As we approach five years of travel spending seven to eight months away each year, our time in Saskatchewan is beginning to feel more and more like simply another destination along the way, albeit one we return to more than any other. However, this growing distance seems to be empowering us with a developing sense of objectivity toward our childhood home and its denim-clad people, also known as our family, friends and the guy purchasing gas station coffee in a skidoo suit. So in the spirit of an outsider’s objective evaluation I present to you:
The name of the province of Saskatchewan comes from the Cree root “saskat” and, in its complete form, means “great place to find a lot of saskats”.
Likewise, the name of its largest city, Saskatoon, means “saskat with whipped cream”. The capital city, Regina, however, earned its name simply as a misunderstanding when a drunken Metis fur trader slurred his words while describing his favourite thing about women.
Catchy name or no, the Saskatchewanian is actually a fairly rare creature. Comprising just over one one hundredth of one percent of the world’s population they would probably be considered endangered if not for their ease of reproduction (thanks to prodigious levels of beer drinking), general heartiness and the fact they are, at least at this point, not in any way useful as an Asian aphrodisiac, possibly due to an unusual fondness for cheese-covered nachos and casual racism.
Found deep in the centre of the gigantic land mass known as Canada, the Saskatchewanian resides in a barren land of bone-straight, pock-marked highways and dusty fields seasonally coated with (mostly) animal manure. Pointedly avoided by the House of Parliament and restless tourists alike, it is possible this remote outpost mentality is at least partially responsible for its people’s tentative politeness, uneven tans and questionable fashion sense.
Their natural habitat is a harsh one, cursed with extreme and disconcerting temperature swings, a humiliating lack of hills and littered with unattractive cars lounging rustily at the end of rural driveways in dim hopes of being claimed in private sale transactions.
The average Saskatchewanian is easily recognized by their dry skin, unhealthy pallor, ball cap promoting some sports team or another, litany of visible tattoos, at least one of which usually features a snake of some sort, and being slightly too heavy for the size of jeans they have chosen. Among the men, beards have recently become trendy and have even garnered acceptance in the business community despite their scruffy appearance and obvious step down in hygiene. Women continue to swear by combinations of tight pants and massive fluffy boots that, while making their thighs appear moderately less bulbous, render their calves practically inconsequential.
Most prairie folk are particularly adept at things such as discussing pointless local hockey teams, politely holding doors open for people as much as half a block behind them, and making smoking outside in sub-arctic temperatures look even less appealing than you already suspected. Driving, however, is typically not their strong suit, despite the fact most people have a number of vehicles to choose from and disdain public transport with a vehemence normally reserved for inadequate performances by twelve-year old ice hockey goaltenders who have really let the rest of their son’s team down.
Despite the predictably annual appearance of troublesome snow and icy conditions experienced every year since their birth (and subsequent christening as either Jason, Matthew or Ethan, depending on the generation) many Saskatchewanians find themselves just as cautiously confounded as though it was their very first snowfall. A note of caution: while this trait would, on the surface, appear to make roads safer, in practice it leads to the wildly baseless assumption that all drivers on the road are just as frightened and panicky as they are, an assumption they deal with by studiously avoiding the use of turning signals, driving very slowly in the left lane on the highway and, of course, swerving way left before turning right. In the summer, however, everything returns to normal and they temper the tedium of the road by spending their time behind the wheel eating unhealthy take-out food, frowning at their blackheads in the visor mirror and texting estimated arrival times to people who couldn’t care less, just like all other Canadians.
As you might expect from such a geographically disadvantaged province, daily life in Saskatchewan revolves almost exclusively around the athletic exploits of less than intelligent men they have never met, and local children.
In winter, the evening sports report focuses on the success or failure of professional hockey players performing in far flung locations for teams with no logical connection to Saskatchewan whatsoever, before moving on to news about marginally talented 18 year olds found slightly closer to home, then seguing into a series of brief highlights of somewhat less talented 16 year olds, eventually climaxing with some strangely out of context curling results. Most Saskatchewanians also participate in these obscure northern sports themselves, if only to provide a socially acceptable excuse to drink on a Tuesday night.
Summer, of course, is Rider time. By which I refer to the Saskatchewan Roughriders, the most popular and unconditionally loved Canadian football team, probably of all time. Of course, official Rider gear can be acceptably worn at all times of the year, and is perhaps even mandatory attire at promotional Wing Nights. The unappealing green and white can also be used as a tool to inform the opposite sex that you are no longer a sexually viable member of society, and that they may as well just move on.
Thanks to its origins as a Shangri-La for immigrants in search of cheap farmland, opportunities to open small town Chinese-Canadian greasy spoons and plenty of open space to let your dogs run free, Saskatchewan is a melting pot of fascinating customs, puzzling beliefs and outmoded traditions.
Chief among these are greeting strangers with a perfunctory nod and grunted “Hey”, shooting road signs with high-powered rifles, and a kooky sport where two full-grown men wearing tight jeans and riding large horses join forces to roughly pacify a small, bewildered cow. But none of these famously Canadian rituals can hold a candle to the biggest event on Saskatchewan calendar this side of “first melt”, namely Christmas.
Much like the rest of the Western – or Capitalized – world, Christmas in Saskatchewan revolves around the generally accepted shrine of the 21st century – the mall. The big mall, the box mall, the old people mall, the west side mall, the new box mall, the little mall that used to have the bookstore in it, the mall you only go to because it has a liquor board store attached, you know, the one that will be lined up out the door until at least January 1st. Come December, holy places all. For that is what Christmas is to Saskatchewanians, shopping. Well, shopping, and snow-covered lawns with large plastic, flamboyantly lighted versions of a robed lady and her swaddled child whose name no one can really remember off the top of their head, but they are pretty sure it has something to do with why Grandma still makes them close their eyes before they eat turkey.
When Christmas comes a-calling the world comes alive with commerce, the airwaves filled with exuberant announcers promising 15% off humidifiers in slightly hysteric voices, mailboxes filled with colourful flyers proposing you purchase three ink cartridges at regularly extortionate prices in hopes of receiving a fourth free, and television shows filled with commercials for Blowout Tire Sales! Once suitably intrigued by any or all of these irresistible offers the erstwhile Christmas enthusiast then must deal with outlandish traffic, parking lots full to bursting with gigantic 4×4 trucks, stores full to bursting with frantic people in gigantic parkas desperate to track down the perfect gift card for their brother Art’s boy, the one who quit playing hockey a couple years back, which didn’t surprise them really, because he never was quite right, that one.
On the bright side, there are all those Christmas parties to enjoy, one for every job, every in-law, every lonely single friend, every underperforming bar. Eggnog is thrown into the mix to spice up the usual selection of beer, light beer, and rye whiskey, and seasonal impaired driving spot checks add an element of danger and excitement to each post-work cocktail, culminating in hasty calculations scrawled on lounge napkins involving alcohol content, body weight and total dry rib consumption.
Along with a clear increase in the usual allotment of greasy pub food, festive Christmas-ers also revel in the annual holiday embargo on dieting, restraint or moderation of any kind. Weight gain is not only accepted, but expected, and practically necessary in order to spend New Year’s Eve chuckling in a self-deprecating manner while patting your belly and casually referring to your “Christmas weight”. So whether it be devouring baked goods at two in the afternoon, a third helping of turkey stuffing at dinner, or slurping gravy directly from a comically large spoon, no normally disparaged method of disrupting your body’s delicate digestive system is off limits.
So much of the Saskatchewanian identity is derived from the six long months of darkness, cold and disheartening weather forecasts they refer to as “winter” that it deserves its own section. From that depressing morning sometime in October when Saskatchewanians wake up to a brand new foot of snow until that first above 0 day sometime in late March or early April which serves as a giant boon to car washes far and wide and provides college students with the perfect opportunity to take off their shirts and get drunk in dusty lawn chairs in the front yard, winter rules the prairies.
As November turns to December the snow slowly builds up, apparently at the expense of the sun, which puts in shorter appearance each day until daylight hours only start after people are fully into the swing of their workday, defeated and yawning, and end long before the slow, depressing commute home straining to keep an eye on the surrounding traffic through the haze of freezing exhaust fumes. Temperatures low enough to take your breath away when you step outside, shovelling hidden sidewalks, sweeping fluffy piles of snow off vehicles and scraping stubborn sheets of frost and ice from hidden windshields are never pleasant, but at least universally installed block heaters mean your car will usually start thanks to the magic of electricity and plugging your car in like a well-used vibrator. In fact, winter in Saskatchewan is entirely about heat in all its various forms: block heaters, heated homes, heated blankets, heated garages, heated car seats (useful both for comfort and keeping you regular), heated steering wheels, heated ATM vestibules, heated arguments about who’s turn it is to start the car. Growing ruts of ice and snow on the roads lock vehicles into their lane with the iron – and strangely calloused – grip of Old Man Winter and scrape undercarriages of small foreign numbers loudly and without mercy. Snow removal crews soon run out of ideas and settle for building large ridges of snow along sidewalks and in the centre of roads, mischievously hiding pedestrians, oncoming traffic and hopeful left turns alike.
Of course, it’s not all bad. Snowmobiling is now noisily en vogue, and on a rare sunny day the brilliantly white snow-covered landscape radiates a peaceful cleanliness belied only by upended beer bottles peeking out of ditches and the enigmatic yellow stains surrounding the public library. And by January a spirit of camaraderie builds around a common greeting – using your oversized winter mitt to apply a backhanded nose-wipe. Delightful. And static electricity is most definitely back, and fun for the whole family. Then, before you know it, it’s time to scour the internet for cheap all-inclusive deals to Mexico where ecstatic holiday-goers can join a select group of friends and family for a week-long binge of food, alcohol and sunstroke, usually around day four deciding that smoking is also ok as long as it’s just “holiday smoking”. Then a dejected return home, skin peeling as they start marking down the days on the local butcher shop calendar – just three more months until summer…
What the Future Holds
More mining, more oil, and of course reapplying our lipstick in between big dates with Alberta.
Plans remain in the works to finish twinning that last stretch of highway between Saskatoon and Prince Albert, optimistically started back in 1991. Talks to resume regarding Rosthern sharing their prominently advertised “Wireless Internet!” with other small towns, and maybe the RCMP. The giant auto wrecker’s pile of destroyed cars and car-related refuse between Saskatoon and Martensville is projected to reach 30 metres high by the end of 2013 and, they claim, become visible from space as well as the highway.
If you want to read about some of the other places we’ve been that you may have actually heard of before, check out my book Random Acts of Travel : Featuring Trepidation, Hammocks and Spitting.