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 Moose Jaw to Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan

Exhausted from days of driving, Louise and I arrived into Moose Jaw and made a beeline for the geothermal mineral pool…where time and any sense of urgency slipped away from us. That alone was worth visiting town for, and it seems that plenty of families and couples from nearby Regina had the same idea.

But aside from being a getaway for Reginans, Moose Jaw is a pretty cool town in its own right. Though small and compact, Main St downtown is picturesque with beautiful historical buildings, murals, and tree carvings in the nearby parks. Outside of downtown, well, there’s Mac the Moose and a cute little burrowing owl centre dedicated to the pop can-sized birds that take over gopher holes.

Its branch of the Western Development Museum, which we didn’t have time to visit, is dedicated to planes, trains, and automobiles, and that legacy lives on. Formerly an important rail junction between the Canadian Pacific Railroad’s cross-country Dominion line and its Soo Line heading southeast to Chicago, there’s a grand train station too…which is now a grand liquor store. Well, at least there’s still the planes: Moose Jaw’s home to the Canadian Air Force’s famed aerobatics team, the Snowbirds. We were lucky enough to see them on a lark, practicing in formation right above us.

What it’s currently most famous for, however, is what’s underground.
(content warning: trauma)

In the 1920s, during America’s Prohibition on the sale and production of alcohol, bootleggers took over the utility tunnels running underneath downtown a stone’s throw from the railway station. They became an easy place to produce, hide, and smuggle alcohol into the States… and also the site of some debauchery: gambling, prostitution, and the like. While never officially confirmed, it was an open secret that infamous American mob boss Al Capone had a presence in Moose Jaw, shuttling back and forth from Chicago, bribing politicians and the entire police force.

Who knows what really went on, but the Tunnels of Moose Jaw are now a fun tour where guests are initiated as recruits into Capone’s business and shown around recreated hidden speakeasies and secret passageways by costumed performers. (I can’t spoil what happens!) I’m assuming all of this was a tamer, less…violent version of reality, and that there are probably a lot more secret tunnels than the sanitized versions we saw.

We liked Moose Jaw more than Regina, which turned into a half-day trip tacked on at the very end on our way to Saskatoon airport! (I’m just skipping ahead here.) It’s the capital city: there’s Canada’s largest legislative building, built so in anticipation of a population rush that didn’t happen. And it’s surrounded by the sprawling Wascana Park with its large man-made lake. Those were cool. Downtown, in comparison, didn’t offer us much aside from a nice beer over lunch, so we spent the rest of our time at the RCMP Heritage Centre, detailing both the force’s history and also the grueling six-month process all recruits from across the country go through at the national academy (“depot”) here in Regina.

While skipping Regina from Moose Jaw, we drove what would normally be a scenic route to the Qu’Appelle Valley. Unfortunately, the reality of this incredibly tough year for Saskatchewan made itself quite apparent: wildfire smoke from both BC and northern Saskatchewan has shrouded much of our trip, but especially this drive. It’s been a record-breaking hot and dry summer in all of Western Canada: the Qu’Appelle River and many others are but a trickle, the grass and wheat fields are short, much of the ground is parched and cracked, and there’s also a plague of grasshoppers and crickets due to lack of percipitation. With little grass, there’s a hay shortage leading to a massive cull of cattle, and impending increases to food prices in the next year. Back at the Reesor Ranch, one of their staff told me that they typically expect a yield of 150 bushels an acre; this year it’s down to 5. That’s not even the worst it’s ever been: 2015 produced zero. These events have been happening with depressingly increasing frequency as a clear result of climate change.

Speaking of the ranch, we were invited by Curtis, another guest there, to come stay at his home by Katepwa Lake, one of the four Calling Lakes — Pasqua, Mission, Echo, and Katepwa — surrounding the regional centre of Fort Qu’Appelle. Descendant of farm owners himself (as it seems like for virtually every second person we met in Saskatchewan), he mentions how small family farms just can’t compete in this landscape of boom/bust cycles, as costs for them are already upwards of $1 million a year, and there’s only so much insurance can do. And hence, wide-scale industrial farming dominates, but this puts multitudes of small producers in jeopardy.

His own career though wasn’t farming, but as a former officer of the Regina Police Service (RPS). Now semi-retired and living by the lake an hour away from Regina, he took us on a tour around the area. Gorgeous despite the smoke, it’s an area that defies expectations, of beautiful deep lakes surrounded by tall hills creating the echoes that give the valley its name (Qu’Appelle being “who’s calling?” in French, translated from “kâ-têpwêt?” in Cree). There’s a ski hill around, home of local Olympic medallist snowboarder Mark McMorris; professional practice involves high-speed launches from giant elastics. And given Curtis and his family’s hobbies, surfing seems to be another popular local activity as well, done by boats creating the perfect wave behind. Off-roading too: Louise had a blast driving his giant convertible Jeep around, and there’s plenty of terrain to do so!

The demographics here are also hard to pin down: the beaches are full of multicultural families making weekend getaways from Regina, yes, but billionaires have homes around the lake, and the Queen herself stays at one of them when she’s in the province. At the same time, lakeview homes are as cheap as $60,000 (yes, that number isn’t missing any zeroes!), and areas of richesse abut glaringly decrepit ones: local First Nations reserves. Unable to legally own property on their reserves as a result of the still-intact Indian Act of 1876, stewardship and development remain significant hurdles left to the inertia of band councils rather than any enterprising individuals.

As part of his long and varied tenure in the RPS, including literally writing the course on how to treat child exploitation victims and interview pedophiles, about 15 years ago, Curtis spent time interviewing residential school survivors. The worldwide headlines coming out now come as no surprise to him: hundreds or thousands of dead children in unmarked mass graves across Canada (only found now after some First Nations self-funded searches with ground-penetrating radar, after decades of futilely trying to get government attention), physical and sexual abuse, disease, and the stripping of language and culture deemed inferior, all perpetuated and covered up by a Catholic Church still unwilling to apologize. There were plenty of these schools in Saskatchewan too, but one is particularly notorious.

From the outside, the tiny village of Lebret looks straight out of a storybook. A church by the lake dominates a small square, and the opposing hill, lined with giant crosses, provides a spectacular viewpoint. I wouldn’t have been any the wiser until I noticed the small orange handprints everywhere on the church doors and on the stairs up to the hill. Curtis filled in the details for us: Lebret was home to the last residential school in Canada, which closed in 1998.

Survivors and their descendants are currently searching for remains as well. Next to the church, there’s a cemetery with a statue of priest embracing two indigenous children. Yikes. That statue’s been toppled. But as Curtis notes, it’s not the church cemetery where unmarked remains are expected to be found; far more sinister than that, there’s compelling reason to suspect that in Lebret, dead children were dumped into the lake. The residential school itself is no longer accessible, a condemned building on the adjacent reserve bisected by the railroad which brought boxcars full of indigenous children from far away, separated from their families purely on racial grounds. The legacy lives on not just in intergenerational trauma, but in physical reminders.

This was a strange way to end a trip — on a story left hanging playing out in real time, with some heavy facts, yet at ease with Curtis’s hospitality and company. We greatly appreciated all he had to share with us, from lighthearted anecdotes and family stories, to explaining all the weird things we saw and didn’t understand around the province, to various food and drink and activity recommendations, and most of all for warmly welcoming us strangers in after all but a few minutes of conversation at the ranch. But we also truly appreciated having a public servant’s perspective and a sobering explanation on what’s going on below the surface, the system in place, and its continuing effects. There’s a long, long way to reach the justice and true reconciliation needed for closure.

On our last long drive back to Saskatoon, the smoke finally cleared up. Behind the wheel at the time, I could only marvel at the incredibly dynamic storm clouds passing over us, that which the prairies are known for in the summer. At least the sky’s last scene at the airport gave us an ending.

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