The Shipbuilder, Dog River and other roadside delights

How I learned to stop in Saskatchewan


As an Ontarian émigré living in Alberta, I have recently begun taking many cross-country road trips. While I formerly loved Saskatchewan for little more than the easy driving (120 kilometres per hour, cruise control, wind in proverbial hair), I have recently found myself looking forward to trips to Saskatchewan, rather than through Saskatchewan, for the province’s charming, always incongruous and consistently fascinating tourist destinations.

Along with the Roughriders and the “greatest Canadian,” Tommy Douglas, Saskatchewanians should also boast about their unique tourist gems which always take on a Saskatchewan flavour: intriguing, charming, unexpected. Recently, driving through Saskatchewan en route to Ontario, I visited what have become three of my favourite Saskatchewan places: downtown Moose Jaw, the Sukanen Ship Museum, and Rouleau. Wildly fanciful versions of the past and present prairies are offered at each of these three sites.

Subterranean tourist blues

Moose Jaw is adorable: a small prairie city with painted advertisements fading on brick walls, a gangster-themed motel and a mural celebrating prairie resistance leader Louis Riel. In recent decades, the city has made itself over as a tourist mecca in Saskatchewan. Straddling the TransCanada Highway, Moose Jaw, with its natural hot springs spa and fascinating tunnels, is well situated to delight weary travellers making the epic Canadian road trip.

As a true prairie-phile, I spent my last vacation in Moose Jaw. After a week of soaking in the hot springs, getting wrapped in magic potion-like stuff, and checking out the Moose Jaw tunnels, I have come to suspect that perhaps the only authentic joy in Moose Jaw is the fudge. Which is not to say that the rest of Moose Jaw’s thrills aren’t fun; they certainly are entertaining, the way a carnival or the West Edmonton Mall is entertaining.

In 1997, capitalizing on local lore about a network of tunnels that apparently once connected many of the city’s downtown establishments (and about the questionable uses to which they were apparently put) some enterprising Moose Javians started a tour company called The Tunnels of Little Chicago. This tour covered both bootlegging and Chinese immigration history and was set in a series of underground tunnels excavated for the purpose. This company evolved into The Tunnels of Moose Jaw, which began operating in 2000, offering tours led by actor-guides. There are two tours: one devoted to the Chinese workers who worked as indentured labourers for years paying off their head tax – the Passage to Fortune tour – and the Chicago Connection tour, which presents the history of Moose Jaw as a hideaway for American bootleggers.

If you aren’t paying too much attention, and don’t ask any clarifying questions, it seems like Chinese labourers actually lived in the tunnels, and the tunnels were central to bootlegging operations. The theatrical edutainment-style tours are persuasive. After a little digging, however, my tour guide admitted that, in fact, any tunnels that may have existed were built to facilitate the easy movement of boiler-repair people.

Tunnels of Moose Jaw used the tunnels as an opportune location to stage these two interesting stories, loosely based on not-so-local histories. Clever, one might think: a (literally) underground staging of the city’s (figuratively) underground history. However, it turns out that the figuratively underground histories are actually a generalized narrative of Canadian-Chinese immigration and stories of an American gangster who many doubt was ever in the region.

The two tours take on distinctly different tones. The Passage to Fortune tour claims to tell the story of Chinese-Canadian immigration to the prairies. The tour employs a popular tourism strategy of compelling visitors to relate to the plight of the early Chinese immigrants by casting the tourists themselves in their places. Actors, playing the role of white-settler employers, show us to our work stations and sleeping quarters yelling “Come on coolies!” Considering the continued currency of the term “coolie” as a racial slur, it’s questionable whether this form of edutainment actually contributes to improved race relations.

The tour actually makes scant reference to the history of Chinese immigration in Saskatchewan or Moose Jaw. Writer Will Ferguson, in his book Beauty Tips From Moose Jaw, suggests a different and more accurate story of Chinese immigration in Moose Jaw. Chinese immigrants had settled in Moose Jaw as early as 1889 and founded a number of prominent – ahem – above ground businesses. Ferguson notes, “In spite of the attitudes prevalent at the time, the Chinese were welcomed here to a degree that does credit to Moose Jaw, and to have that turned on its head is strange indeed. It’s an odd way to promote a city.” The Passage to Fortune tour offers an interesting history of Chinese-Canadian immigration, but, like real estate, tourist attractions are all about location. The subterranean location of this particular historical re-enactment is as tantalizing as it is fanciful.

An extracurricular joy I have discovered is asking Moose Javians their opinions on the authenticity of the tunnels. One man I met dismissed the claims of Moose Jaw’s connection to Al Capone, arguing that his uncle sold newspapers on the corner throughout the 1920s and never once saw Al Capone. Ferguson agrees. In his book he asks: “Did Al Capone ever visit Moose Jaw? The evidence is mainly anecdotal, and the odds are slim.”

The Chicago Connection tour strikes a very different tone than the Passage to Fortune tour. Rum-running in the gunslinging 1920s is fun, fun, fun. No heavy-handed attempts at moralizing here. (It makes one wonder if anyone stops to contemplate the type of gangs-are-fun message this is sending to the kiddies.) Like the Passage tour, the Chicago Connection tour is more fanciful than historical. But the operators seem to be making off like bandits, and few in the city see fit to quibble over the authenticity of their tourism cash cow.

Moose Jaw is a special place, marked by innovative tourist initiatives that at least serve to tickle one’s curiosity, even if the whole place seems to have a rather aspirational relationship with its own history. Moose Jaw is also a great spot for the weary traveller to relax with some Thai food at Nit’s restaurant (a restaurant with a wall of photos of famous guests like Chris Klein and the little girl who played Veruca Salt in the Johnny Depp Charlie and the Chocolate Factory film) or get a sugared body wrap at any one of the many spas. In Moose Jaw, the charms, like the suspect mythologies, abound.

Less than a hero, more than a madman

Eight miles south of Moose Jaw, off of the number 2 highway, is the Sukanen Ship Pioneer Village and Museum – a fairly standard settler-village-style museum comprised of many buildings (barber shop, toy emporium, post office) filled with incongruous assortments of antique gems. I particularly liked the house full of 1950s vacuums.

Making this museum really stand out, though, is the red, white and blue, 43-foot-long wooden ship docked proudly in the midst of the prairie grasses. After years of lobbying, fundraising and collecting pieces of the ship that had been scattered across the landscape, the Pioneer Village had put back together Tom Sukanen’s ship, the Dontianen, and relocated it to the museum in 1973.

Tom Sukanen is a bit of a prairie legend. According to Together at Last, a publication of the Sukanen Ship Pioneer Village Museum, he could bend steel with his bare hands, knit his own clothes out of binder twine and rig his own threshing machine. He was a veritable Paul Bunyan of the Canadian prairies.

The story of Tom Sukanen, the lonely, heavy-hearted Finnish shipbuilder, is a moving testament to the trials of prairie immigration in the 1930s. Sukanen was born in Finland in 1878. Trained as a shipbuilder, Sukanen moved to Saskatchewan in 1911 as a homesteader. In 1918 he returned, on foot, to a previous home in Minnesota to fetch his family, only to discover that his wife had died and his four children were in various foster homes. He managed to locate his son, but was stopped at the U.S. border and charged with kidnapping. He returned to Saskatchewan alone.

In 1929 he was seized by the idea of sailing home from Saskatchewan. He would launch his steamship at the mouth of the Saskatchewan River, then sail to Hudson Bay, through the Davis Strait and on to Finland. In 1941, his ship, a massive contraption of wood and iron, with two cabins, a boiler, and a hull weighing 20 tonnes, was completed. An immense barrier he faced was getting his ship from Macrorie to the mouth of the Saskatchewan River – a distance of 17 miles that might as well have been 1,000.

Using his team of horses, Sukanen began to pull the ship’s pieces to the river. Even when his horses had all died of exhaustion, Sukanen continued dragging the pieces of his ship across the prairie on his own.

At this point, his dream of sailing home was abruptly aborted. Neighbours had begun to complain that Sukanen’s ship was an eyesore that encouraged vandalism. As a result, in 1943, Sukanen was picked up by the authorities and sent to an institutional hospital in North Battleford, where he would remain until his death on April 23, 1943.

Saskatchewan playwright Ken Mitchell adapted the story of Sukanen as a play, The Shipbuilder, in 1977. The play won the University of Regina national playwriting competition that year and in the 1980s was performed in various parts of Canada. The Tom Sukanen of Mitchell’s play was a man out-of-time, like other wayward visionaries. In the play, Sukanen’s character is defended by his one friend, the farmer Larry Bender:

Jukka: It’s just a dream. A fantasy.

Bender: Well, what the hell is wrong with that? We all got dreams! That’s what I bin livin’ on fer 15 years. A dream of having my own place, make it go. Or you – bein a big shot in town. No different – ‘cept Johnny’s dream is real. It’s made of wood and iron. It creaks and moves. You kin touch it! Okay, you say he ain’t gonna make it – and sometimes I say it too – just to myself – but what if he does? What if he makes it to the river? And then on down to Hudson Bay? Can you be so goddamn sure he won’t?

I bet they all told John A. Macdonald he was crazy to build a railroad across 4, 000 miles a wasted hell – but he did her, didn’t he? And when Columbus set off across the Atlantic, I bet they laughed their heads off! That’s how it is with some guys – they just go ahead and bloody do it! Well – I like that. So I’m stickin’ by him!”

Sukanen’s is a story of loss – of family, place, freedom. The only grace note in his sad tune is that Saskatchewanians have retroactively rallied around Sukanen’s ingenuity and creativity. In 1976 Sukanen’s grave was relocated to the museum, next to the ship. Sukanen’s story also compelled filmmaker Chrystene Ells to uproot her life in Los Angeles and move to Saskatchewan to devote years to the production of a film version of Sukanen’s life. Titled Sisu, the film is currently in post-production. At the Sukanen Ship Museum, Sukanen is remembered as less than a hero but more than a madman. A plaque on the ship reads “A Monument of Labour: To all early pioneers to whom we owe so much.”

Planet Rollywood

While folks who grew up in Ottawa generally dismiss Alanis Morissette, and while les Québécois trouvent Céline Dion un peu fatigante, it seems that Corner Gas is as embraced in Saskatchewan as bunny hugs and Vi-Co. Corner Gas, a sitcom written by and starring comedian Brent Butt, began filming in the summer of 2003. Since its premiere in 2004, Corner Gas has consistently been Canada’s number one scripted comedy, and has spawned a book, comedy tours, clothing and top-selling DVD sets. The outdoor sets of Corner Gas have also put Rouleau, Saskatchewan, on tourists’ radar.

At first glance it seems that Rouleau (pronounced “rolo”), population 400, is a simulacrum of small-town prairie quaintness. You can’t get gas at the brightly painted “Corner Gas” station, and the police station has a sign attached to the front door that reads, “Please note, this is not a police station. The closest police station is in Milestone, Saskatchewan.” The town’s remaining grain elevator names the town “Dog River” rather than Rouleau – a change which surprisingly seems to ruffle few feathers.

Kari Charlton is the proprietor of The Stoop, the official Corner Gas souvenir store and restaurant that fills the faux police station exterior. Charlton’s business represents one fully tangible economic spinoff of Corner Gas tourism for the town of Rouleau. In The Stoop there is a map of the world where visitors pinpoint where they’ve come from. On average, Charlton says she has been getting around 300 visitors a day, but this past summer the visits spiked to 500 a day, an increase she chalks up to the fact that it was the final season of Corner Gas. The visitors come from all parts of Canada as well as the U.K., Ireland, and more recently various parts of the Middle East. Iran, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are marked on the map with pinned-on currency from those countries. Charlton speculates that these visitors are primarily expats returning home and visiting Rouleau to celebrate the exported bit of Canadian cultural comfort that Corner Gas represents.

A large slice of Charlton’s clothing market comes from the packaged bus tours out of Regina. Until the final season wrapped up filming in September, CNT Tours offered tours that began at Regina’s SaskFilm studios, where the interior shots of the show were filmed, before heading out to Rouleau to visit the outside set.

During my visit, The Stoop was pretty busy so we opted instead for the Pigeon Café a few doors down. The Pigeon Café is reminiscent of Lacey’s Café in the show: red vinyl upholstery, a menu of hot beef sandwiches, and a large-screen TV with a constant loop of Corner Gas episodes. Seated at the bar waiting for our sandwiches, we met an octogenarian and Rouleau native who was happy to shoot the breeze with a couple of tourists. According to our new friend, the Corner Gas crew is “all right, not too snobby.” They give some money to the local school and stay out of trouble.

But enough of this Corner Gas business, he said with a wave; were we interested in a real Rouleau story? Our guide to the real Rouleau took us to a wall of the café that was covered with photos of grain elevators.

“Here, see?” he points. “Seven grain elevators in a row. Now we have only one.” Before Rouleau was little Hollywood on the prairie, it was a central point on the SOO line of the CPR, shipping grain east and south to Chicago. The village was in fact settled in the early 1900s because of the construction of the Soo line. Rouleau, which reached its peak population of almost 700 in 1911, is also known as Saskatchewan’s first “million bushel town.” In 1911 new tracks were laid east and west of the town, diverting traffic and making Rouleau less of a hub. Now the closest rail connection is in Regina, 45 miles away. The sole remaining grain silo has become central to the opening shots of a TV show, and in 1930 a fire destroyed nearly all of the town records. Rouleau’s history as a bustling million-bushel town has been effectively erased, but the wall of photos at the Pigeon Café and some elderly residents remember this history.

The lights of heaven

I once drove to Saskatoon with my Estevan-raised friend, and he confessed that as a child, driving into Saskatoon at night with the glow on the horizon blooming into a dazzling metropolis, he imagined that was what heaven must look like. I concur that there is something magical about Saskatchewan, a place where fact and fiction, comedic fantasies and tragic realities are intertwined.

Rouleau is a town with a lost history that has found, and seems to be revelling in, its make-believe present. Tom Sukanen had big dreams; in his lifetime they were extinguished, but they have been reignited in a museum, a play and a movie. And what can I say about Moose Jaw? The fudge, at least, is real – and quite good.

Tonya Davidson teaches sociology at Ryerson University. She is interested in urban spaces, public memory, gender, race, and Canadian nationalisms.

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