Saskatchewan — History and Culture
Contrary to their reputation as a rural wheat farming province, two-thirds of Saskatchewan citizens now live in cities. Regina and Saskatoon both boast plenty of culture with symphony orchestras, dance troupes, theater companies, and renowned art galleries. However, Saskatchewan’s pioneer farming past lives on at the 200+ heritage museums throughout the province.
Saskatchewan’s first people were the Dene, Algonquin, and Woodland Cree who lived in the northern section above the tree line. The Plains Cree, prairie buffalo hunters, were southern Saskatchewan’s dominant group.
In 1690, Englishman Henry Kelsey became the first documented European to set foot in Saskatchewan, 20 years after England claimed the territory as Hudson’s Bay Company land. Samuel Hearne was one of the first European explorers to communicate with northern Saskatchewan’s First Nations groups.
The first permanent settlement, Cumberland House, was not constructed until 1774. The Hudson’s Bay Company built the 1890’s powder house that stands in Cumberland House Provincial Park today as the main tourist attraction that was once one of the most important fur trading posts. Saskatchewan’s First Nations supplied furs and advice on surviving the region’s harsh climate to American and European traders in exchange for goods.
However, despite Saskatchewan’s thriving fur industry, the province remained sparsely populated until the 1880’s when the Canada Pacific Railway was constructed. The railway’s southern route ran through the unusually-named village of Pile O’ Bones, which later became Regina and was designated the capital of the newly created province of Saskatchewan in 1905.
The railway made it much easier to travel around the province, and an extensive immigration campaign brought new settlers from Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine. Most of these new settlers were attracted to Western Canada’s cheap land, but life in their new country was hard and many spent their first Saskatchewan winters in sod houses.
Boom and bust periods dominated Saskatchewan’s 20th century. Rising WWI wheat prices caused the economy to skyrocket, followed by an equally sudden crash after the war ended. The economy improved during the later period to the point where Moose Jaw became a significant smuggling point and gangster hideout during the Prohibition era. This fascinating time in history is depicted beneath the Tunnels of Moose Jaw (18 Main Street North, Moose Jaw).
By the end of the 1920’s, Saskatchewan ranked first among Canadian provinces in terms of per capita wealth, and was the country’s third most populous province after Ontario and Québec. However, the Great Depression and a prolonged drought soon ended this brief period of prosperity. Many wheat farmers had to abandon their homes and riots broke out in Regina and Estevan. Saskatchewan’s fortunes increased once again during WWII.
During the late 20th century, Saskatchewan evolved from a province, where two thirds of the population lived in rural farms in 1940, to one where two-thirds of its people lived in cities by 2011. These changing demographics were largely driven by advanced farming mechanization techniques and the reform of Cooperative Commonwealth Federation leader Tommy Douglas, who introduced old age pensions, unemployment insurance, universal healthcare, and many other innovations during his years as Saskatchewan’s premier, many of which spread to the rest of Canada by the 1960’s.
Today, Saskatchewan is in the middle of another boom period. Oil, uranium, and gas stand alongside wheat as the province’s most important industries. If you are interested in learning more about the area’s dramatic history, be sure to check out the Royal Saskatchewan Museum (2445 Albert Street, Regina).
The most famous depictions of Saskatchewan’s culture may lie within the pages of author WO Mitchell’s works, often compared to Mark Twain for their depiction of young boys growing up in Canada’s rural center. Visitors can still experience traditional farm life at any of the province’s unique pioneer heritage museums. Paul Kane’s paintings of Western Canadian landscapes helped attract many of Saskatchewan’s immigrant farmers to this new land.
Today, Saskatchewan is a modern, largely urban, and rapidly-growing province filled with cultural activities like the symphony orchestras and dance companies, within its two major cities. Many First Nations groups have managed to preserve their own renowned music, crafting, and Pow-wow dancing. One of Canada’s most popular sitcoms, Corner Gas, is set in a small town Saskatchewan gas station, which airs in more than 25 countries around the world.