Saskatchewan the Beautiful?

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sask-beauty1The entire province of Saskatchewan was in an uproar at the end of June, 2012.

In a special online poll by Abacus Data, which coincided with Canada Day 2012, Saskatchewan was voted the ‘least beautiful province’ in Canada.

While this news barely hit the soundwaves elsewhere in Canada – what is there to argue about, after all? – Saskatchewan seethed and roared in indignation.

Call-in phone lines on radio talk shows were jammed, Twitter feeds hummed, Facebook filled with rants and photographs, and the Saskatchewan media had a field day in what was otherwise a slow news week. Sask premier Brad Wall commented that the Abacus poll should be thrown into one of Saskatchewan’s hundreds of scenic lakes.

The ‘comments’ features of our contemporary on-line news feeds quickly filled with thoughts from a range of Canadians, but particularly those from Saskatchewan (See, for example,…).

The responses typically fell into a pattern: GET OFF HIGHWAY NUMBER ONE HIGHWAY was the most common; a checklist of Saskatchewan’s beauty spots was a close second. Anger, disdain, and unbridled pride coloured much of the commentary. There is a lot more to this place than wheat fields and flatlands – come and see it for yourself, invited the indignant responders. Or, stay away and we’ll enjoy it without you, thanks very much.

Unfortunately the view many people see is that along the Trans Canada highway. That stretch is flat and not very pretty. But that’s okay. We’ll keep it our secret that the rest of Saskatchewan is magnificent.

Others reveled in the flat landscape, its skies, prairie sunsets, and vistas:

I am reminded of a line from Corner Gas when a fellow from Ontario commented how boring the scenery in Saskatchewan was…It was Hank who said, `There’s lots to see, no mountains to get in your way…

As an environmental historian who specializes in Saskatchewan history, I was delighted by both the poll and the responses – it reinforces much of my early career research on how that ingrained image of Saskatchewan has skewed the way Canadians have told the Saskatchewan story – and what environmental and cultural stories have been told incorrectly, as a result.

I also research cultural imagery and its impact on tourism. I gave a talk at the recent Directions West conference in Calgary that examined the iconic image of Saskatchewan as it informs and lies underneath Saskatchewan tourism literature. The contrast between the open plains and the lakes, rivers, and trees drives the majority of tourism development, including park placement and perception. In particular, I looked at this tourism literature in action over time in the north Prince Albert region, an area known as ‘Lakeland’ adjacent to Prince Albert National Park. My comments at that conference were reinforced in spades by the respondents to the Abacus poll:

Any suggestion that Saskatchewan is ugly is absolutely wrong. Perhaps people may remember driving along the highway and being bored of seeing farms, farms and more farms. I grew up in Prince Albert, which is “the gateway to the North”, and remember spectacular scenery and outdoor fun in the northern lakes. My family used to vacation at Emma Lake, Waskesiu and sometimes even Lac La Ronge.

Boundary Bog trail, Prince Albert National Park. Photo by Merle Massie, 2009.
Boundary Bog trail, Prince Albert National Park. Photo by Merle Massie, 2009.

A place must be envisioned as a destination place of beauty and recreation before it can be crafted as such with imparkment, facilities, roads, and visitors. The ‘gateway to the North’ concept is a classic example of boosterism in action.

There is a corollary story in comparing the creation of Prince Albert National Park and the recent creation of Grasslands National Park as a protective site for the natural prairie landscape. The conversations surrounding the two parks are both eerily similar and as vastly different as the landscapes they encompass.

Prince Albert was created as the ‘playground of the prairies’ – a phrase that specifically drew out the contrast between iconic (but incorrect) flat, dry, treeless prairie south with the rolling, wet, and tree-ful boreal north. The park was little more than a rather arbitrary slice of boreal forest (originally a forest reserve) and the national park planners were actually rather appalled – it wasn’t a ‘natural’ park with noticeable boundaries or features (i.e. mountains). But, it was accessible wilderness, meaning you could, with perseverance and good luck, get there in a car and while there, enjoy some camping, fishing, canoeing and boating, hiking, dancing at the pavilion and eating ice cream. Hence the term, ‘playground of the prairies.’

Today, Prince Albert National Park establishes its environmental credentials as protecting a ‘slice’ of the boreal forest”

Grasslands National Park, officially designated in 2001 after almost 50 years of lobbying efforts, uses a similar environmental rationale: “Grasslands National Park of Canada has been established to preserve and present a representative portion of the Canadian mixed grass prairie ecosystem”

Those that study park history know of the lobbying efforts it takes to establish a park. In the case of Grasslands, much of the energy focused once more on the contrast between Saskatchewan’s boreal north and prairie south: why isn’t there a park to protect the natural prairie? We have a park in the boreal north; there should be a park in the prairie south. This is a cultural, spiritual, and economic landscape of keen importance to Canadian history, and some remnant of it should be protected.

Wheat fields at Weyburn, Sk. September 2009. Photo by Merle Massie
Wheat fields at Weyburn, Sk. September 2009. Photo by Merle Massie

What the creation of Grasslands reinforced is a provincial identity of space, place, beauty and home that encompasses all of its landscapes, defiantly and proudly including the one that is most denigrated elsewhere. The last word is for one of the anonymous commenters to CBC:

Sk.isn’t pretty, ya right. Have they ever traveled through the Qu’Appelle Valley, the Frenchman River Valley, the Cypress Hills, the Grassland park, the northern forests with the thousands of lakes, watched the sun set over the prairie landscape, watched the northern lights dance their magic across the northern skies, the abundance of wild flowers and wild life, listen to the Coyotes sing, etc. etc. Yes, so far Sk. isn’t a concrete jungle, let’s hope it stays that way.



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Merle Massie

Adjunct Professor at University of Saskatchewan
A writer, editor, historian, and farmer in west central Saskatchewan. Avid social media fan, cloud watcher, snow shovel wielder, reader.

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