Thanks to a tight-knit community determined to make their town whole again, the small Canadian city of Saskatoon made the New York Times’ ’52 places to go in 2018′ list. Kristin Kent goes for a look.
Saskatoon has never been on my list of places to go. In fact, I’d wager no Canadian in history has ever said, “Saskatoon, man, I have to get there someday!” So why, in 2018, am I hearing so much buzz about it?
Once a city to run away from, the kids are now coming back. Culture is brewing. The music is getting louder. The art, more experimental. Young chefs, brewers and distillers are using hyper-local ingredients you’ve never heard of: Mis-ask-wat-o-mina. See?
“It’s an embarrassment of riches for a city this size,” says Shawn Moen, co-owner of 9 Mile Legacy, Saskatoon’s first nanobrewery in the revitalized Riversdale neighborhood. “And there’s very little bullshit, we’re authentically friends with each other,” he says of the multicultural and socioeconomically diverse community.
Both he and his business partner left established careers to pursue their brewing ambitions—and they’re not alone in their wild-eyed pursuits. This city is teeming with big dreamers who are making a mark and reshaping the town, the largest in the western Canadian province of Saskatchewan.
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Riversdale was the center of illicit commerce with a 42 per cent vacancy rate. Drug use, prostitution and violence were the norm. Two seedy hotels sat across the street from each other. “It was like a war zone, you didn’t want to risk driving into that crosswalk and getting stopped at a red light,” adds Randy Pshebylo, the unofficial mayor of the neighborhood, who I meet by chance while parking the car. Around 2005, fed-up residents started to engage. One of the hotels was bulldozed. Locals lobbied for the same services other parts of the city received, such as beautification projects. “We think we’re worth it,” says Pshebylo.
Later that night, I meet chef Christie Peters at Primal, one of her restaurants in town. I can’t help notice the feathery, four-inch-heeled shoes she’s wearing as she marches up to greet her guests. Peters tells me she knew her neighborhood could be great. “The river’s right there and it’s absolutely gorgeous. Who has waterfront like this?” she says. “I looked to bigger cities for inspiration. In Gastown [a neighborhood in Vancouver] I saw needle exchange places next to fine dining restaurants. And it works.”
This excitement of the ‘for local by locals’ movement is palpable, and everywhere I go. Neighbors cheering on neighbors for being badass in their respective crafts.
Peters found an abandoned Chinese restaurant with all the fixings still inside, from tables and chairs to trinkets and tea cups. She kept everything, including the gold dragon wallpaper, and soon opened The Hollows, a nose-to-tail concept to the extreme; she even boils down animal fats to make soaps for both her restaurant and the vintage shop above it. “It took me a month to get the cigarette smoke off the walls,” she tells me as I tuck into her must-try dandelion fritters.
Saskatoon, where just 250,000 people live, is known as The Paris of The Prairies, for its winding river and seven bridges. It is also in the province of Saskatchewan, the breadbasket of Canada, with 44 per cent of Canada’s farmland. I’m a mountain girl and this is my first time in The Land of Living Skies—the nickname given to Saskatchewan in honor of the provinces famed sunsets, sunrises, auroras and cloud formations. As I walk with grain farmer and distiller John Cote, owner of Black Fox and Farm Distillery, I can’t help take a moment to admire the endless colorful fields and the piercing sound of silence. “Our gin finances are whiskey habit, and our flowers finance our gin,” says Cote, as he plunks what looks to be a flattened blueberry into my hand. “It’s a haskap, try it,” he says. I do, and I’m soon thinking of ways I can smuggle a caseload of the creamy-sweet berries back home with me.
For lunch, I head to the Local Kitchen, a food incubator where cooking classes are held. Here, I meet Jenni Schrenk, an indigenous chef who forages many of the ingredients she serves. She pushes my palate another way. On today’s menu is coyote mint, pickled cattails and Labrador tea. “I call it field to shield cooking,” she says. “Until recently most people here didn’t even know what lentils were,” she says, noting Saskatchewan is an export economy. “But now people are trying things and saying, ‘wow, I didn’t know this was in my backyard.’” This excitement of the ‘for local by locals’ movement is palpable, and it’s everywhere I go, with neighbors cheering on neighbors for being badass in their respective crafts. Take Adam Finn, the master cobbler and owner of Last Shoes, who I meet that afternoon when I pop into his shop to have a look at his wares. Finn mastered his craft in Montreal but chose to open his store in Saskatoon. “People here really appreciate quality. I can’t imagine running a business in another city,” he says.
As I’m admiring one of the many street art murals in the city, this one painted onto Drift Sidewalk Café, a wide-smiling girl riding a one wheel catches my attention. To my surprise, she waves and rides on over; we’re soon chatting about Saskatoon.
Hip hop within the First Nations community here is supercharged. Eekwol, a veteran in Canadian hip hop originally from Muskoday First Nation, holds claim to being the first solo, female, Indigenous rapper in the nation.
Turns out, Amy Holowach is the proud owner of the café, but she also plays a kick-drum strapped to a harness à-la-marching-band as part of a nine-piece hip hop troupe. This, I have to see. “It’s conscious hip hop, so music with a positive message,” she tells me. “There’s a core group of hip hop heads here, and the music has really changed.”
She tells me people started waking up to injustices and instead of just fighting like they used to do, they started engaging. “It became a beautiful thing instead of a struggle,” she says. Hip hop within the First Nations community here is supercharged. Eekwol, a veteran in Canadian hip hop originally from Muskoday First Nation, holds claim to being the first solo, female, Indigenous rapper in the nation. She encourages Indigenous peoples to embrace their identities, which is happening more and more.
About 10 per cent of the population in the province is First Nations. Canada is currently pursuing a journey in truth and reconciliation. Much work is yet to be done but there are signs of progress.
I meet 22-year-old Honey Constant at Wanuskewin Heritage Park, where Indigenous peoples thrived some 1,500 years ago. She uses terms like “before contact” to describe life before Europeans. Now, the park showcases a rotating crop of contemporary artists who exhibit powerful works, like a decolonizing tool kit or stop motion films that dig into a storied past. Conversations through art continue across the city in places like the AKA Artist-Run, PAVED Arts, and brand new The Remai Modern, a $100-million contemporary museum so grand the New York Times put Saskatoon on its list of 52 places to visit in 2018.
Shawn Moen from 9 Mile Legacy was right, there is an embarrassment of riches here. Most of all, the open-hearted movers and shakers who call this place home. They’re an endearing bunch who use words like “supper” instead of dinner, and terms like “bunny hugs” for jumpers (or hoodies in Canada). They’re just so darn nice. “I have a theory that if you weren’t nice to your neighbor in Saskatoon, back in the day you’d just die,” says Peters, from the Hollows. “We need to depend on our neighbors.”