Saskatchewan By Irene Butler
Wheat elevators are landmarks in seas of grain; a complete turn with eyes scanning the firmament often reveals every category of cloud in the same rotation, the right sky is blazed with sunshine, in the left a storm is brewing. Splashes of bright yellow canola and pale blue flax draw us back down to earth. Prized crops of wheat are a lush green reaching up to our knees. My mind flashed with images of the season I grew to love the best during the first nineteen years of my life; Saskatchewan Autumns with a mellow sun adding the final touches to the golden stalks of wheat, heavily laden with their gift to mankind, undulating in the breeze.
Wheat rules the economy of Saskatchewan where one-third of Canada’s farmland produces two-thirds of the county’s wheat. Grain elevators numbering 5800 in 1938 have been reduced to 700 though consolidation and other technological efficiencies. Rye, barley and beef cattle are also important, as well as sunflower crops. As small family acreages were swallowed up by mega-farming industries, less than 25% of Saskatchewan’s population now till the soil.
Just inside the Saskatchewan border is the town of Kindersley. A weekend ball tournament was underway. Gaggles of fired-up youth bantered in the halls of the Crossroads Motel leaving a trail of mud with their entries and exits, impossible to avoid with the copious rains that in no way succeeded in game cancellations, only a few delays. Still dark and dismal the next morning, we headed for the best local breakfast place, Humpties.
It was a given we would go with “The Godfather” special chalked on the board – a humungous 4-egg omelette, with perogies, “In recognition”, our server commented, “of Marlon Brando’s passing yesterday.”
The Great Sand Hills was next on our agenda, but was not meant to be. As we approached the gravel road off Hwy 21 to Leader, a teensy hamlet boasting the best view of the rolling dunes, non-stop downpours convinced us to continue on to Moose Jaw. The torrential rains continued as we turned onto the Trans-Canada #1, hitting dips and dives filled with foot-deep water and gravel segments with no warning signs.
Moose Jaw was a welcome sight, along with a brighter sky, but the temperature gauge on the car dash read only 6 degrees Celsius; so much for the Cree translation of “warm breezes” for the city’s name. Capone’s Hideaway, right across from our much anticipated tour of the Tunnels of Moose Jaw, was a great place to hang our hats.
“Get a move-on it! Keep up!” bellowed our new boss, “This is where you’d have stayed if one of YOUR KIND hadn’t stolen rice and hid it. Get going. Now look where your new home is, and this is even too good for you.”
We had become late 19th century Chinese immigrants in the “Passage to Fortune” tour, being shown our fate in laundries set up in tunnels under the city; pre-arranged labour to pay back the “coolie broker” for our passage over. Scurrying past wood bunks where three would be squeezed into a space barely wide enough for two, rough tables with crude cooking utensils, and sacks of rice locked behind a wire enclosure, we were told we would have to cook our rations ourselves after an 18 hour workday. For this board and room we were charged half of our 35-cent-a-day wage; which worked out to between 5 and 10 years to honour the debt. Rows of scrub-boards rested in aluminium tubs, heavy gas irons, and sewing machines with a single bulb dangling over each, practically the only light in the dank, mouldy, gloomy bowels of the earth; breeding grounds for accidents, illness, opium addiction and despair. If we ever had the chance to come out into the daylight, we were faced with the same extreme racism as underground. Other Chinese immigrants were committed to labour in construction gangs for building the railways or in coal mining, where the most dangerous, dirty jobs were given them. As well as paying back broker fees, in 1885 the Canadian government came up with “head taxes” of $50.00 for Chinese entering the country. The tax was subsequently raised to $100.00 and $500.00. An “Exclusion Act” was passed in 1923 which prohibited further immigration from China altogether; how’s that for discrimination? The dramatization of walking in a coolie’s footsteps drives home the poignant history of deplorable conditions endured by our Chinese immigrants.
Changing hats, our mood lightened, when treated like first time boot-leggers in the tunnels believed to have been frequented by “Big Al” himself.
“Hiya there,” Fanny flashed a wicked smile at one fellow, then tittered to the rest of us on the “Chicago Connection” tour, “He’s one of my regulars (wink,wink) but today you’re all here to rake in a little extra cash. Right?” Fanny sashayed in the lead to the bar, where we were given the low-down on past big-mouths who talked too much about the “goin’s on”. Secret doors and passage ways revealed vats with home-brew cooking, and Al’s goon, Gus filling us in on the advantage of owning a Tommy gun, while wielding the weapon described. Snickering, he related his boss’s “hole-in-two” golf game, when Capone forgot to put on his safety catch and shot himself through both legs while taking a swing at the ball. Gus and Fanny are of course, skimming off of Capone’s operation and selling to us in this re-creation of the 1920’s illegal booze exports from Canada to the United States during Prohibition. Infamous Police Chief Walter P. Johnson, for a cut in the proceeds, turned a blind eye to the American gangster set-up of gambling, opium dens and prostitution, as well as the rum-runs.
Still early, we headed over to the Temple Garden Mineral Spa. Lying back in the outside section of the pool, which is also the hottest, looking up at the azure canopy dotted with white, puffy clouds, was a fine finale to the day. In 1989 the city of Moose Jaw drilled a one million dollar geothermal well to tap into the steaming mineral laden water from an ancient seabed lying deep below the surface of the earth. We figure the mineral levels in our bodies should be well balanced, being our seventh hot springs soak in a month.
We spent our last few hours in Moose Jaw moose hunting. Where was “Mac the Moose”? How can one not find a 30-foot moose? We drove to the outskirts of town to the new information office, after being told by several downtown merchants this is where we would find him. “Oh, he’s still in the old location,” say the staff in the swanky new building, “but his legs are dug up ready to re-locate.” Our hunt was finally successful. Shooting him, with our camera, we were now content to leave the city.
A few hours drive north on #2 Hwy, just past the town of Watrous, we were about to defy gravity at Manitou Springs Hotel & Mineral Spa. Smack in the middle of Saskatchewan lies Little Manitou Lake with mineral content that is astounding; the water has a salinity of 12%; 3.5 times that of the ocean, and 0.5Â percent greater than the Dead Sea in Israel. Take a dip in the cool lake or in Canada’s largest indoor spa where the mineral laden water is heated to three temperatures from tepid to steamy. I, likened to a rock in water, could not sink. Lying flat on our back or sitting in a reclined lazy-boy position, bobbing about weightless without moving a muscle, is a wonderfully weird sensation. At first I was leery of floating too far from the pool edge, as when others drifted or walked by, the slightest wave would send me twirling out of control like an astronaut in space, not able to sink my feet to the pool bottom for stability. The taste is gross and after experiencing the sting of an accidental splash in my eye, I was not interested in flipping face down. I later found putting my arms out to my sides stopped the waves from involuntarily tossing me about. Soon we were in the 9-foot-deep end, standing straight up propelling ourselves with walking movements, our bodies a third out of the water.
This magical buoyancy was in the making for eons. A mile high glacier once covered the area. A river formed within the glacier causing pressure to build and erode the glacier in which it was contained piling sand and gravel around the edges. As the glacier left the valley a dish-shaped basin was left in the middle; Little Manitou Lake.
Another 12,000 years lapsed where water could enter the valley from both ends but was then trapped. Continual concentration by evaporation resulted in the extreme saltiness, as not only was the water prevented from leaving by surface drainage, but it could not seep below the lake due to the aquifer beneath which also added to the salt content.
From the droughts of the thirties to 1960 the lake level dropped 12 feet. In 1968 the level was raised by a system of canals and pumps from South Saskatchewan River.
I was surprised to discover “Sea Monkeys”, advertised for sale in comic books when my children were young, with instructions to “just add water”, were brine shrimp eggs from Little Manitou Lake. These tiny crustaceans only grow in highly saline water, feeding on algae. A New York owned factory operated between 1962-71 harvesting, dehydrating, and packaging the eggs for this purpose. Eggs and shrimp were also sold to fish hatcheries as fish food. Since the closure of the Manitou plant, processing has been done in New York.
Our favourite sustenance spot between spa-ing was “The Diner”, where we feasted on the Mennonite specials of kielke (homemade egg noodles with cream gravy), verenike (cottage cheese perogies) and rhieke varsht (smoked sausage) while the country and gospel music of the owners, Kevin and Marg Harcourt, filled the air. The product of their 12 years of touring, along with songs by Kevin’s parents, Tom and Nellie, can be carried away to be enjoyed anytime in CD’s and cassettes. Stop by, when in the neighbourhood, to enjoy the cuisine and ambiance rating an 8, in our “Hobbit-Worthy 1 to 10 Restaurant Rating System.”
“Pile of bones” or Wascana in Cree was the name given to the place where butchering after hunts left buffalo skulls piled high. Later renamed, Regina, in honour of Queen Victoria, this city became the capitol of the North West Territories and later the capitol of the new found province of Saskatchewan. Pulling up to the Plains Hotel, on the corner of Albert and Victoria, we looked up at the tall tower of lights projecting from the top of the building, and noted orange flashes running down the weather vane meaning cooler, unsettled weather. We hoped to see it a steady blue, the indicator of fair weather, before leaving Regina. The same good service in effect for over 50 years was ours in our cozy, spotless room, with fine breakfast send-offs in Salt & Pepper’s Dining Room. All day the restaurant, lounges and meeting rooms were filled with professionals from down-town offices. From late afternoon the split-personality of the establishment became apparent. Charlie’s Pub rocked. Coming back to the hotel at only six p.m. a balding fellow, already staggering out of the bar, stopped short.
“Hey lady, I’ve had a hard day,” he whined swaying like a clock pendulum. I shuddered as he got into a vehicle. While I was taking down his license number to warn the innocents, he got out of the front seat and crawled in the back for a sleep. The next morning we knew Emili had a traumatic night as one of these “hard day” dudes had put a dint in her driver-side back door; or maybe it was a sober accident of someone trying to get into their car, as the gale winds that blew up during the evening, whipped their door out of their hands. At any rate, Emili had her parking lot initiation.
From Regina on, right through the remainder of Saskatchewan we are on a mission to reacquaint ourselves with family. Our visit with Auntie Pat, her daughter, Belinda, with her girls, Bailey and Taylor was a pinnacle delight.
Our next stop, Yorkton, brought splendidly gratifying reunions with George, Dot, Fran, Bernie, Bobbi, Stella, Dorothy, Arlene, Don, Patty, Stan and Erin.
Filled with nostalgia, in the city where I was born and raised, we drove down Broadway, the main street of Yorkton. Past the old Metropolitan, now a Sears Appliance store; a few blocks further east, the Corinthian design of the old Woolworth building was still majestic. I reminisced about the many slow walks through the isles, stopping when an item I thought would be a great Birthday gift caught my eye. For as long as I can remember, my Baba (Ukrainian Grandma) always made sure I had money before my Birthday. “Always buy yourself a Birthday present, in case no one else does,” she would conspiringly say, dissolving into laughter that shook her whole body. At first she would take me to the stores, but by the age of eight, I would go back and forth between “The Met” and “Woolworths” before a final choice was made. Through the years, I have never missed a year of my present to me.
We wandered into the old Blackstone Hotel, now called City Limits. The juke box was twanging as we settled into well-worn wooden chairs absorbing the atmosphere. Constructed with brick from the Doukhobor Brick Company, once located between Darlington Street and 7th Avenue, it was built in 1935 by Peter Petrovich Veregin, son of Peter Vasilevich Veregin, who led the Doukhobors emigrating from Russia in the early 1900’s. Originally offices, and later turned into a hotel, the Blackstone was a profitable business venture for the sect. Smoozing with the locals, the legendary rumours were still as rampant as when I was growing up, of adjoining doors between the rooms in the curved section of the hotel facing Broadway and Betts Avenue, built to specification by Veregin so when he came to town with his wives, he could pay them nightly visits without having to go out in the hall; and of the next owner nailing the doors shut, and eventually removing them. The Doukhobors were not finding Yorkton to be the haven of freedom they expected. Disagreements with the law over nude parades to barn dances are documented; a sure feather ruffler of the British Presbyterian morays of the city founders, the York Farmer’s Colonization Company of Toronto. In addition, when the Canadian government decided communal property be registered under the Homesteader Act; the Doukhobors erroneously feared this would subject them to military duty, which was against their philosophy of war and all forms of violence being against Christianity. Due to lack of communication by the government, the colony’s wagons headed west down Broadway; some to Alberta and most settling in British Columbia.
Walking through the doors of St. Mary’s Catholic Church was something I had done many times before. Sitting in a pew at age four or five beside Baba, my eyes were transfixed on the multitude of angels high up in the dome. From that Sunday on, I was very disappointed if we did not get into one of the front rows, where I could readily gaze at this celestial extravaganza. The flying dove with rays emanating outward in the centre of the dome depicts the Holy Spirit, with God the Father sitting on the right above, and Jesus on the left below with a crown in his hands, in readiness to coronate the Blessed Virgin Mary after her arrival in heaven. One hundred and fifty-seven angels and cherubs surround the celebration.
I later learned the dome has a curvature of 62 feet and is 55 feet from the floor. This required the central figures and each angel be painted in a mathematically calculated distorted manner so they would appear to be on a flat plane to viewers below.
This masterpiece of the late Stephen Meush, as well as other paintings in the church, began in 1939, reaching completion in 1941. Mr. Meush first trained in Lviv, Ukraine, then for three years in Italy, in a style fashioned after the Renaissance Greats. It is said the artist used school children as models for the angel faces. Separate from the many ethereal beings enveloped in clouds, one angel sits alone, with one arm propped on the golden frame of the masterpiece, looking down at the congregation. It is believed to be the artist’s face and the significance is a bridge between heaven and earth.
One of the even arms of the cross-shaped church was expanded in 1955-56, and the Alter, in one of the wings, was moved below the dome. In the reconfiguration, walls which originally had every square inch from floor to ceiling covered with saints separated by arabesque designs, were painted over with a modern off-white, save for four prophets leading up to the dome.
Father Bryan Bayda, C.Sr.R, the Pastor of St. Mary’s, graciously gave us a tour through the rectory to a familiar pair of classrooms of the once flourishing St. Mary’s School, taught by nuns who walked over daily from the Sacred Heart Academy Complex nearby. Deciding not to go back to Simpson Public School for grade 6, I registered for St. Mary’s School, starting in the classroom for grades 5-8; the other classroom being for 1-4 students. It was the right move, as I relished the individual attention of only a few others in my grade, but in my adolescent mind, the fuss over my well-being on occasion was a bit overdone. I don’t remember telling a soul I forgot my lunch one day, when the priest appeared from beyond the dividing door of the rectory, with something wrapped in brown paper tied with string. I opened the package and the eyes of sardines looked back at me sandwiched between thick slices of homemade bread. I nibbled around the edges, and when I thought no one in the lunchroom was looking nonchalantly dropped it in the garbage, only to have Father come up behind me later with the remainder of the sandwich and a little lecture on wasting food. I never forgot my lunch again.
Looking out the window from my old classroom, I recognized a door across the backyard of the dorm for resident students of the Sacred Heart Academy. A July, long ago, my friend Doris and I were overjoyed to have nabbed a summer job scrubbing walls at the high-school, which we would both be attending in a few years. Before leaving for the day, we lodged a small wad of paper in the top floor fire escape door in readiness for our scheme. At 9 p.m. I headed towards her house and she towards mine; we were supposedly sleeping over at each other’s house. We giggled as we sat huddled with our humongous lunch in the bushes outside the Academy until after dark and the lights went out in the nun’s annex. Stealthily, we climbed the three floors of metal stairs. Eureka! No one had noticed the door was ajar. We crawled up onto the stack of mattresses stored in a large closet during the off-season, munching between outbursts of hysterical laughter at our temerity. Feeling chilled, and with no blanket, Doris crawled in between the top and second mattress on one pile. As I filed myself between mattresses in a second pile, we both stopped breathing at once, as a series of creaks came ever closer, followed by a flashlight beam on the other side of the door. The closet door opened, then after an eternity, closed. The footsteps faded. Too terrified to sleep, it was the longest night in our twelve years of life so far. At dawn’s first light, we carefully lowered ourselves back down the stairs and sat shivering in the bush until an appropriate time to go home. I am smiling at the chance of the good sisters at Sacred Heart Academy reading this today.
Saskatchewan is more than fields of wheat; Big Muddy Badlands in the southwest, 100,000 lakes, rivers and marshes in the north, scores of provincial parks, numerous heritage museums, and cultural sites of the Northern Plains Indians can all be found in this province that holds a special place in my heart.
The essence of Saskatchewan is in its motto:
“From many peoples strength”
Irene & Rick