“Saska-where?” was a common refrain when I mentioned I was heading to Saskatchewan. Located in central Canada, landlocked yet with over 100,000 lakes, this prairie land is home to the Grasslands National Park and serves a unique place in Canada’s geography and history.
I flew direct from Heathrow to Calgary with Westjet, then transferred to Saskatoon. Calgary airport has grown since my last visit but Saskatoon remains a small city airport where your luggage appears on one of only two luggage belts.
On my first morning in Saskatoon I opened my hotel curtains at the downtown boutique Alt hotel and caught my first glimpse of the autumn colours and the early morning sun glinting across the South Saskatchewan River which carves it way across the prairies from the Canadian Rockies.
Ah, Canada! It always delivers on a view.
The river has long acted as a ‘gathering point’ and today attracts water- skiers, anglers, paddle-boarders, canoe groups and rowing teams.
Paris of the Prairies
With eight bridges, Saskatoon its often referred to as ‘Paris of the Prairies’, a fact revealed to me as I dined at the relaxed POP (Paris of the Prairies) wine bar, which serves natural wines from around the world, New Brunswick Oysters, inventive tomato dishes from the chefs’ own gardens and Pickerel, a local lake fish.
The Indigenous Corridor starts in Saskatoon and offers a variety of ways to experience the province’s mix of cuisine, culture, history, wildlife, views and people.
I headed to Wanuskewin, an Indigenous gathering site for over 6,000 years.
Remains older than the Egyptian pyramids have been found here.
Visitors learn about the Tipi Teachings gifted to the site by Elder Mary Lee, and what the 13 or 15 poles represent, with the plains tipi being a portable conical structure that is covered with bison hides.
I walked down onto the valley floor, which is cut into a deep rift. Through the eyes of an Indigenous guide I learnt how the trembling aspen provides sunscreen and a baking powder substance, whilst its leaves can forecast weather. Hawthorn serves as sewing needles; the bull rush provides flour and medicine; Rosehip is a major source of Vitamin C and Wolf Willow seeds can be dried and used for adornment.
The topography here is suited to the ‘bison jump’, which in times gone by saw families and communities gather to see Bison herded over a cliff. Women and children waited at the bottom of the cliff to ‘process’ the meat, bones and hides.
One hunt would supply foods and material to survive the long winters. But first settlers decimated the bison, reducing a 30 million population down to just 1,000 by the late 1800s – and in the process separated Indigenous peoples from a vital food source and part of their heritage.
Visit today for a glimpse of how Plains Indigenous people lived. The newly introduced bison herd in the paddock is among the initiatives designed to reunite Indigenous people with their bison culture.
The galleries explain the history and traditions and also showcase modern Indigenous works by young artists.
Indigenous history is not easy to take on board and takes a fair brain bandwidth to take in. The treaties that were signed are not all the same across the country (the Canadian government recognises 70 historic treaties signed between 1701–1923). Some communities didn’t sign, and to this day Indigenous peoples must carry a driving licence type card identifying their Indian status should they wish to reap the benefits the status bestows.
New local operators are developing packages – like Pêmiska Tourism which offers ATV trails across Indigenous land and six cute A-frame winterized cabins for four, with fat bikes, canoes, snowshoes and cross-country skies available.
At Fort Carlton, a replica of a former Hudson Bay Fort, I enjoyed Indigenous and Métis dancing and a dinner of goose bites, elk and Bannock bread pudding.
Wrapped up in bison blankets and next to an open fire, we listened to story telling against a backdrop of coyote howls – a welcome moment for some calm reflection.
Métis you ask?
Métis are the bloodline from the ‘first contact’ Europeans who married Indigenous wives. They have their own language, called Michif, which is a cross of Cree and French, and also learnt to dance with steps lifted straight from a Scottish Highland fling.
Watching enthusiastic youngsters jigging to a frenzy of footwork and frenetically fast fiddle music put a smile on my face.
Driving out on to the plains to the National Historic site of Batoche I felt as if I was in a 180-degree snow globe: one minute clouds bubbled up at the periphery on the horizon and the next they loomed like a space ship directly the river view.
Batoche is a site of the Métis resistance of 1885 and explains what happened between Louis Riel and his men, and the Canadian government soldiers (you will need to Google that!). The church and rectory are still there and open to visitors and you get a good sense of life out on the plains in 1885.
The migrating geese were starting their annual journeys down south and were gathering out on the river; we strolled around the nearby graveyard, sensing the hand of history on this site.
Dakota Dunes Resort
Dakota Dunes Resort is owned and run by the Dakota White Cap First Nation; it is designed in a more contemporary style and with a Chief White Cap graphic on its walls.
From here I had a go at some Indigenous games, which were first crafted to help hone the skills needed out on the plains.
Our young host Wyatt taught me some basic lacrosse skills and later danced for our group by the light of the full moon in his full regalia, his face marked with red lines and bursting with pride for his culture and traditions.
My stay coincided with Canada’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, which falls on September 30. In Saskatoon the event is marked with a march through the city (with everyone wearing orange t-shirts) before ending in Victoria Park on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River.
Indigenous elders, the city mayor and locals of all ages, gathered to mark the day.
Later, out at the SaskTel Stadium, I visited the Pow Wow and watched and heard the joyous jingle jangle of all different types of colourful regalia, from the traditional to the more modern Jingle Dress.
The Inter-tribal dance was a feast of patterns, colours, ribbons, and feathers.
As for reconciliation? It is challenging and an imperfect journey. However, I hope I can play my own small part in helping travellers understand the joy and pleasure of meeting Indigenous people and learning something of their culture and history.