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Arts and Culture

By: Ken Mitchell

At the time of its creation in 1905, the province of Saskatchewan was considered as alien to the development of arts as the surface of the moon. With a provincial economy based on agricultural production and resource extractions such as petroleum, forestry and minerals, the “square” province seemed a very unlikely base for the development of artistic sensibility or belles-lettres. But geography, as well as history, is an eccentric determinant of culture, and it appears that this most inhospitable of climates and most challenging of landscapes have produced an artistic harvest that in a scant hundred years has made Saskatchewan home to a most original and lively regional culture. By “culture” is meant that massive assembly of beliefs, histories, languages, and commonly held values that forms the collective consciousness (and unconsciousness) of a society—a sort of conceptual glue that binds any given group of people together. Over time, such a culture can be studied, and through analysis will define and explain the particular nature of that society, the traits and values which give it distinction. Culture is both highly abstract, being composed of evanescent ideas, attitudes, opinions, and beliefs, and reassuringly tangible, as when it is rendered through books, works of art, and Architecture of stone, metal and wood. Culture is the GDP of ideas, the “cultural capital” which becomes the heritage of its citizens—sometimes valued, sometimes not—and provides the foundational knowledge they depend on to pursue their social and material goals. Culture is what people rely on to give them context as they establish individual identity and moral purpose; it is the DNA of social evolution. Most of it is transmitted through language, but much of it is visual and tactile as well. 

The people who inhabited and developed this semi-arid region of North America brought with them diverse elements of their own cultural heritage from elsewhere: the Aboriginal peoples of First Nations; the early French and Scots settlers who initiated the massive migration of European land-seekers; and finally the international refugees of the latter 20th century who came as “displaced persons,” political refugees, boat people, and economic migrants seeking a better life in the Canadian heartland. This hodge-podge of various cultural roots can become dissonant and conflict-ridden, or it can be hybridized, with new and marvelous patterns of rich variety: this happy process has been true of Canada generally, but becomes even more specific in Saskatchewan. Because this portion of the original North-West Territories was largely an agricultural preserve, whose initial appeal was mainly to those who herded animals or tilled the soil, it should not be surprising that the land itself, and human relationship with that land, would become one of the strongest themes in the mosaic pattern of beliefs. Of course, in most Canadian literature the landscape plays a dominant role, and reference to that landscape—whether in the oil paintings of the Group of Seven, the balladeers of Newfoundland, or the totem poles of the West Coast Aboriginals—is what defines and illustrates a great deal of Canadian art. But there are many other themes and motifs which appear in a study of a national culture.

What is distinctive about Saskatchewan culture? First, it is informed by two unique geophysical features. The primary one is the flatness of the prairie landscape, particularly in the southern half of the province; this is associated with the unrelieved horizontal plane of perception that exaggerates the intensity of the sky. As might be expected, this geographical feature, with its implications of openness and solitude, has left a distinct impression on the Saskatchewanian psyche. The second feature, no doubt related to the flatness, is its extreme climate, a Climate that rages through the seasons in crescendos of natural violence that include blizzards, droughts, Tornadoes, floods, dust-storms, frost, heat, and cataclysmic thunderstorms—a weather of constant and turbulent change. Nature in Saskatchewan is relentlessly threatening, and barely tolerant of human life. Such a landscape and climate naturally discouraged more people than it attracted, but many did become attracted as time went on. The people who sought their future in “The Land of Living Skies” were inclined to be enterprising groups and literal risk-takers, such as Sioux and Blackfoot hunting nomads from the south, Métis buffalo hunters from the Red River valley, or European colonists who arrived with visions of establishing utopian communities.

Extremities also interested people like the English explorer Henry Kelsey, the first European to set foot on the Great Plains. He arrived around 1690, traveling upriver from York Factory, the Hudson’s Bay Company post on the Hayes River, inland from the coast of Hudson Bay. It is perhaps significant that the introduction to his exploration journals was written in the form of a poem—in fact, the first known literary reference to the Saskatchewan plains:

…The inland country of good report hath been
By Indians but by English not yet seen
Therefore I on my journey did not stay
But making all ye haste I could upon our way
Gott on ye borders of ye Stone Indians country…
…And now will give account of that same country’s soil
Which hither part is very thick with wood
Affords small nuts with cherryes very good
Thus it continues till you leave the woods behind
And then you have beast of several kind
The one is a Black a Buffillo great
Another is an Outgrown Bear wch is good meat
His skin to get, I have used all ye ways I can
He is man’s food and he makes food of men
His hide they would not me it preserve
But said it was a god and they should starve
This plain affords nothing but Beasts and grass
And over it in three day’s time we past

Almost two centuries later, Kelsey’s poetic declaration was countermanded by the Irishman John Palliser, who was commissioned by the British government to explore the territory between the Red River and the Rocky Mountains, north of the 49th Parallel. Palliser was specifically instructed to report on the agricultural potential of the region, and his 1863 report to the British Parliament was emphatically negative (see Palliser and Hind Expeditions). He recommended against construction of a transcontinental railroad through western Canada, concluding that the desert-like terrain would never be fit for human settlement. The semi-arid grassland comprising most of southern Saskatchewan and Alberta came to be known as the “Palliser Triangle.” Fortunately for the future province, another Irishman, William Francis Butler, arrived in Red River as a military officer during the first Riel Rebellion, and was commissioned to report on trading posts along the Saskatchewan River as far as the Rocky Mountains. His winter journey of 2,700 miles was reported in his book, The Great Lone Land (1872), a classic of western exploration. His description of the “Prairie Ocean” set the tone for future waves of immigrants:

No ocean of water in the world can vie with its gorgeous sunsets; no solitude can equal the loneliness of a night-shadowed prairie: one feels the stillness, and hears the silence, the wail of the prowling wolf makes the voice of solitude audible, the stars look down through infinite silence upon a silence almost as intense… One saw here the world as it had taken shape and form from the hands of the Creator. Nor did the scene look less beautiful because nature alone tilled the earth, and the unaided sun brought forth the flowers.
Sir William Butler.
Saskatchewan Archives Board R-H8655

Butler was just one of the adventurous sojourners who contributed to the identity of Saskatchewan. Others of the 19th century whose literary or artistic endeavours became significant included Louis David Riel, the leader of the North-West Rebellion (see North-West Resistance), as well as Pioneer feminist and writer Kate Simpson Hayes and her lover, Nicholas Flood Davin. Davin was the silver-tongued orator, poet and politician who founded the first newspaper in the North-West Territories, the Regina Leader, in 1884. Many among this assortment of idealists, rogues and entrepreneurs saw themselves as risk-takers on a cosmic scale, conscious founders of a new society based on utopian and artistic visions, a human paradise made possible by the vacuity of the cultural atlas. Davin, for example, put Saskatchewan on the map in many ways, not only establishing the Regina Leader, but also becoming Regina’s first Member of Parliament, representing Assiniboia West. He was only one of many who made Saskatchewan’s a political culture. He was also the first poet published in the North-West.

By the late 19th century, the treeless prairie was being settled by dispossessed crofters from Scotland and “the men in sheepskin coats,” Doukhobors that the Canadian Minister of the Interior Clifford Sifton enticed from the steppes of Russia and Ukraine. The first settlers had to be very tough and adaptive people, mentally prepared to deal with the cruel logistics of human survival. Like the frontier territories in the United States, the Canadian Prairies saw their share of political extremists and social outcasts, such as the colonies of Jews, Mennonites and Hutterites who followed the Doukhobors, seeking communal land in a world of religious freedom where their collective Labour might pay off in material prosperity. The huge Eastern European influx (mostly Germans, Russians, and Ukrainians) brought not only tough, experienced farmers to grow Wheat and other cereal crops: it also carried Eastern Orthodox culture and values into the nascent social and political system of the province. These eastern values were to have a huge and long-lasting impact on the indigenous culture. In a somewhat different way, so did the Chinese immigrants who entered North America as coolie labourers on the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and moved on to Saskatchewan to operate the network of small-town cafés and laundries that became their livelihood. Various political and religious “colonies” were established by old-world migrants, such as Cannington Manor, the Saskatoon Temperance Colony and the Barr colonists from England. There were colonies of Swedes, Finns, Icelanders and Romanians, who arrived on their own little enclosure of “Promised Land,” bringing not only dreams of a new beginning for generations yet to come, but also esoteric cultures from the Old World. One of the best accounts of this contribution is in the book Slava Bohu, a history of the Doukhobor diaspora by J.F.C. Wright.

It seems natural that extreme climatic conditions can breed a culture of extremity, and might foster the evolution of extreme political ideas—and this turns out to be the case. It was evident along the

South Saskatchewan River in March 1885, when Riel and Gabriel Dumont declared the “Provisional Government of the Saskatchewan” at St. Laurent: based on the organizational principles of the buffalo hunt, this “republic” had already adopted a ten-point Revolutionary Bill of Rights to ensure equitable land distribution for farming among the Métis buffalo-hunters of the plains. The result was the North-West Rebellion and Riel’s trial and execution for treason. Other communitarian philosophies were introduced by European settler groups, to be forged in the crucible of adverse climate and geography. They resulted in the rapid development of radical political parties and movements, which came to characterize the province of Saskatchewan. The Captains of Industry, the Progressives, the Ku Klux Klan of Kanada, the Social Credit movement, United Farmers of Canada, the Saskatchewan-Farmer-Labour Group, and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) were all born on the prairies and usually centred in Saskatchewan, though shared with the sister provinces of Alberta and Manitoba. This stream of “prairie radicalism” was fed by diverse branches (right wing and left), and quickly came to define the social History of Saskatchewan, making it a “politics” deeply embedded in its culture.

Prince Albert Town Hall Opera: This building is one of the few 19th-century town halls still standing on the Prairies. Built in 1892-93, it housed a variety of facilities, including a theatre, large meeting room, and the town's municipal offices.
Bernard Flaman (Government of Saskatchewan, Heritage)

This historical development was related to, and perhaps dependent on, the populist convictions carried by early agricultural settlers such as the Doukhobors and Scottish crofters. Under adverse conditions, the tiny groups of settlers quickly proved in the most practical way that the strength of their community was greater than the strength of individual members. Barn-building and threshing bees, community entertainments, beef rings, and various other communal activities led to an intensification of community formation—and ultimately to early forms of Co-operatives such as the Grain Growers Grain Company and the Saskatchewan Co-operative Elevator Company. These agrarian movements progressed in 1923 to the creation of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, a remarkable farmers’ co-operative (organized by the charismatic American speaker Aaron Sapiro) that became the world’s largest agricultural co-operative and possibly the most successful. Many other Co-operatives were established, from the Dairy Producers Co-operative to the legendary Matador Ranch (see Matador Farming Pool and the Co-operative Farm Movement); and there was a great proliferation of credit unions across the province as an opposition to the banking system. Ultimately such collectivist social inclinations would (and did) lead to the formation of a grass-roots socialist party, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. The election of the CCF in 1944 introduced North America to its first socialist government. This mid-century milestone has come to be seen as a defining moment in Saskatchewan, if not Canadian, history, and has had the effect of projecting Saskatchewan and its culture as intensely political—the “home of socialism.” But in real terms, this was a “small-p” political, a collectivist identity whose strength lies in its social and community institutions. This was certainly the case in the arts, wherein Saskatchewan people came to rely on local resources and on art “made in Saskatchewan.” Entertainment in most communities was self-generated, rather than imported, so there was relatively little instruction or encouragement from the top down, or from external institutions and teachers. In an agricultural economy, there was little support for academies, art schools, or professional Theatre companies.

Yet many of these burgeoning prairie towns competed to plan and erect their own “Opera house,” determined as they were to take part in the development of high culture (see opera). These old heritage buildings remain in use in towns like Wolseley, Biggar and Hanley. They and dozens of others were home to a wide variety of touring musicians and theatre groups who enlivened the early years of Saskatchewan, bringing culture from the centres of civilization beyond the borders. The Chautauqua movement—a traveling “tent show” of arts and entertainment—introduced live music and recitation to hundreds of towns and villages, often incorporating local artists into the program. This was the most popular form of access to the performing arts in early Saskatchewan; it generated many talented artists who developed in later years. This highly democratic form of entertainment died out in the 1930s under the impact of radio and recording technology, which could more easily bring Music, theatre and comedy into rural living rooms.

Most of the small Farming towns and villages that blossomed throughout Saskatchewan in the pioneer years have perished in the last half-century. The industrializing economy and Transportation systems caused the demise of railway lines. Hundreds of little communities that survived even the Depression years—the Dirty Thirties so mythologized in Saskatchewan lore and history—have gone the way of the prairie Bison. But loyalty and commitment to the community have remained an important part of Saskatchewan culture. The strongest have survived and grown—little towns like Arcola and Livelong and Wynyard. That Saskatchewanians value their communities can be seen in the sheer volume of local histories published and circulated through the province’s extensive library system. Saskatchewan—“the heartland of Canadian football”—came to be so identified because of the unparalleled success and province-wide support for its community-owned team, the Saskatchewan Roughriders: Football became an important element of Saskatchewan culture.

The first historically significant arts group was probably the Regina Literary and Musical Society, initiated in the capital in 1885 by the peripatetic Kate Simpson Hayes. Only a year before, the village of tents and shacks was known as Pile of Bones Creek. Mrs. Simpson Hayes recruited troops from the North-West Mounted Police headquarters to perform as choristers in the operettas and musical concerts she produced. This fledgling group anticipated the formation of the Regina Orchestral Society, which presented its first concert in the city in 1908. The Regina Symphony Orchestra now makes the proud claim of being the oldest continually operating symphony orchestra in Canada. A second important agency, the Saskatchewan Music Festival Association, was also established in 1908, and the following year produced the first provincial music festival in Regina, featuring musical groups and Choirs from around the province. The annual festival then rotated to the other cities each year: Saskatoon, Moose Jaw, and Prince Albert. It turned out to have great influence on the development of musical arts in the coming years, so that there are now as many as fifty local festivals taking place each year, which send musicians from Saskatchewan to the national competition.

As for visual art, there was very little creative production in the early years of the century. Art exhibitions, where they occurred at all, were associated with agricultural exhibitions and fairs—even rodeos and horse sales. Prizes were

awarded for painting, photography and various crafts, with local artists producing work to appeal to the tastes and standards of their community, not for the critical audience in the centres of civilization. It should not be surprising that the subject and themes of such artistic creation would be focused on the agricultural landscape and on the human interaction associated with it. However, various folk arts like furniture making, weaving, quilting and woodworking—any craft that had a practical value—thrived.

The importance of geography in Saskatchewan culture is perhaps most easily demonstrated in the literary arts. The prairies of Saskatchewan were the setting for a number of Canada’s earliest writers, whose work became best-sellers. For example the evangelical novelist, Rev. Charles Gordon (nom de plume, Ralph Connor), wrote about the hard life of homesteaders in epics like The Sky Pilot: A Tale of the Foothills (1899) and The Patrol of the Sundance Trail (1914) while serving as a Presbyterian church minister in Winnipeg. Similarly, Nellie McClung, a Manitoba writer who became a champion of women’s rights, presented her populist views in Literature, particularly in her autobiographical Clearing in the West (1935). Her first novel, Sowing Seeds in Danny (1908), was an account of small-town prairie life that created a huge readership in Saskatchewan. Other Manitoba writers who popularized the agricultural settlement life on the prairies included Robert Stead with his impressive novel Grain (1926), depicting the life of the young farmer Gander Stake, and the German-born immigrant Frederick Philip Grove, with his epic accounts of agricultural survival on the prairies, Settlers of the Marsh (1925), Fruits of the Earth (1933), and his celebrated “autobiography” In Search of Myself (1946).

But one expatriate Saskatchewan writer had even greater influence on the cultural identity of the province: the American novelist Wallace Stegner, whose semi-autobiographical account Wolf Willow (1955) was “a history, a story, and a memory of the last plains frontier.” The book tells the history of the Cypress Hills area of southwestern Saskatchewan, in particular Stegner’s boyhood community of Eastend. This is how he describes the Saskatchewan landscape and its effect on people:

“Desolate? Forbidding? There was never a country that in its good moments was more beautiful. Even in drouth or dust storm or blizzard it is the reverse of monotonous, once you have submitted to it with all the senses. You don’t get out of the wind, but learn to lean and squint against it. You don’t escape sky and sun, but wear them in your eyeballs and on your back. You become acutely aware of yourself. The world is very large, the sky even larger, and you are very small. But also the world is flat, empty, nearly abstract, and in its flatness you are a challenging upright thing, as sudden as an exclamation mark, as enigmatic as a question mark.
It is a country to breed mystical people, egocentric people, and perhaps poetic people. But not humble ones. At noon the total sun pours on your single head; at sunrise or sunset you throw a shadow a hundred yards long. It was not prairie dwellers who invented the indifferent universe or impotent man. Puny you may feel there, and vulnerable, but not unnoticed. This is a land to mark the sparrow’s fall.” (p. 8, Wolf Willow, Viking Compass edition, 1962)

Similar insights mark the literary production of the province’s most-celebrated authors, W.O. MITCHELL and SINCLAIR ROSS. It is no exaggeration to refer to them as Saskatchewan’s literary giants, for by the mid-20th century their novels and short stories came to be seen as the ultimate expression of Saskatchewan culture.

James Sinclair Ross (1908–96) was the first native-born writer whose work reached an international audience. He is now best known for the short stories he wrote during the 1930s and 1940s, later gathered in the collection The Lamp at Noon and Other Stories (1968). These stories are dramatic tales which portray the brutalization and occasional human triumph of rural people beset by the hostile Saskatchewan landscape: in “The Painted Door” a young farmer dies in a blizzard; in “The Lamp at Noon” a young housewife goes mad in a dust-storm; in “A Field of wheat” a family survives a violent hail-storm. Ross’s influence on Canadian writing has been deep and pervasive, especially through his early novel As For Me and My House (1941), now recognized as a masterpiece of Canadian literature. The novel is a first-person diary account of a year in the life of Mrs. Bentley, a church minister’s wife, who with her husband Philip, a failed artist, experiences deep intellectual isolation in the fictional Saskatchewan village of Horizon during the drought of the 1930s. Among the many features of the book is the impact of the surrounding landscape on the lives of its people. For all its brilliant insights and critical acclaim, Ross’s work is little known to most Saskatchewan people. Although his short stories appear in international literary anthologies, there are no copies of his books on the library shelves of the town of Shellbrook, where he was born. After his death, however, the town of Indian Head, where he lived and attended school in the 1920s, commissioned a bronze statue by sculptor Joe Fafard and dedicated it to Ross. It stands in front of the Indian Head library.

W.O. Mitchell
Ormond Mitchell

William Ormond Mitchell, born in Weyburn in 1914, was a more popular literary figure than Ross, and for the last half of the 20th century was the voice of Saskatchewan. His reputation came about largely through his series of farm-life stories Jake and the Kid, first written for CBC Radio, later published and then adapted as a popular television series. Mitchell had a gift for reconstructing Saskatchewan dialect in comic modes, and became perhaps better known as a public storyteller than as a writer. Nevertheless, his first novel, Who Has Seen the Wind (1947), was a literary gem, extensively reprinted in many editions and widely taught in the educational system. It is a beautifully written account of a boy growing up in a small town and coming to grips with the mysteries of life and death. Like Ross, Mitchell made poetic use of the prairie environment, and in the opening words of the novel wrote, “Here was the least common denominator of nature, the skeleton requirements simply, of land and sky—Saskatchewan prairie.” Mitchell and Ross were, of course, expatriate Saskatchewanians by the time their work was published. Although he had left Saskatchewan as a young man, W.O. Mitchell occasionally returned from Toronto and High River, Alberta, to conduct writing workshops for the Saskatchewan Arts Board. Ross lived mostly in Montreal, later in Greece and Spain, though he continued to write primarily about his Saskatchewan background.

Other important authors of the mid-century included R.D. (Bob) Symons, an Englishman who immigrated to become a cowboy and wrote several accounts of ranch life, such as Where the Wagon Led. Edward McCourt, a well-published novelist and professor of English at the University of Saskatchewan, wrote an important book on regional literature, The Canadian West in Fiction (1949), as well as three novels set in Saskatchewan. The best, Music at the Close (1947), is a tragic account of a young farmer who goes to university, becomes a poetic member of “the lost generation,” and dies on the beaches of Normandy in World War II. Saskatchewan literature and its preoccupation with the landscape were effectively illustrated and satirized by Paul Hiebert, a University of Manitoba professor and writer. He created Sarah Binks, the “Sweet Songstress of Saskatchewan,” a tongue-in-cheek biography of the fictitious young woman who proclaimed the farming society’s enthusiasm for poetry and other high culture.

Visual art began making its impact with the emergence of a number of landscape artists who had emigrated from Europe, most with some degree of classical training. These included Augustus Kenderdine, Inglis Sheldon-Williams, Illingworth Kerr, James Henderson, and the Austrian-born Ernest Lindner. Also working in Saskatchewan in the early years was the “primitive” folk artist Jan Wyers, from his home in Windthorst. These early painters were patronized to a great extent by the wealthy collector Norman MacKenzie, a Regina lawyer whose legacy to the city and the province led to the first Public Art gallery, established in 1953 at Regina College (see MacKenzie Art Gallery). This important institution was matched in Saskatoon by the (equally wealthy) philanthropist and art collector Fred Mendel in 1964, when he helped the Saskatoon Arts Centre build the Mendel Art Gallery. MacKenzie mostly collected landscape painting, a genre that dominated his legacy. In one letter, he said “…you will remember that in marine scenes I like storms, and in landscapes I like rugged heavy pictures, not the little delicate shrubs, grass and Trees that you so often see…” The early painters of Saskatchewan all worked in this tradition. Their paintings tended to reflect, as they did for later generations, the powerful effect of the dominant sky and its spectacular flood of light. They had a great influence on the style and quality of subsequent painting, which tended to emerge from the art programs at the University of Saskatchewan and Regina College (see University of Regina). Sheldon-Williams taught painting at Regina College from 1913 to 1917; Kenderdine taught art at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon from 1927 to 1936, when he moved to the expanded Art Department at Regina College; and Lindner was hired in 1936 as head of the Art Department at the Saskatoon Technical Institute and had a wide-ranging effect on the development of local artists.

Chautauqua at Manitou Lake, July 1922
Saskatchewan Archives Board R-A4657

Following the decline of touring repertory companies and traveling shows, the amateur “little theatre” movement began developing in the major cities and towns of Saskatchewan. They were probably influenced and encouraged by the Chautauqua community tent shows that were popular in the 1920s. The Saskatoon Little Theatre was established in 1922, and Regina Little Theatre in 1926; the latter still produces full seasons of drama, making it the oldest continuously operating amateur theatre in Canada. Soon smaller towns and even villages were creating their own theatrical entertainments as the province’s “do-it-yourself” culture grew through the Depression years. They were supported by the Saskatchewan Drama League (formed in 1933), backed by the University of Saskatchewan. The university itself, located in Saskatoon, created the first drama department at a Canadian university in 1946. Theatre Saskatchewan, the amateur theatre umbrella organization, currently has 86 member groups scattered throughout the province.

With these developments in art, music, theatre and literature, it was clear that the fine arts were setting down roots in Saskatchewan. In 1948, a key event occurred that was to have long-ranging implications. During its first term in office, T.C. Douglas’ CCF government created the Saskatchewan Arts Board through an Order-in-Council. Premier Douglas was quoted as saying, “The people of the Prairies are hungry…for things of the mind and the spirit: good music, literature, paintings and folk songs” (the folk songs were apparently his personal addition to the usual trinity of arts). The arts board was said to be modeled after the British Arts Council, and broke ground in Canada as the first formal government program in support of the arts. It preceded the creation of the Canada Council of the Arts by thirteen years, and was in many respects its prototype. The first chair was Dr. Stewart Basterfield, then dean of Regina College. The board was proclaimed to be “responsible for formulation of policies designed to make available to the citizens of the province greater opportunities to engage in creative activities in the fields of drama, visual arts, music, literature and handicrafts, with qualified guidance and leadership, and to establish and improve the standards for such activities in the province.”

The Saskatchewan Arts Board thus set out to challenge the conventional wisdom that Saskatchewan was a cultural wasteland: “The form…was tempered by western Canadian conditions, the comparative smallness of the cities, the thinly spread population and the various limitations due to distances. Rather than the Old Country Plan of having panels for each of the Arts, it was considered best to have each of the Arts Board members contribute to the whole field of interest in order to strengthen the Board’s plans and projects” (W.A. Riddell, Cornerstone for Culture, p. 6).

The Regina Five, left to right: Ron Bloor, Art McKay, Doug Morton, Ken Lochhead, Ted Godwin
University of Regina Archives and Special Collections Photograph Collection 80-20-847

Half a century later, the results of this far-seeing creation have become evident. The annual allocation of arts grants by the board has risen from its original sum of $4,400 in 1949 to over $5.3 million in 2004. More important than its support of individual artists, however, was its development and support of dozens of arts organizations and companies, such as the Organization of Saskatchewan Arts Councils (OSAC), an umbrella group comprising the dozens of local arts councils throughout the province. It also fostered the creation of professional theatre companies, film producers, and dance companies like Saskatchewan Dance Theatre in Saskatoon and Regina Modern Dance Works in Regina. The impact of the Saskatchewan Arts Board was most clearly felt at first in the visual arts. In 1950, the board organized the first in a series of annual juried all-Saskatchewan art exhibitions. One of its earliest accomplishments was the establishment of the Norman MacKenzie Art Gallery and its permanent collection of art (painting, sculpture and craft art) at the Regina College campus. This was complemented by the hiring of Kenneth Lochhead as director of the college’s art school in 1950. He was soon joined by Arthur McKay, who along with Ronald Bloore, Douglas Morton and Ted Godwin became known as the “Regina Five” as they embraced modernist styles. They approached the University of Saskatchewan to set up an annual workshop at Emma Lake in northern Saskatchewan, with important international artists and critics imported as instructors. Other artists who became part of this annual workshop were Dorothy Knowles and William Perehudoff.

Another innovation was the establishment of the Summer School of the Arts. It evolved out of a series of summer workshops in drama by Florence James, which began in 1951 and later expanded into music, writing and art. In 1967, the board inaugurated the Summer School of the Arts at Fort San, a former tuberculosis sanatorium in the Qu’Appelle Valley. In this scenic setting, writers, artists, musicians, photographers, and actors would gather during the summer months for specialized workshop classes with instructors from throughout the world. The summer school operated until 1989, when it was closed due to rising costs. In the meantime, its multi-disciplinary fervour had shaped the lives of an entire generation of Saskatchewan artists.

One of the clearest successes of the arts board was its role in establishing the province’s professional theatre companies, 25th Street Theatre and Persephone theatre in Saskatoon, and the Globe Theatre in Regina. Before 1960, there was no professional theatre production in the province, although there were many touring performances from eastern Canada and abroad. In 1966, Ken and Sue Kramer established the Globe, primarily for school performances; but in 1969 their first season of professional theatre was under way in Regina. 25th Street Theatre began operations in 1972, and Persephone Theatre in 1974, under the guidance of Brian Richmond and members of Saskatoon’s theatrical Wright family (actors Janet, Susan, John and Anne Wright). A few years later, Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan began producing summer tent shows of Shakespearean plays under the direction of Henry Woolf.

Saskatchewan Centre of the Arts, Regina
David McLennan

Nineteen sixty-seven was a milestone year, not only in the Saskatchewan arts, but across Canada as well. It was Canada’s Centennial, and in the general festivities and celebrations it was clear that a new generation of artists was appearing throughout the country. The provincial government initiated the funding for two huge Centennial auditoriums in Regina and Saskatoon, a long-awaited development to put major performing arts centres in the province’s principal cities. These became the Centennial Auditorium in Saskatoon, and the Saskatchewan Centre of the Arts in Regina. Not only in Saskatchewan, but also across the land, a new spirit began to rise in the arts communities, as Canada advanced into its second century. The Canada Council’s years of investment in developing artists was about to pay off.

Before 1967, there was very little literary production coming from Saskatchewan. The only publisher at the time was Modern Press, the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool’s publishing wing, which marketed homesteader reminiscences and a few historical accounts. Then in 1969, the Saskatchewan Arts Board invited a number of the province’s writers to a conference at Fort Qu’Appelle. This conference resulted in the creation of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild, the first provincial writers’ organization in Canada, preceding by a couple of years the establishment of the Writers’ Union of Canada. The guild began with the declared purpose of advocating on behalf of writers, promoting opportunities for publication, and developing “professional attitudes toward the craft.” Its development, along with the ongoing programs of the Summer School of the Arts, ignited an explosion of literary activity that continues to generate international attention. A literary movement seemed to reach critical mass as a number of poets, novelists, Playwrights, and non-fiction writers began to reach out to the world. Writers associated with this movement include the poets Anne Szumigalski, Eli Mandel, Andrew Suknaski, and John Hicks, and novelists Ken Mitchell and Robert Kroetsch. There was a growing realization among Saskatchewan writers that they could pursue their craft at home, rather than emigrating to literary centres such as Toronto or New York.

By 1973, the guild and the arts board had initiated the province’s first literary magazine, Grain; there followed the development of a system of artists’ colonies, and a theatrical offshoot, the Saskatchewan Playwrights Centre, to promote the professional development of play scripts. Several literary presses were soon established: Coteau Books in Regina, and Thistledown Press and Fifth House Publishers in Saskatoon. Modern Press in Saskatoon created a literary imprint, Greystone Books. Chief among them was Coteau Books, which originated in Moose Jaw as Thunder Creek Publishing Co-operative and capitalized on the energy of its team of founding writers, all from Moose Jaw: Gary Hyland, Robert Currie, Geoffrey Ursell and Barbara Sapergia. They published not only their own works, but also a wide range of literary and Children’s titles, and led Coteau to become one of the largest and most successful regional publishers in Canada.

Hart Rouge, 1997.
Jean-Fran├žois Bérubé (Folle Avione Productions)

Many successful literary careers were born in Saskatchewan in the 1970s. Writers such as Lorna Crozier, Bonnie Burnard, David Carpenter, Don Kerr, Byrna Barclay, Glen Sorestad, Gertrude Story, Maria Campbell, Sharon Butala, and Guy Vanderhaege had become internationally known and reviewed by the end of the century. More recent new voices include Brenda Baker, Art Slade, Dave Margoshes, and Chris Fisher. Similar development occurred in music and the visual arts, with the continuing support of the Saskatchewan Arts Board. In addition to the symphonies, Bands and choral groups, popular musical groups like Humphrey and the Dumptrucks of Saskatoon were performing and recording their music around the province, and singer/songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Connie Kaldor and Don Freed were making waves internationally. They were followed quickly by blues musicians such as Colin James and Jack Semple. The Francophone group Hart Rouge enjoyed a national following. Recent successes have included singer Brad Johner and the band of Jason Plumb and the Willing. Independent art galleries opened and thrived in various centres of the province, marketing the work of the new galaxy of artists. These included the ceramicists Joe Fafard, Jack Sures, and Vic Cicansky of Regina, painters Bob Boyer and David Thauberger, sculptor Bill Epp of Saskatoon, and the brothers Huang Zhongyang and Huang Zhongru, immigrants from China. Of these, the best known is Joe Fafard, a francophone artist from Ste. Marthe, whose bronze cows and clay portraits appear in cityscapes and private collections around the world.

Brent Butt on set in Rouleau (DogRiver), Saskatchewan.
David McLennan

An important later development has been the establishment of film production and film-making in Saskatchewan, which until the 1970s had only been a consumer of film entertainment. The only bright spot in this landscape was the long-running Yorkton Short Film and Video Festival, first presented in 1947. In 1976, a cinematic adaptation of Who Has Seen the Wind was shot by Alan King in and around Arcola; and three years later appeared the Genie-winning feature, The Hounds of Notre Dame, about Père Athol Murray and the founding of Notre Dame College at Wilcox. These major film productions helped develop a professional complement of film technicians, producers, directors and actors which led to an outburst of cinematic enterprise in the 1980s and 1990s. In short order, the Saskatchewan Film Development Corporation and a production unit of the National Film Board were established in Regina. Kevin DeWalt’s Mind’s Eye Pictures began a long and impressive production of feature films, television series, and commercial film-making. In recent years, the Canada Saskatchewan Production Studios, with a complete sound stage, was established in Regina. There a hit television series, Corner Gas, featuring Saskatchewan actors like Brent Butt, Janet Wright and Eric Peterson, has been produced to record the foibles of small-town community life. Saskatchewan culture and artists suddenly seem to have reached a new level of international recognition.

As in most other parts of Canada, the late 20th century saw the development of major community arts festivals: the Festival of Words in Moose Jaw (which led directly to the creation of a Moose Jaw Cultural Centre), the Saskatoon Fringe Festival, the Regina Folk Festival, the North Battleford Crafts Fair, Regina’s Cathedral Village Arts Festival, and the Fort Qu’Appelle Midsummer Arts Festival. The Regina Arts Commission was established in 1979, the province’s first municipal arts agency, with the goal of generating more artistic activity in the capital: this led fairly directly in 2004 to the city being declared a Cultural Capital of Canada by the federal government, and receiving a generous grant to promote even more art projects, in time for the province’s centennial. By the end of the 20th century, Saskatchewan culture had experienced an artistic coming of age, and though its population growth in 2005 appears to be in a holding phase, the richness of its culture remains an important feature as the province celebrates the centenary of its birth.

Ken Mitchell

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Further Reading

Archer, J.H. 1965. Footprints in Time. Toronto: House of Grant.

Black, N.F. 1913. History of Saskatchewan and the North West Territories. Regina: Saskatchewan Historical Company.

Hawkes, J. 1924. Saskatchewan and its People. Chicago-Regina: S.J. Clarke Publishing.

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