The Trip to Saskatchewan
Regina and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan’s primary cities, are fun; not, perhaps as scintillating as Paris or Bangkok, but fine places to spend a day or two in search of distraction.
The idea of spending a couple of nights in the Hotel Saskatchewan in Regina and the Bessborough in Saskatoon, two rather elegant properties of the Old Railway Era, was enticing after so much lock-down.
So, following guidelines assiduously, we drove 600 kilometres west (four traffic lights) to get away for a brief escape.
I like museums. Probably a later-life compensation for ignoring my teachers at high school, but nonetheless I love the deep consideration of quirky or otherwise obscure knowledge.
The proud displays of informational nuggets and old photographs. Schematics and maps of extraordinary adventures, and the genuine pride that the exhibitors exude.
Saskatchewan is full of museums. Sadly, in this corona-viral-era most were closed. My appetite whetted, for who could ignore the promise of the Alex Youck School Museum or indeed the Wascana Science Centre, we found one-by-one that they were closed and the choice was limited.
So we went to see what the RCMP had to offer.
The answer was, in fact, quite a lot. The city of Regina is home to the famed Canadian police force’s training academy, and the RCMP Heritage Centre offers a fine potted history of the organisation. Its involvement in settling the wilder regions of the country, while still contentious, were portrayed sympathetically.
Models of transportation, wildly variable in a country the size and shape of Canada; uniforms and procedure manuals, jail cells and communication devices, even the opportunity to ride in a simulated car chase.
This latter attraction was unfortunately closed due to a close adherence to anti-viral protocols.
I loved it, and particularly the section that dealt, in some detail, with the patrolling of the North. Having spent some significant time in the wilder and colder parts of Canada, the idea of circumnavigating the country in 1940 was astonishing.
Tales of patrolling with dog teams over hundreds of miles visiting isolated bush camps and first-nations settlements made me shiver. The wretched conditions that miners from around the world experienced during the Gold Rushes of the late 19th century, and the policing that went along with that particular invasion, are mesmerising.
The RCMP Heritage Centre is truly a masterpiece and worth every minute of a visit.
Regina is also blessed with Wascana Park. It is a major common that dominates the centre of the city, and houses the Royal Saskatchewan Museum (closed), the Science Centre (closed) and most importantly, Bar Willow Eatery (open).
This is a delightful restaurant overlooking the lake and a canoe rental facility. Their food is quite superb, and to spend an hour enjoying a selection of their innovative appetisers and watching novice canoeists fall out of their canoes and kayaks was entertaining and enjoyable.
The 30˚C weather precluded a refreshing glass of wine, as we had Things to Do in the afternoon, but the ambiance, food and astonishingly friendly service were terrific.
And here, it must be noted, that even though Manitoba’s licence plates proclaim the Province to be “Friendly Manitoba”, everyone that we encountered in Saskatchewan knocked the socks off their Manitoba counterparts in terms of friendliness.
It was almost overbearing for a city slicker like me, but in Saskatchewan, when asked “How are you doing”, there is almost a genuine interest in finding out. Go figure.
Crossing the lake to the Legislative Buildings (closed) was fun, and although entry to the Provincial capital was barred, the grounds in which it sat were pleasant and well worth an hour wandering through the gardens and being friendly.
And so to Saskatoon, Regina’s counterpart, and a city with a very different feel. While one is dominated by government, and feels almost “stately”, Saskatoon is dominated by the University and all of the concomitant high-tech, artsy and slightly counter-culture that a Prairie city can muster.
I have always enjoyed both cities. Decades ago, while I was a radical student politician, I spent time in both cities and came to appreciate the differences and in particular the vibrancy of Saskatoon.
At the time the city had a population of about 250,000 and of those just over 20,000 were registered as students. One can imagine the social infrastructure that evolves to support the 10% of the population who are seeking fun and diversion.
Saskatoon seems to have changed; or perhaps I am the one who has changed in the intervening decades. One thing is for certain, and that is the fabulous culinary scene that is to be found in both of Saskatchewan’s major cities; and now, fortunately, I am able to afford to enjoy it.
Saskatoon’s museums and galleries were not on the agenda. Probably closed, but playing second fiddle to a visit to the Saskatchewan Railway Museum. More than your average collection of spokes, rails and rusty locomotives, this collection is great.
From mock stations to signal boxes, from an absorbing collection of photographs and documents to complete (if somewhat threadbare) sleeping cars, and every conceivable piece of railway memorabilia, this collection had it all.
It lies about thirty minutes to the southwest of the city, and is really worthwhile. Particularly if one like trains; however, even for the less rail-minded among us, the historical perspective that the collection fostered was in itself quite intriguing.
The museum lay nowhere close to the road to Batoche, the second of the day’s visits, which lay about 100 kms north toward Prince Albert. But no matter, the day was glorious, the colours in the fields of canola and flax bounced off the blue sky, and all was well with the world.
Batoche was most interesting.
Firstly, because I had absolutely no idea of its importance in the history of Western Canada and the relationship with the First Nations. Secondly, I had (idly) wondered before about why such a remote and silent place could have been so important.
And thirdly, because I had never been there before.
Formerly an important stop on the Carlton Trail, the community of Batoche with, in 1885, a population of nearly two thousand people and three full-size billiard tables, became the epicentre of the clash of ideals of the expanding colonial army of Canada, and the indigenous and Métis settlers of the region.
Conflicting ideas of land settlement and ownership resulted in a savage battle. The Battle of Batoche was a fight that sealed the fate of the North West Rebellion, and became a major factor in the eventual shape of Canadian polity.
Today one can scarcely believe the past atrocities. The Carlton Trail, at the time a major thoroughfare from Fort Garry, now Winnipeg, to Fort Edmonton is no more. The railway laid its tracks 75 kms south through Saskatoon, and with that development the necessity for Batoche ended.
History is rarely favourable to the defeated, and Batoche is no exception. Today, sitting and listening to the sounds of the prairie, far from the sounds of the urban centres and the relentless highway noise, it is possible to catch a glimpse of a very different past, and perhaps a hint of what might have been.
The site, now a National Historic Site, is moving. The museum is a little weak, but has some notable pieces of ephemera from a very different yet not so distant era. The grounds themselves are now fields of memories with plaques and pointers, but few remains.
It is a thoughtful place, and one that is well worth the short drive north from Saskatoon.
The hotels chosen for this trip were ideal. Looking to find a little of the history of the Canadian Prairies was important, and the role that the development of the railways played was a vital ingredient. The Hotel Saskatchewan and the Delta Bessborough were important pieces in this historical puzzle.
I am heading back next weekend for another look. More museums are open, I think, and although I often joke about living a Humble Life in the Bald Prairie, there is far more to explore in Saskatchewan than I would have previously credited.
For that understanding and the opportunity of exploring this delightful and overwhelmingly friendly province, I can see a possible silver lining in the Covid 19-cloud.