When people look for ‘culture’ they often look to cities — but one small town in Saskatchewan is challenging that norm. Rosthern, Saskatchewanis a short drive from bothSaskatoon andPrince Albert,but drawspeople inwith its arts scenerather than the other way around.
TheStation Arts Centre, a beautifully renovated old train station,has become a home for the arts in the heart of the prairies. From sold-out theatre productions toyouth programs, workshops, andlocal artist exhibits, this station is a great stop to get a look at rural Saskatchewan’s artistic side. It’s also (surprise!) a co-operative.
The centre got its start in the 80’s when a group of artsy locals decided to buy the building from CN Rail and renovate it. They raised funds through memberships, and preserved this historic building to have an ongoing cultural impact on the town. Today it remains a co-op, which allowscommunity members to get involved.
Director of Programming Nicole Thiessen was our guide around the centre.Her love of the arts and the centre itself is a family affair: Nicole’s mother Kathy was a founding member and served as its administrator for 25 years. Because of her dedication to the arts and the co-op it now contains the “Kathy Thiessen Art Gallery”, which brings in rotating exhibits of visual artists from across Saskatchewan.
You can tell Nicole is just as passionate about the arts, and the Station Arts Centre, as her mom. On our tour she gave us all sorts of facts about the building – like that its “mansard” roof is very rare in North America, and the station is one of only two in Saskatchewan.
The Loose Caboose
Nicole also showed us thecaboose museum. Donated to CN Rail and restored by volunteers, the caboose has served as a dressing room for their theatre productions. Recently it’s become a self-guided museum, and the walls are covered with photos of Rosthern from years past.
The Station’s Shows
The Station Arts Centre’s theatreis where the action happens.
This theatre has been home to many plays and concerts over the years. It hosts a yearly Stars for Saskatchewan Concert Series with musical artists from across the country.
This year’s summer theatre productionBlow Windby Daniel MacDonaldwas playing the week we visited.The play deals with a family coming to grips with their mother’s dementiaandwas originally performed with music by Saskatoon’s Eileen Laverty.After the play’s sold-out run at theDancing Sky Theatre in Meacham,the Station Arts Centre reached out to bring it to their own theatre. Always keen to put their own spin on things, the Station Arts’ version of the play recast actors that could play their own instruments and addedmore songs, Nicole said.
It’s not just plays that get improved upon when they come to the Station Arts Centre.The artgallery gives aspiring artists a chance to display their artwork in a busy location. Patrons of the centre’s Tea Room get to dine on delicious soups, salads, and sandwiches next to a rotating gallery of artworks both local and from further away.Nicole tells me they like to change it up.
The Tea Room has been owned and operated by the town’s mayor, Dennis Helmuth, alongside Joan Yoder and Bob Schellenberg for the past 20 years. Dennis is quite fond of the Station Arts Centre as a whole:
The Station Arts Centre is a gem for the community and anyone who makes the trip toRosthern. Throughout my time there I sensed a care and attention to detail that rounds out an amazing experience. I recommend it not only as a stop in your travels, but as a destination all its own.
For those of you who haven’t experienced Saskatchewan’s gateway to the north, I should start by saying Prince Albert is as beautiful as it is complex. The city is the last major centre in the province as you head north, and rests at the edge of a boreal forest. The city has numerous growing and developing First Nations in the area, a national park and one of its primary industries, forestry, has struggled after the loss of a major pulp mill a few years ago. The combination makes PA a place unlike anywhere else.
The result of this unique blend of history, economics and geography is a city full of grit, independence and determination. And, over time, that character has led to the creation of quite a few co-ops.
Earlier this month, Tanner and I traveled to Prince Albert to check out two of these co-operatives – both of which address different health care needs in the community. Health co-ops are not super common in Saskatchewan. So, we set out to find out why folks in PA felt they needed a few.
First, we wanted to get a sense of PA’s most pressing health concerns and found out that the mayor is a big advocate for local healthcare. What better person to ask?
When we visited him at City Hall, Mayor Greg Dionne told us about PA’s unique healthcare challenges. One is making sure that seniors and impoverished residents have access to services. The second is that the province only bases its funding on the population of PA – it doesn’t take into account the number of people from northern communities that also access its health services. This means the city’s healthcare providers are underfunded in comparison to the actual population they serve.
Because of these issues, the Mayor said the two co-ops we had in our sights — the Prince Albert Co-operative Health Centre Community Clinic and the Mobile Crisis Unit Co-operative — are essential. He gave both glowing reviews, saying they help relieve the pressure on other essential services in the community. For the Mobile Crisis Unit Dionne appreciates how the unit supports their police force, and praised them for the nature of the work they do.
“They deal with all kinds of crises,” Dionne said. “So I give them the biggest praise because they are the frontline workers.”
In praising the clinic, the mayor notes how they are well placed to serve vulnerable populations, such as seniors.
“They fill a big gap,” Dionne said. “The highest density of seniors in our community surrounds that cooperative health centre. They do all kinds of things …. We would be a different place without them.”
Prince Albert Co-operative Health Centre
At the PA Co-operative Health Centre, we met long-time member and volunteer Vickie Rose. Vickie is a force. At 84 years old, Vickie is not only an active volunteer – she also lives on her farm about 6 miles from the city, where she still plants a large garden every year.
One of her volunteer activities includes the Co-operative Health Centre Volunteers’ Foundation, which fundraises for the centre and provides other helpful activities, such as visiting patients in the clinic and at home. The foundation has raised over $800,000 over the years, and this funds a wheelchair-accessible van, examination tables, and other equipment.
She also donates much of the produce from her garden to sell at a market fundraiser for the clinic. What isn’t sold in the market, she puts in the free pantry the clinic has out front of the building. This year, she did it all herself, despite having two broken wrists!
Vickie first came to the clinic in its early days to seek medical attention for one of her children. She said the co-op was her only option for healthcare in the city at the time, because of the contentious nature of healthcare back then.
The co-operative health clinic was opened as a direct response to the doctors’ strike in 1962. At the time, doctors were opposed to the idea of government-run healthcare. Mostly they felt it would interfere with their decision-making regarding patients and, in response, organized a strike to begin as Medicare was brought in.
Despite the strike, one doctor refused to stop offering healthcare services to the residents of PA. Dr. Orville K. Hjertaas founded the co-operative clinic to make sure people had access to healthcare – a decision that cost him his practice at the time. The new co-op clinic was vandalized, and his wife and kids were harassed by people who disagreed with his actions. Vickie described Dr. Hjertaas as a humanitarian who didn’t give up despite the backlash.
I was both sad and shocked to hear about the adversity Dr. Hjertaas and his family faced. The clinic offered us a book that details its history, including a description of the time in Dr. Hjertaas’ own words. As Vickie described his achievements, I began to get a sense of how his legacy shaped the clinic.
The centre takes a holistic approach to health care – they aim to take care of the whole person. This includes services like counselling, a pharmacy, a methadone clinic, physiotherapy, and as many medical procedures as possible. Vickie said having all these services under one roof means the clinic not only gives excellent and attentive care, it does it efficiently.
She also said these qualities come from the vision of the late Dr. Hjertaas, who cared deeply about his patients. She recalled a time when he diagnosed her with severe anemia and gave her iron supplements for free because she couldn’t afford them.
I got the sense that Vickie is at the heart of this centre. She serves the clinic as a bright beacon of knowledge and history of its workings in addition to her volunteer work — which she describes in the clip below:
At the end of our interview, Vickie walked the halls chatting with friends and getting the scoop on all the latest at the clinic. She also treated us to a little tour and a bit more history, including showing us a bust of Dr. Hjertaas and the memorial trees planted out front for him and his wife Millie.
Executive Director Renee Danylczuk was also kind enough to give us a tour of the clinic. As she led us through the building, I got the sense of just how much gets done within its halls. As we went through their physiotherapy, IV therapy, and other facilities, I realized the entire building is purpose-built with their philosophy of attentive care in mind.
Even the way that doctors get paid at the centre helps promote this philosophy. Doctors are paid a salary – rather than being paid on a per-patient basis — meaning that there is no incentive to rush through appointments. I also noticed the quietness of the halls. The characteristic hustle and bustle of hospitals was missing. Talking to Renee, and seeing the facilities for myself, proves Vickie’s description of the care she receives is rooted in the thoughtful organization of the clinic itself.
Renee is incredibly proud of the clinic, and mentioned their model is being used as a guiding tool for the Health Region — meaning all of these ideas that initially brought backlash to the clinic’s first doctor have influenced the greater healthcare landscape in Saskatchewan.
Thank you to Vickie, Renee and everyone at the Centre for your hospitality and for showing us how amazing you all are!
Prince Albert Mobile Crisis Unit
Another critical piece to Prince Albert’s healthcare is the Mobile Crisis Unit Co-operative. Operating largely outside of regular business hours, the unit bridges gaps in the treatment of mental health, sexual assault, and domestic abuse issues.
They do this by providing a hotline and sending support workers out to respond to calls from people in crisis within the city. The unit also teaches the community about consent, sexual assault, and provides training to police and EMS for handling situations surrounding sexual assault.
Executive Director Vicki Bird said when their support workers respond to a call, their goal is to meet with the person in crisis as early as possible in their environment. People often feel more comfortable on their home turf, rather than in a clinic setting. The crisis workers are non-threatening helpers. Rather than call attention to themselves and their positions, they use two unmarked vans to answer calls. They arrive in plain clothes, not uniforms. All of this helps their clients feel at ease.
What this co-op does is remarkable. Something that stuck out to me when talking to Vicki was the breadth of services they provide. From a wealth of trained professionals to a storage room full of essentials like diapers, formula, and dry foods, the unit is prepared to handle nearly anything thrown their way.
Thank you to Vicki and her team for taking us in and showing us what it takes to be there for someone in need.
Prince Albert was a great way to kick off our travels in full and provided some excellent insight into how healthcare co-ops can fit into the greater landscape of services. See you on our next stop and be sure to keep up to date with our social media accounts!
In anticipation of the road ahead, we took the short drive from the office to Steep Hill Food Co-op on Broadway Ave. in Saskatoon. There we were greeted by Gerry and her daughter Andrée, two of the full-time employees at the whole food co-op. Gerry helped to open the co-op in 1978.
While Steep Hill may seem like many other stores trying to get their piece of the organic/whole food grocer pie, a lot sets them apart. Carrying your usual array of health and lifestyle foods, Steep Hill also goes out of its way to work with as many local producers as it can.
I began grocery shopping in my mind as Gerry showed me around the shop. When she pointed out their locally produced honey, I added it to my mental grocery list.
Eventually, mental grocery shopping became actual grocery shopping and I found myself – somehow automatically – building a basket of honey, organic mac and cheese that I remembered from my childhood, and some lactose-free alternatives that I hadn’t seen in other stores before.
As I shopped I discovered Steep Hill’s most standout quality — the breadth of the staff’s knowledge. As I placed the honey into my basket I knew that the person who made it been bringing his honey to the co-op since the seventh grade, and as soon as I had mentioned my lactose intolerance Gerry and Andrée were quick to point out the lactose free ice cream, various milk alternatives, and others.
It was this hospitality that really stood out to me. It truly felt as if this power duo wanted me to leave their store with everything I needed. At one point Gerry mentioned that she will let members make special orders of products they don’t normally carry. It was so interesting to be in a grocery store that wants its customers’ involvement and interaction perhaps just slightly more than they want your money.
Steep Hill’s commitment to members is also apparent in the way it prices its goods. Itoffers three tiers of pricing: non-members pay the price on the shelf plus 25 per cent; non-working members pay shelf price plus 10 per cent. Working members — who volunteer at least two hours a month — pay the shelf price for their products.
Steep Hill isn’t just a great place for shoppers. As my tour reached the back half of the narrow shop, Gerry mentioned their sink and informed me that anyone can come in for a glass of water — a fact I tucked in the back of my mind for those long hot days on Broadway.I will definitely be returning to Steep Hill – in fact I’ve already been back since the first visit to show my mom their array of gluten-free products, and introduce her to the shop that showed me you can in fact have a favourite grocery store.
During our time exploring the co-ops of Saskatoon, Tanner and I visited the Bridge City Bicycle Co-op (BCBC). This co-op shares space with the Core Neighborhood Youth Co-op (CNYC) — another great Saskatoon organization that offers a wide variety of youth programming and education. This partnership began because of the success of CNYC’s original bicycle program, which grew to the point where they needed to bring on the BCBC to manage it.
This partnership was a turning point for the BCBC, which had been operating as an enthusiasts’ club before becoming the community service co-op they are today. It allowed the members to spread their love of cycling to the wider community.
It was easy to tell how much the BCBC has embraced its role. Each of the volunteer mechanics looked happy to be there, and more than one told me that their favourite part of volunteering was helping kids learn how to maintain and repair their bikes.
It wasn’t just the mechanics who were enthusiastic. When we arrived just before opening, a lineup had already formed at the gate. People who needed new tires and other bike parts got in line alongside children and their parents. It was hard to tell who was the most anxious to get riding.
That was when I got a sense of how vital this co-operative is. Watching children not only receive a bicycle but also learn how to care for it was one of the most wholesome sights I’d ever seen. This feel-good notion only got better when I had the thought that, for many who use the BCBC, their bicycle isn’t just a source of fun but also a necessary means of transportation and ultimately central aspect of life.
We were greeted by the BCBC’s Stan Yu, one of the founding members of the co-op, who showed me around their space. It’s made up of an outdoor working area, a small portion of the indoor shop that also houses CNYC’s woodworking area, and an attic full of bicycles and parts.
As Stan helped me pump up my tires and give the bike a bit of an inspection, we chatted about the BCBC and the work that they do. While I learned how to adjust my brake lines I also began to learn about the amazing work this shop makes possible.
I learned that the children who I watched receive bikes would pay only the membership fee, and that the adults only pay a small charge.
BCBC is able to do this through donations, and a partnership with the City of Saskatoon that allows them to collect and fix up bikes from the landfill. This set up essentially means that, for bikes at least, all roads lead to the BCBC.
Not only does the BCBC break down financial barriers to cycling, but also social barriers. At all times the shop is a judgement-free place that encourages developing new skills and the shop also offers special Women & Queer Programming, illustrating their dedication to getting everyone they can on a bike.
The Ukrainian Co-op has been creating a unique experience and welcoming space for over 80 years. Best known for their meats and imported goods, the store is more than simply a supermarket. Check out what makes this one of the longest running co-ops in Saskatchewan.
In June, we had the great pleasure of being hosted by members of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band on Treaty 10 territory for The Backroad Diaries project.
While visiting the area, Sisan had the opportunity to catch walleye on the great Missinipi, visit the Nation’s impressive Amachewespemawin Co-operative store and eat at the famous Chester’s Chicken.
A quiet, welcoming and proud group of Woodland Cree manages this amazingly beautiful area. Without question, this is their land and we are very obviously out of our depths here. To illustrate, Sisan asks what tackle is and John, our guide, has his young nephew teach Sisan how to attach jig to lead.
Thankfully we’re after walleye, so there’s a reduced risk of making the wall of fame in La Ronge hospital where newcomers end up after having a hook removed from one’s fleshier parts. More importantly perhaps, thanks to this young man’s skill and the uncanny awareness of John for spots with fish, Sisan manages to catch us lunch.
While we sit on the edge of the Missinipi, water, rocks, trees and the unsettled winds of an oncoming cold front mingle in an amazingly bright aroma. Next to us, the gentle murmuring of ‘níhithawak’ is punctuated by the distant almost ethereal call of a loon and, in the distance, the decidedly ancient grace of a pelican gliding impossibly close to the deep blue waters of Nistowiak Lake. This is a place as beautiful as it is dangerous and worthy of respect.
We wander up to Nistowiak Falls, the tallest falls in Saskatchewan. While resting just above Nistowiak, Sisan does his best to teach me how to skip stones. Before I get the camera on him, he manages to do pretty well. But check out what happens when the camera’s on him.
After re-hydrating at Jim’s Camp below the falls, we head out for a shore lunch. John knows the Missinipi the way you know your own hand. It’s a part of him and he recognizes every current, hidden rock and underwater pool where fish collect. He picks a spot where he offhandedly mentions we won’t be smashed against the rocks.
We “park” on a large rock with a few pine trees and a fire pit to light a fire and enjoy walleye with fried potatoes. The rock juts out of the middle of this astonishingly large and humbling river, but is protected from the wind in a way that allows John to expertly dock the boat on the rock without puncturing the vessel’s tin bottom.
As we look for dry kindling, clouds build up above us and John weights the value of lunch against the building storm, and wisely decides to navigate the rapids back up the river – before we make lunch.
As we make our way back, bouncing over rough waters at an almost alarmingly high speed, Sisan and I witness the majestic sight of two storm systems join forces. The two systems form a deep, dark monster reaching far into the atmosphere with bright light tentacles reaching towards earth every few seconds.
Later, once we’ve slowed the spine jarring race away from this threat, John quietly suggests we would have been “sitting ducks” if we stayed, and so Sisan and I are more than happy to opt for Chester Chicken over the shore lunch.
Hiy hiy to John, Lena and everyone at Amachewespemawin for the hospitality and for keeping us above water. A special thank you to the budding young níhithawak community leader who showed Sisan how to create his own lead and attach a jig.