Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

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“What? We have a bus that goes to the airport?”

My Airbnb host stared at me with a look of disbelief on her face. She was giving me a tour of the building in downtown Saskatoon where I had rented a condo. When she went to show me the parking garage, I said I didn’t need to see it as I didn’t have a car with me and had taken the bus in from the airport.

“Are you sure?”

I smiled. “Yes, you definitely have a bus that goes to the airport. I just took it. It was great, actually.”

“And you were by yourself? With your luggage and everything?”

“Yes.”

“Weren’t you afraid?”

I had to think about that one. “No. Should I have been?”

“I don’t know. I just thought — well, I’ve never been on a bus in Saskatoon. I don’t think I know anyone who takes the bus. It’s just not what we do here.”

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan is a city in the midst of figuring out what it wants to be when it grows up. You can sense the identity crisis undercurrent a mile away (and since it’s the prairies, you can probably see it a mile away, too). The city has all the charms of a small prairie town: a quaint downtown, streets dotted with historic architecture and mom-and-pop style retailers, friendly people. I sat on a patio for a few hours one afternoon and couldn’t believe the number of people who stopped to talk after bumping into each other, the hallmark of a community where everyone knows everyone. But Saskatoon also is showing signs of being a big city: towering corporate head offices, a mix of eclectic neighborhoods, a visible struggle with poverty, mental health and homelessness. With more than 250,000 people, Saskatoon is the largest city in Saskatchewan and one of Canada’s fastest growing communities, while still being a decidedly small to medium sized city by Canadian standards. In the same day, I had an interviewee describe Saskatoon to me as “Paris on the Prairies” and another interviewee referenced it as “Alabama of the North.” Two very different images!

Saskatoon is divided in half by the South Saskatchewan River, and has a ring road which circles the central part of the city. This road, Circle Drive, was described to me the chief cleavage dividing Saskatoon’s local politics. ‘Inside Circle Drive’ represents the urban core, with a population tending to favour progressive forms of urban development and related amenities like improved public transit, bike lanes and mixed use neighborhoods. This part of the city is more acutely affected by and aware of issues of violence and poverty. ‘Outside Circle Drive’ refers to the suburbs surrounding the ring road, with a population interested in a different suite of local priorities such as keeping taxes low and building roads and bridges. Both agendas are important for the city, and they are not necessarily mutually exclusive – but it sounds like this is the dividing line. Of course, this may be an oversimplification, but I heard this same general impression of the local political landscape from a few people.

Saskatoon residents will head to the polls in October to elect a new council, which includes a mayor and ten ward-based councillors. Already it’s shaping up to be an interesting race. The incumbent mayor, Don Atchison, is seeking re-election. He was first elected as mayor in 2003, which makes him the longest serving mayor in the city’s history (and one of the longest serving in any major Canadian city). Atchison is a skilled politician, and it seems he and his colleagues have been doing a good job as the city has weathered a difficult economic period very well. Atchison is being challenged by at least one viable candidate, Charlie Clark, an engaging younger downtown councillor (and definitely an Inside Circle Drive type). With four months to the election, other candidates may come forward as well. This election is definitely worth paying attention to, as it provides a vehicle for the city to explore and express a vision for its future. For local politics observers, it doesn’t get better than a hot mayoral race in a city struggling with an identity crisis as a way to gain insights about local political culture (check out this helpful tracker if you’re interested).

A few other noteworthy learnings from this stop on the journey:

1. Saskatchewan has a lot of municipalities. And I mean a LOT, as there are nearly 800 incorporated municipalities in the province – second only to Quebec. 459 municipalities are classified as being ‘urban’ which includes 16 towns, 247 villages and 40 resort villages. The two ‘big’ cities are Saskatoon, with the largest population, and Regina, the capital. Together these two cities are home to nearly half of the provincial population.

2. Under the provincial Cities Act, the role of the mayor in Saskatoon is on the very low end in terms of formal power compared to other cities in Canada. The legislation identifies only procedural duties (chairing meeting, deciding on points of privilege, enforcing procedural rules) in describing the role of the mayor. There is no mention of the mayor as ‘chief executive officer’ or other similar language, and the mayor is not afforded any of the extra powers granted in some provinces.

3. Saskatchewan municipalities, as a result of a successful lobbying effort, receive one percentage point of the sales tax from the province. This is something that has been lobbied for in many other provinces, with little success. For 2016/2017, the allocation works out to $218 per capita in additional funding to the municipality.

Saskatoon is an interesting case because it captures the struggles of mid sized cities in Canada: defining their place in our country while striving to find local consensus on a vision for the future. Saskatoon is certainly not alone. The upcoming mayoral race affords a unique and fascinating opportunity for a community to grapple with these big questions. Saskatoon, we will be watching!

 

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Listening to music and writing postcards at a bus stop. Happy to report: no immediate signs of danger!

 

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Saskatoon City Hall.

 

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A map of the city from more than 100 years ago, showing the beginnings of Circle Road.

 

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I was blown away by Saskatoon’s river front paths – absolutely beautiful, and dotted with many interesting design features like fountains and gardens.

 

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An example of Saskatoon’s architectural heritage: one of the original CN hotels build along the railway (although now owned by Delta). Photo doesn’t even come close to doing this building justice.

 

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Saskatchewan gets more tornados that any other Canadian province. First time I’ve seen a bathroom double as a tornado shelter!

 

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A Saskatoon sunrise, wtih beautiful skies as far as the eye can see. It’s impossible to not feel swept away by the beauty of this city and province. It’s a special part of our country. I will be back.