Saskatoon’s Cultural Surprises

Saskatoon has been getting a lot of attention lately, especially since it was named by the New York Times as one of the places to visit in 2018. Of 52 destinations listed, it was the only one in Canada. What did I know of Saskatoon? It was in Saskatchewan, had a population of around 300,000, and was surrounded by endless wheat fields. Never having been there before, I decided to go and sniff out the cultural highlights. What I found was more than pleasantly surprising.

Joni Mitchell’s Inspiration

Early this summer, a portion of the riverfront along the South Saskatchewan River was formally dedicated to one of Canada’s most creative musicians, Joni Mitchell. On the Joni Mitchell Promenade I found a plaque that told the story of her connection to the city. Although she was born in Fort Macleod, Alta., the singer/songwriter of timeless tunes such as Big Yellow Taxi, Both Sides Now and Free Man in Paris, grew up in Saskatoon and started her musical career there. Crossing the Broadway Bridge (one of seven magnificent structures that span the river), I spied another plaque in front of the Broadway Theatre, next to where the Louis Riel coffee shop once stood on Broadway Avenue. That’s where she played her first professional singing gig to earn what she called “smoking money.” Joni walked that same bridge countless times and was inspired by its view of the river, as well as the grand old dame that is Saskatoon’s signature landmark. You can see her painting of the majestic Bessborough Hotel on the cover of her second studio album, Clouds, released in 1969. The hotel sits on the shore of the waterway that inspired her hauntingly beautiful song River.

Going Modern

Remai Art Museum
Remai Art Museum

The Remai Modern is a striking modern art museum that opened October 2017.The building, which cost more than $100 million to construct, was designed by renowned Canadian architects KPMB. The colour scheme was the same as that of the Bessborough Hotel – a rusty brick-red earth tone. Inside there were many galleries of varying sizes, a gift shop and Shift, an upmarket restaurant featuring scratch-made, locally sourced dishes.

The Remai is best known for having the world’s largest Picasso linocut collection (as well as some of his ceramics). A handful of the 407 prints, most originally done as posters for bullfights, were on display. “The printer kept all the original plates and when he died a U.K.-based dealer originally from Saskatchewan bought the entire collection and then sold it to Ellen Remai, who donated it to the gallery,” program guide Lorna Conquergood explained. She also told me the gallery is named after the Remai family, prominent Saskatoon developers. Art installations included New York-based Paul Chan’s Bathers at Night, a group of air-blown sculptures and Los Angeles-based Pae White’s Lucky Charms, a wall of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) lights. There were also numerous works by iconic Canadian artists Emily Carr, Lawren Harris, Jean Paul Lemieux, Arthur Lismer, David Milne, and A.Y. Jackson.

Prairie Heritage

The long, low building of the Western Development Museum houses a treasure trove of prairie paraphernalia. The provincial government started the museum in 1949 because after the second world war, there was a huge demand for steel. “Americans were coming up and melting down our old equipment. The government wanted to collect the machinery to preserve our heritage,” Jason Wall, the museum’s general manager, explained. Along with tractors and fire trucks, there was an amazing 1910 Boomtown section with replica shops, stables, homes, school, plus an original church. In the innovation gallery, my favourite invention was the straw gas car of 1918, topped with a huge, hovering, methane balloon.

Art of Millinery

Sherri Hrycay is a local maker who studied the art of hat making with one of the milliners to the late Queen Mother. Her little shop in the City Park area was chock full of feathery, flowery summer designs as well as fur felt fedoras. “This is a testament to how far a woman will go not to teach school,” she joked about her choice of career. Primarily self-taught, she has taken a number of master classes overseas, including one with a milliner to the British royal family. “I’ve always had a love affair with hats,” she admitted.

Ancient Indigenous Roots

Shortlisted for UNESCO world heritage status, Wanuskewin Heritage Park sits above Opimihaw Creek and the South Saskatchewan River near Saskatoon. In the visitors’ centre I joined a group of school kids and witnessed an amazing performance by local Metis hoop dancer Lawrence Roy. Afterwards, Lawrence let us try out some of his tricky moves.

Wanuskewin is the site of Canada’s longest running archaeological dig site (40 years!), which provides a glimpse into the area’s 6,000+ year human history. Bones, teeth, tools and pottery shards are scattered throughout the valley behind the centre and our guide Andrew Mcdonald, the site’s sales and marketing manager, told us there were also two buffalo jumps. “There is no other site in the world with such a concentration of Northern Plains indigenous culture,” he said.

Festival Fever

The city’s most anticipated annual event is the SaskTel Saskatchewan Jazz Fest, one of the largest festivals of its kind in Western Canada. The multi-venue, 10-day festival held in late June annually brings out nearly 80,000 fans to enjoy the sounds of world, pop, jazz, blues, and funk music. This year the headliners on opening night were The Flaming Lips at the Bessborough Hotel stage. Giant inflatable robots, rainbow unicorns, air guns bursting with confetti, and Wayne Coyne’s galvanizing vocals made the show a head twirler.

Neighbourhood Reinvention

Once a rather sketchy part of town, the recent renaissance of Riversdale has been nothing short of amazing. “With new local creative businesses opening their doors, arts groups setting up shop, and an eclectic mix of people, there is something for everyone,” Tourism Saskatoon’s Aviva Kohen explained. Locally designed t-shirts filled the shelves of Hardpressed Studio, a hyper-proud independent prairie venture. At Last Shoes owner Adam Finn explained how after apprenticing with a shoemaker in Montreal, he polished up his skills with instruction from a boot maker to the Swedish royal family. Finn’s shop was filled with his handmade boots, brogues, mules and pumps. His clientele is varied and eclectic, including bikers, battle re-enactors and drag queens.

My favourite eatery in the area was The Odd Couple, a Chinese/Vietnamese fusion restaurant opened four years ago by Andy Yuen, his wife Rachel and Andy’s parents Sam and Jane. My lunch was chicken satay soup with a rich, tomato broth, crisp Chinese greens, moist chicken and a sprinkle of peanuts. Very tasty. Dessert, which I hardly had any room for, was an Asian-style apple pie – a sort of apple-stuffed spring roll served with toasted coconut ice cream.

Andy, a former engineer for a uranium mining company, decided to follow in his dad’s footsteps and open a restaurant when the uranium market tanked. Andy’s dad had operated a take-out restaurant in in the small town of Warman, Sask., so a restaurant was a logical choice. “I wanted to do something a little different, change the perception of Asian food which was mostly about cheap prices and big portions.” He has done that in spades. The warm, modern décor, paired with a creative menu (and very acceptable portions) has attracted a constant stream of repeat customers.

Saskatoon was a place bursting with independent creativity and spirit. I agree with the New York Times. The city contains a trove of cultural treasure and should be visited sooner than later.

This post is also available in: Tiếng Việt

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