadmill and gone straight to hell. We prefer to be left alone . . . in our own time, in our own way.”

For a period, Manitoba’s capital did indeed have bold ambitions. Winnipeg was to be our Chicago, a place where prospectors and dreamers could light out from the Fort Garry Hotel to conquer the west and, in so doing, deflate the eastern establishment. It was not to be. The Fort Garry, with its dormer windows, vaulted ceilings, and wondrous Palm Room, stands as a reminder of that long-ago time when the Hudson’s Bay Company held sway. But the winning condition — direct access to natural resources — was not local enough and so a windy transit hub, a city of art, dance, and countercultural energy, some manor homes, the Asper family, angry aboriginals, and dashed hopes, Winnipeg remains.

Calgary, of course, is another matter — a city, depending on your point of view, that is bold, visionary, and in keeping with the Glenbow Museum’s new permanent gallery, “Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta.” Or it is simply on steroids, a cancerous growth spreading out onto the bald prairie, in a race against time and the market, the centrepiece of a great provincial sucking machine, a magnet for hustlers from near and far. Alberta and the Northwest Territories have led the country in population growth over the past five years, and the reasons are the same: the sweet smell of crude, the frontier mentality of catch-as-catch-can, live today, and screw the begrudgers.

As Saskatchewan fights to keep its young, in Alberta, to help solve chronic labour shortages, the Gaming and Liquor Commission recommended that minors as young as twelve be drawn into the kitchens of bars, lounges, and other dens of iniquity to work. Against the invention of childhood, that humane nineteenth-century notion that the young need shelter from the storm, Alberta demurs, positing instead that they must learn early the merits of work for pay. Premier Ed Stelmach quashed the commission’s proposal but, queried further on Alberta’s child-labour policies and allowances, he announced his province’s exceptionalism: “Sooner or later in this province . . . younger people have to learn the value of hard work.” Nothing wrong, that is, with the modern-day equivalent of England’s dark satanic mills or coal mines.

Sitting between what-might-have-been Winnipeg and what-will-be Calgary — but at a higher latitude, a perch from which a northern consciousness becomes possible — Saskatoon has always enjoyed its relative isolation. As Paris, certainly, it has a long way to go, the boast of elevated taste and civic beauty rooted around the university and in the seven bridges that span the South Saskatchewan River. But as global warming brings Canada’s north a tad south, as the land thaws earlier and the growing season lasts longer, and, with the threat of sustainable development measures on the horizon, as the race for natural resource wealth quickens, it is apparent that Canada’s east-west preoccupation is shifting to what the north and northwest might behold. And there sits Saskatoon, right in the cross hairs, and, if recent announcements are any indication, it is less Paris than Dallas that has politicians, at least, chomping at the bit.

That Saskatchewan is the world’s largest producer of potash and uranium is widely known; that it has beneath its northern soil a motherlode comparable to Alberta’s tar sands less so. The only real difference is that, save for a few exploratory drillings done before the government placed a moratorium on permits until it hammers out regulations, the resource is not being exploited. For the moment. But this stasis cannot hold. Saskatchewan may be losing people, but since 2002, as the Canadian economy has grown by 11 percent, the province has experienced 15 percent growth. To save its young from the Alberta machine and to keep its engines firing, Saskatchewan might have to enter the belly of its own beast. Its political masters are busy selling the province as an investment opportunity, suggesting that ultimately its own oil will be extracted from its own bitumen. In the process, much will be learned about Canada’s emerging sense of itself: a northern country.

Ken Alexander