Baja, Bombay, Barbados. Everyone's been somewhere exotic
this Christmas. Well, I went somewhere exotic, too. And you'll
happily poke fun of me, though you've probably never been
I went home. Home to that unnaturally rectangular province
in the middle of the Canadian map whose borders, drawn without
reference to any natural features, make us the largest skating
rink in the world every February.
Where? people ask me when I travel. Saska
? How do you
If you're from Saskatchewan, you come to expect the bewilderment
when you travel.
For the first 17 years of my life, I was a Saskabilly. A
hick. Part of an endangered Canadian cultural tribe. You'll
find a member of this rural people in every square kilometre
of Saskatchewan, though you'll have to look carefully, because
most have been forced to move to cities. They are easily spotted
near bungalow farmhouses, Kinsmen sports grounds and Tim Hortons
In 1998, I left the province to travel and study. It seemed
obvious at the time that there were other, perhaps more CV-worthy
places to be than my Prairie home, so I escaped. I indulged
in the merriment of the world, through volunteer work and
post-secondary study. I happily wandered and forgot about
being a Saskabilly.
But this Christmas it occurred to me - Saskatchewan is as
exotic a travel destination as any. A place every Saskabilly
should be proud to call home.
Saskatchewan is in my blood. I come from an ersatz-Hollywood
travel story of people immigrating - would you believe - to
Saskatchewan. My great-grandmother Elizabeth Suppes came to
Canada in 1906 from a German colony living in Russia under
the rule of Catherine the (not so) Great. The unfulfilled
promise of Soviet farmland forced these migrants to set their
sights across the Atlantic.
Elizabeth arrived incognito. She and her brother travelled
under false identities, pretending to be a married couple.
They settled in Rhein, Saskatchewan, a German community near
Elizabeth and her husband (not her brother) had seven children.
When Elizabeth was widowed in 1920 after a flu epidemic, her
eldest son Henry (my grandfather Pa) took over their homestead,
and successfully farmed in the area for 60 years. Elizabeth
lived until she was nearly 100. Saskatchewan is her final
I often ask myself: If my great-grandmother went to such lengths
to get here, why was I so keen to leave? Why was this province
good enough for her but not good enough for me?
First, most people outside Canada, worldly as they may be,
have never heard of Saskatchewan. Travel anywhere, and you'll
inevitably come across some affably inquisitive local who
wants to know where you're from. Canada won't do - they want
details. The irony is that most foreigners have only heard
of Toronto, which means that unless you're from there they
will have no idea where you're talking about. So you're faced
with the choice of either deceitfully saying you're from Toronto,
or getting caught in a long-winded description of where you
do live, how remote it is, and its proximity to Toronto.
Second, Saskatchewan is reputed as flat, treeless and farmer-flooded.
Saskabillies know this isn't true, but the view from the Trans-Canada
highway might just fool you.
I've been away from home for a long time. And I admit, I've
ridiculed Saskatchewan more than once. I've frowned at Ukrainian
buffets and fish T-shirts. I've scorned refills of watered-down
coffee. I've mocked everything from rusted half-ton trucks
to the old cronies that drove them down Main at 18 km/h.
But the light went on this Christmas - being a Saskabilly
really ain't so bad. We seek out simple pleasures and, like
people in rural communities all over the world, unpretentiously
live full lives, with memories and scars to prove it.
Children grow up believing the entire world is just like Saskatchewan.
They drive for hundreds of kilometres to see an orthodontist.
They can't wait for the snow to melt and the road to dry up
so they can ride their bikes. They pine for the fair to come
to town so they can eat fuzzy beehives of pink cotton candy
and throw it up on the Zipper.
Teenagers have bush parties despite Arctic weather conditions
and listen to fibrillating rock blaring from trucks: "T-N-T!
I'm dy-no-mite!" They make out in the undergrowth with
other pimply teenagers. They throw beer bottles at road signs
and steal toilet paper from outhouses to decorate campgrounds.
Adults work in fields, government offices and hospitals. They
shop at Wal-Mart and coo at the latest candle party doodad.
They sit languidly in front of rented videos identifying with
the make-believe conflicts of make-believe characters in make-believe
worlds. They play slo-pitch and barbeque. They talk politics.
Seniors totter cautiously over thick ice into the local post
office, and compare proud notes on their grandchildren, now
in Ottawa, Calgary, Vancouver. The men sit on coffee row at
the local Chinese restaurant in baseball caps, talking about
the price of grain. The women quilt and cater to funerals.
Many never leave that main drag, chicken-strips-and-fries
But as I grow older, I recognize Saskatchewan's charm. The
checkerboard view from the plane. Chokecherry jelly. Giant
zucchinis that people will give you to take home. All-you-can-eat
fowl suppers. Thunderstorms you can see coming for hours.
Spring-fed northern lakes and crying loons. Unlocked houses
and running cars. Doilies.
Saskatchewan is as exotic as any Christmas destination. Maybe
my great-grandmother knew that.
The Saskabilly lifestyle will grow into the soil of your soul
like the giant rhubarb patch in the backyard, even when it
hasn't rained all summer. The blessed rectangle where I grew
up may never be the world's most popular destination, but
that is its very essence. Saskatchewan is like the person
who observes quietly in the shadows at the party, who never
makes loud jokes but is the one you end up falling in love
You may say I'm a hypocrite. After all, I don't live there.
Well, you're right. I'm still an unfulfilled globetrotter.
For now I choose babysitting over motherhood.
But I do enjoy visiting home, and had a brilliant time with
my Saskabilly kin this Christmas.
Although Saskatchewan might not be on your top ten list of
exotic places to go before you die, maybe there will come
a time when you'll drop in on our giant skating rink. And
maybe, just maybe, there will come a time when I'll go home
- and stay.
is in constant motion.