Environment and Geography

Environment and Geography

Geographical factoids – mainly plains here?
Well, no.

Saskatchewan is the fifth largest province in the country, with a total area of 651, 036 square kilometres (251,366 square miles).

Milanosa, between Waskesiu and La Ronge (a hundred miles apart), is the approximate geographical centre of Saskatchewan.

Saskatchewan has three geographical regions: grasslands in the south, parkland in the middle, and forests in the north. Some of the forests are in the great plains region, and some in the Canadian Shield.

The Shield, comprised of bedrock and lakes, sprawls over a massive part of our province. It cuts across Saskatchewan on the diagonal from 57 degrees latitude in the northwest to 54 degrees in the southeast.

Put another way, Precambrian rock makes up 33 percent of our total area, farmland comprises 33 percent, commercial forest 23 percent, and lakes and rivers, 12 percent.

A whopping 44 percent of the province is considered to be “forested.”

Land makes up 90.8 percent (591,670 square kms or 228,455 square miles) of the total area of the province.

Water constitutes 9.2 percent, or 59,366 square kilometres (22,921 square miles). Our main rivers are the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers, and the Assiniboine.

With all that water, 90 percent of First Nations have dealt with bad drinking water; sixty-five of our reserves have had at least one boil-water advisory. The average for Canada is 65 percent.

Our population has hovered around a million since the 1930s, with 50 percent living in cities, 16 percent in towns, 31 percent on farms, First Nations reserves and small towns.

[Bad drinking water: CBC 15 October 2015. Forests: cfs.nracn.gc.ca from the book Saskatchewan’s Forest. Milanosa: McCourt, Saskatchewan. Shield: Richards, Atlas of Saskatchewan; Wikipedia]

Saving the planet

Ongoing community efforts in a time of climate change  

Jan Norris protesting at a July 10, 2019 demonstration during the “Grassroots Voices Welcome the Premiers” meeting at the Bessborough. Dressed as a Raging Granny, she is part of Climate Justice Saskatoon, a group protesting government lack of action on the climate.

Saskatchewan Environmental Society (SES) is an environmental super-catalyst in this province. Their issues include climate change, bio-diversity, water, environmental law and regulations, uranium and nuclear, energy solutions, and fossil fuels.

The SES educational programs include “Destination Saskatchewan” and “25 Acts of Energy Conservation” (two K-12 programs running in many schools). Their Powerpoint for the latter should be a bible for all of us.

The SES building operator training program,“Smarter Science, Better Buildings, is a partnership between SES and the Western Development Museums, focussing on energy efficiency in homes.  Grade Seven students participate in a half-day workshop that combines interactive displays with inquiry into the energy efficiency of historic buildings at each museum site.

SES’s Solar Co-operative Ltd., Saskatchewan’s first, is a model for future co-ops with the same objectives.

Saskatchewan Waste Management Council is a spinoff of the SES, and advocates ways of sustainable living.  Their website has a database of places to take things for recycling.

“Renewable Rides” is another SES program, providing solar-powered electric vehicles to the Saskatoon Car Share Co-operative.

Fracking is a like a four-letter word for many eco-conscious citizens. Three U of S grads created a portable water treatment system. They sidestep the practice of fracking, by treating waste water for recycling, or sending it back to its sources.

In 2014 the University of Saskatchewan had more than 120 water researchers working for Environment Canada’s National Hydrology Research Centre, at the Global Institute for Water Security.”

Sarcan Industries depots around the province accept drink containers, paint and electronics and sends the products to processing plants to be made into things like fleece jackets, car carpets, or reflective paint on highways.  In existence since 1988, it refunds deposits on containers, an excellent incentive for recycling. Not only that, it provides needed jobs.

At least one Saskatchewan business recycles rubber from tires to make rubber stepping stones, mulch, borders, speed bumps, and driveways. Two U of S grads rescue cast-off bicycles from the city dump for restoration and re-use.

Environmental heroes

Individuals working to raise consciousness about climate change, or doing their bit personally

Richard Ste. Barbe Baker, the ultimate tree-hugger called Man of the Trees, saw it all coming, back in the early 20th century. A former Saskatoon resident and U of S student, he travelled around the world promoting conservation, and tree-planting.

Grey Owl (Archie Belaney) was another early conservationist who expressed his views in his many writings.

Diana Wright and Terry Harley, who produced Pollution Probe, later called just Probe, for the Environmental Society. Harley also headed an energy conservation information centre in Saskatoon.

Ann Coxworth of Saskatoon has long been an outstanding spokeperson for the Saskatchewan Environmental Society. Her name has become synonymous with activism on the climate crisis.

A giant in climate change research is Malcolm Wilson, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which collectively received the Nobel Peace prize in 2007, along with Al Gore. Wilson is director of the University of Regina’s Office of Energy and Development, and director of the International Test Centre for CO2 Capture.

The community of Craik’s Eco-village and solar project built in 2004 was an environmentalist’s dream. Occupying six thousand square feet, it featured eco-friendly measures like solar power, straw-bale insulation, composting, eater recycling, and wood from elevators. After the concept split the community, the centre burned down in 2016.

The Factor 9 demo home, a single-family home built in Regina for the Saskatchewan Research Council and other agencies, was conceived to use 90% less energy and 50 percent less water than an ordinary 1970 house the same size. Solar heated and airtight, it has no basement and no furnace.

A Saskatoon couple owns the first certified passive house in the prairie provinces. With no furnace, it uses up to 90 percent less energy, heated instead with solar panels and a hyper-efficient heat recovery and ventilation system. It is airtight, with deep window wells, triple-paned windows, and a three-inch-thick door.

To supply green energy to the power grid, the DEEP Earth Company began drilling near Estevan in 2018 in preparation for building a plant to generate enough geothermal energy to supply power to 5,000 houses. It was said its eco-impact would be equal to removing 7,400 cars off the road every yearand that the plant would be the first in Canada. In January 2019 P.M. Trudeau announced a grant of $25.6 million, the provincial government is putting up $175,000]

Another company sells and installs geothermal heating and cooling systems in buildings to cut down on use of fossils fuels.  It has three outlets, in Saskatoon, Hanley and Biggar.

Books - Corvus, by Harlold Johnson and Dry by Barbara Saper
Climate change books – ‘Corvus’, by Harold Johnson and ‘Dry’ by Barbara Saper

Speculative fiction writers who imagine our possible future, as in Barbara Sapergia’s Dry — about a province severely lacking water — and Howard Johnson‘s disturbing novel Corvus, which imagines environmental calamity on the prairies if present trends continue.

Regan Roy, U of S graduate, was working in 2012 with the World University Service in Lima, Peru, to promote water, sanitation, environmental recovery and economic development in Ica, where he worked for twenty-five years.

Nature writers such R.D Symons, Trevor Herriot, Paul Hanley, Sharon Butala and Candace Savage point to our delicately balanced ecosystems as a barometer of the health of the land.   

[Baker: Millar, Saskatchewan Heroes & Rogues. Wilson: Green & White fall 2009: 26; Craik: StarPhoenix April 2006. Demo home: Saskatchewan Research Council. Certified passive house: StarPhoenix 14 November 2016, CBC Radio 13 August 2018. Deep Earth: CBC News 22 November 2018; 11 Jan 2019. Roy; Green & White (fall 2015): 35] 

Saskatchewan as energy guzzler

Saskatchewan is one of the highest energy consumers in Canada (not surprising giving energy requirements for winter heating and agriculture).

factory smokestacks
Illustration by Ruth Millar

We are voracious fossil fuel users and gas guzzlers. In 2016, our energy demand was the fourth biggest in the country, and the biggest per capita.

In 2016, industry gobbled up the largest amount of energy at 58 percent. Transportation gulped 21 percent, commercial 14 percent, and residential, 7 percent.

The fuel our residents used most was natural gas at 46 percent. Heating buildings in Saskatchewan’s frigid winters makes us insatiable consumers of natural gas, with a per capita demand in 2017 at 8 percent of Canada’s total. Even so, our biggest natural gas gobbler was industry.

Electricity consumption per capita in this province was 20 megawatt hours in 2016. Each of us used on average the second-highest amount of electricity in Canada, 34 percent more than the national average. Industry consumed the most electricity in 2016, followed by the commercial and residential sectors. Demand for electricity here soared 28 percent since 2005.

[National Energy Board; CBC; energyhub.org, as shared on Facebook]

Saskatchewan as energy producer

Although the prairie provinces bask under more solar radiation than any other province, Saskatchewan is at the bottom of solar power rankings posted by energyhub.org. Our ranking is 16.2, while Nova Scotia’s is 22.6, and BC’s is 18.9.

image of windmills
Wind farm on the prairies

In Canada, only Saskatchewan and Alberta produce heavy crude oil, of which our province sucked up 11 percent. In 2017, we produced more than 485,000 barrels a day (Mb/d) 

Saskatchewan’s two refineries, Co-op Refinery in Regina and Gibsons Refinery in Moose Jaw use western Canadian crude. Co-op churns out gasoline, diesel, and heavy fuel oil, while Gibsons makes asphalt. Our surplus refined petroleum products (RPPs) go to Alberta, Manitoba, and the U.S.

Natural gas production is huge. In 2017, our province produced an average of 401 million cubic feet per day, about 3 percent of Canada’s total that year. The NEB estimates our natural gas resources at 13.4 trillion cubic feet (Tcf). 

In 2017 “natural gas liquids” produced here made up about 3 percent\ of Canada’s total. Our refineries also spill out a trickle of propane and butane.

Our province produced 25.5 terawatt hours of electricity in 2017, about 4 percent of Canada’s total. Our province can generate 4,533 megawatts (MW).

SaskPower produces most of our province’s electricity, and independent companies generate about 20 percent.

Although the prairie provinces bask under more solar radiation than any other provinces, Saskatchewan is at the very bottom of solar power rankings posted by energyhub.org. Our ranking is 16.2, while Nova Scotia’s is 22.6, and BC’s is 18.9.

Fossils fuels provide about 84 percent of Saskatchewan’s electricity, that is, about 49 percent from coal, 35 percent from natural gas, and 16 percent from renewables, mostly hydroelectricity.

Federal guidelines mandate that our coal plants must close down after fifty years of production, or be retrofitted with carbon capture and storage technology by 2030.

Our province can generate 890 MW of hydroelectric power, in power stations as far north as Lake Athabasca. Our biggest power station is Boundary Dam, capable of generating 672 MW, chiefly coal-fired.

Sunny Saskatchewan could become the epicentre of solar power in Canada. The 10 MW Highland Solar Project near Swift Current, should be in operation in 2019.

The DEEP Earth project in southeast Saskatchewan, mentioned above, has great potential for supplying clean energy to the power grid. (Hot springs are another example of uses of geothermal energy.)

The number of individual buildings heated with geo-thermal energy on site is estimated at one to two thousand across the province, according to a spokeperson for mienergy.ca. Companies remove heat from buildings during the summer, and pump heat from deep in the ground to use in winter.

[Geothermal: info@mienergy.ca. See also The Economy regarding the energy industry.]

Greenhouse gas emissions (GHG)

Our GHG emissions in 2016 were 76.3 MT of “carbon dioxide equivalent” (CO2e), 71 percent more than in 1990.

Each one of us produces 66.9 tonnes of CO2e emissions  –  the most per capita in Canada – 24.4 percent greater than the Canadian average of 19.4 tonnes per person.

Biggest emissions offenders in our province are oil and gas (33 percent), agriculture (23 percent), and electricity (20 percent).

Saskatchewan is Canada’s second biggest GHG emissions culprit (Alberta is first), most of them from coal. In 2016, we spewed out 19 percent of our entire country’s GHG emissions from power generation – way out of proportion.

Ruminant animals like cattle, buffalo, sheep and goats belch out some pretty noxious gases: nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide and methane, responsible for 14.5 percent of gases that contribute to global warming, compared to 14 percent from transport. A worthy research project for animal scientists!

On the positive side, in 2014, the Boundary Dam station has been retrofitted for carbon capture and storage that can reduce CO2 emissions by one megatonne (MT) a year.

[From the National Energy Board web page. Ruminants: United Nations FAO, via CBC 19 July 2018, reuters.com]

What’s in a name?

Places with First Nations names

Saskatchewan River: from the Cree word for “turbulent, swift-flowing river.”

Waskesiu Lake: comes from the Cree word for “red deer.”

Little Manitou Lake: from the Algonquin name for “good spirit” or “giver of life.”

Chitek Lake: from Cree word for “pelican.”

Mistawasis First Nation: “the little child”, head chief of the prairie Cree at 1896 signing of Treaty Six. 

City of Saskatoon:  from the Cree word “Saskatoomina”, flowering willows known for their long branches – suitable for making arrow shafts—as well as their tasty berries.

Town of Assiniboia: from Ojibway word for “one who cooks with stones.”

Town of Moosomin: meaning “high bush cranberries” in Cree.

Town of Nipawin: from the Cree word for “resting place”, where women and children waited for the men to return from hunting trips.

Village of Piapot: from the name Payipwat, “one who knows the secrets of the Sioux”, an influential Cree/Assiniboine chief in the 1870s-80s.

Village of Wawota: from Algonquin word for “lots of snow”.

Village of Meskanaw:  meaning “path” or “trail” in Cree.

Village of Meota: Cree for “good place to camp”.

Metinoa Beach: from Cree word for “near (Meota)”.

Katepwa Beach: meaning “who calls” in Cree (a beach in the Qu’Appelle Valley).

Aitkow Creek: Cree word for “river that turns” (located near the elbow of the Saskatchewan River).

Mistaseni: meaning “big rock” in Cree, referring to a huge buffalo rubbing stone in the Aitkow Valley that was blown up in 1964 during the construction of the Gardiner Dam.  Part of this rock is preserved in a cairn at the Elbow Harbour; the remainder is submerged in Lake Diefenbaker.

[Russell, What’s in a  Name; Barry, People, Places; Wikipedia] 

All shook up:

Earthquakes felt in Saskatchewan 

Except as noted, on these dates the StarPhoenix reported quakes, usually having occurred that day or the day before (since there were two editions a day in the early days). Some were reported in Regina papers as well. But according to seismologists, before the mid-1960s any quakes less than Magnitude 4 couldn’t be detected here. 

15 May 1909: The first quake officially observed in Saskatoon lasted ninety seconds, with an estimated magnitude between five and six on the Richter scale. The only seismograph in Canada then was in Ottawa, but the quake terrified people from Winnipeg to Lethbridge, Minnesota to Prince Albert.  Its epicentre was thought to be where Saskatchewan, Montana and North Dakota meet. 

22 December 1934: the earth trembled nightly at Unity. Oil drillers pooh-poohed talk of earthquakes, believing them to be “gas pains” from drilling. 

19 October 1935: Seismographs at the U of S indicated tremors originating in Montana that went on for hours, and set dogs howling in southern Saskatchewan. 

18 July 1954: A tremor was reportedly felt in Saskatoon. 

August 18, 1959: The biggest quake felt in Saskatoon since 1909 lasted twenty minutes, with lesser tremors following like hiccups, and then a big aftershock four hours later, that kept up for six minutes.  Though it reportedly emanated seven miles to the south, it still registered magnitude four.

Minor earthquakes were reported near Bengough in 1972, and three others near Radville, or Esterhazy in 1976. 

Since then at least three earthquakes registering 4.1, 4.3 and 4.4 M were felt in August 1982, April 2010, February 2012, near the southern border. The biggest was at Langenberg.  At least four others were over 3 in magnitude.

A light (3.8) earthquake was felt early September 5, 2016 in Yorkton, Melville and Langenburg, about 200 kilometres northeast of Regina. The quake shook an electrical substation, affecting farms near Esterhazy and Melville. There had been eleven others of a similar magnitude in the Yorkton-Esterhazy area since 1981.

15 August 2019: A 4.1 MG quake near Esterhazy was reported by the U.S. Geological Centre. Its epicentre was near the K2 potash mine.

[Newspaper clippings; Yorkton: CBC News 5 September 2016; Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences 15 (8): 1341-55. Esterhazy: CBC 5 August 2019]

Hottest, coldest, wettest

Extremes from the Weather Office

Saskatchewan’s central location on a large continent, where warm humid subtropical air masses from the south collide with cold polar masses from the north, have created record variations in temperature, rainfall and winds. Some of these are, in Celsius:

The hottest temperature ever recorded in all Canada was 45 degrees C. at Midale and Yellow Grass on July 29, 1939.

A steam locomotive and train bogged down in snow,
ca. 1948. Photo PH 2000-94-18
from Local History Room Saskatoon Public Library.

The most frigid temperature ever recorded in the province was minus 56.7 at Prince Albert, on February 1, 1893.

On July 3, 2000, 375 mm of rain was dumped on Vanguard in eight hours, the greatest ever recorded on the prairies here in such a short period.

Estevan is the sunniest city in the province, with 2,537 hours of sunlight a year on average.

The Canadian record for the most rainfall in an hour — 250 mm — was set at Buffalo Gap, Sask. on May 30, 1961.

The biggest hailstone recorded in Canada (114 mm in diameter) landed near Cedoux in August 1973.

Moose Javians were buffeted by the fiercest known wind gusts (131 km/hr) in the province October 12, 2013.

The lowest windchill temperature in Saskatchewan (minus 59 degrees C.) was recorded at Saskatoon January 17, 1954.

Regina is Canada’s driest capital city, with 390 mm average precipitation per year.

In 1923, Kamsack registered the highest annual total precipitation (916 mm) of any Saskatchewan station in the province’s history.

A snowy winter in Kindersley.
Photo by Gerry Ackerman

The most snow known to have fallen in one year here was 386 cm, at Pelly in the winter of 1955-56.

Regina after a cyclone cut a swath through the city on June 30, 1912
Regina after a cyclone cut a swath through the city on June 30, 1912. Photo LH 280, courtesy of Local History Room, Saskatoon Public Library.

An average of eighteen tornadoes touch down in Saskatchewan each year. The most destructive in Canada, to date, was the famous tornado that ploughed through downtown Regina on June 30, 1912, killing twenty-eight people.

[Assisted by John Paul Cragg, warning preparedness meteorologist, Environment Canada]

image of couple trudging through high snowbanks
Illustration by Ruth Millar

Cold ’nuff fer ya?

How those long cold winters affected us

Extreme winters here are the stuff of legend, especially before official records were kept. Community histories and newspapers delighted in citing extremes, and competed for superlatives. With worse extremes around the world, ours don’t seem so bad. At least we don’t get volcanoes, tsunamis, or hurricanes.

There was so little game in the winter of 1880-81, the Nakoda Assiniboines were famished. and had to kill their precious horses for food.

The winter of 1886-7 seemed endless and its snow fathomless. The STV ranch in the south lost all five thousand cattle they had brought from the U.S.A.

Some thought January and February of 1890 were the worst months in ten years, as blizzards piled the snow so deep the cattle could not graze.

On January 1, 1885, paper stuck to the type inside the offices of the Regina Leader.

The legendary “killer winter” of 1906-07 killed thousands of cattle and some humans. Cattle died of hunger, unable to paw through the snow to feed on grass below. Many ranchers from the U.S. threw in the towel and departed.

Two children were leading their horses home when they got lost in a snowstorm near Wood Mountain in April 1906. Had they been older and wiser they’d have let the horses lead the way, as the horses made it home but they didn’t. Their remains were not found for nine years, and a nearby creek was named “Lost Child Creek.”

In 1906 two German immigrants near Humboldt got lost in a blizzard and froze to death. Their bodies were found near a neighbour’s home.

An apprentice at Georgina Binnie-Clark’s farm ca. 1910 recalled that the kitchen kettle in the kitchen was frozen solid, and the bed linens frozen to the wall.

Many homesteaders’ shacks were not insulated. In Dundurn, chamber pots froze under the beds, and residents heated flat-irons, wrapped them in towels, and put them under the sheets. Some homesteaders banked sand, dirt or manure around the huts as high as seven or eight feet, and poured water on these banks to freeze and keep the banking firm.

In a ten-day blizzard in early 1947 snow buried a train near Weyburn, and many animals perished. Farmers dug tunnels under the snow to reach their barns. The frozen bodies of an elderly couple near Maidstone were found about a mile from their farm.

A blizzard in December 1955 blocked trains. Children stayed overnight in schools. Cattle were found in heaps, dead from lack of oxygen and food. That blizzard claimed a life at Cutknife.

[Assiniboines: Savage: A Geography of Blood, 138; STV ranch: Maple Creek history; Grassland Settlers; Regina: Drake, Regina: The Queen City. 34; Poitier, Wood Mountain Uplands, 63-64; Humboldt: Phoenix 15 February 1906; Binnie-Clark, Wheat and Woman xiii; Dundurn: Prairie Tapestry: Dundurn, 359; Weyburn and Maidstone: Dederick and Waiser. Looking Back; Star-Phoenix 13 Dec 1955; blizzard: Western People, 7 Feb 1985]

Hot ’nuff fer ya? How those long hot summers affected Saskies

illustration of woman sweating in hot weather
Illustration by Ruth Millar

Reports in newspapers and community histories describe torrid temperatures, pummeling rain, parching drought, hailstorms, floods, or tornadoes that wreaked havoc across the province, or specific regions.

In 1886, drought almost completely wiped out crops in certain areas.

In the hot, dry summer of 1890, a fierce hailstorm in July levelled crops in the Swift Current area, smashed windows and left a six-inch carpet of ice on the ground. Also that summer, heat and drought shrivelled the crops. It wasn’t a good year.

In the legendary drought of 1894, it was claimed, the lowest moisture count of 3.8 cm (1.5 inches) was lower than the average in Phoenix, Arizona.

Historic photos of Saskatoon show high water in a 1908 flood, when waters rose almost to the top of the Victoria bridge piers, and almost to Spadina Crescent in places.

Summer hailstorms were so relentless, Dundurn householders stretched horsehide over windows, or stuffed pillows in broken ones. Uprooted windmills sailed away; phone lines snapped; livestock vanished. Later, errant possessions turned up kilometres away.

Blackest year on the prairies was 1937, recalled author Max Braithwaite. Dust piled up to the eaves of farm houses and buried farm machinery, and sloughs and wells dried up. Sixty-six thousand people left because of the destitution. 

Low riverbanks sometimes caused the North Saskatchewan River valley around Nipawin to overflow its banks, and spring runoff would inundate the area. Floods there in 1954 and 1955 caused some exasperated farmers to give up and head for drier pastures.

In April 1971 locals in Regina sprang into action, sandbagging to prevent further damage. An impromptu dormitory with cots was set up at the Armoury to house and feed people made homeless by the floods.

Flooding in 2014 and 2016 made the landscape seen from the air look like broken mirrors strewn across the land. In 2014, sixteen communities declared a state of emergency, and some farmsteads were islands in seas of water. In 2016 the Carrot River area and much of Estevan were underwater after flooding.

People close to the Alberta border eyed the ravenous Fort MacMurray fire with unease.

A hail of a storm” proclaimed the StarPhoenix May 31, 2018 after ice pellets pummelled Moose Jaw, carpeting the streets, after a week or so of temperatures up to 30 degrees C.

And yet, Saskatchewan people just kept on carryin’ on, as Bob Dylan would say.

[Braithwaite: Maclean’s 19 March 1955. Carrot River: CBC News 29 June 2014, Global News 28 Dec 2016. Dundurn: Prairie Tapestry: Dundurn, 239. Phoenix: Drake, Regina the Queen City, 73. Regina flood: Leader-Post 12 April 1971. Swift Current: Grassland Settlers, p. 59.]

Oldest heritage buildings in Saskatchewan

Some notable vintage buildings designated by Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada:

Holy Trinity Anglican Church, oldest building in the province, completed at Stanley Mission in 1860.

Remaining original building of the Hudson Bay Co. post, constructed at Fort Qu’Appelle in 1864

Stone farmhouse on the Motherwell Homestead, constructed near Abernethy in 1882

Marr residence, oldest building on its original site in Saskatoon, built in 1884.

Government House, residence of the lieutenant-governor, constructed in Regina in 1891.

Canadian Bank of Commerce building, distinct Greek Revival style, completed in Watson in 1907.

Mellville Grand Trunk Pacific Railway station, Classical Revival style building, constructed in 1908.

Saskatoon Canadian Pacific Railway station, Chateau- styled architecture, completed in 1908.

Moose Jaw Court House, neo-classical style building, erected in Moose Jaw in 1909.

Addison Sod House, with earthen walls tapered from four feet thick at the bottom to three feet at the top, constructed in the Kindersley district in 1911.

[Community sources, www.vanishingsask.ca/]
Medical Care – Health Matters!

Medical Care – Health Matters!

The history of medical care began with early doctors who faced many challenges in serving the sick. Nurses played a vital role too. But perhaps the most important story for Canadian citizens is the Medicare saga which began in our province. We touch on determined individuals who played key roles in that history, the most famous being Tommy Douglas and Emmett Hall.

Indomitable early doctors

Forging a path in health care

Most Saskatchewan communities had pioneering doctors who are still revered for their fortitude and tenacity in reaching far-flung patients. Here are some stories of doctors who played adventurous roles in our past.

Dr. James Hector, medical doctor and naturalist, accompanied the Palliser Expedition in the fall of 1847 to figure out which lands in the Canadian interior could be used for agriculture. Then he stayed behind when Captain Palliser went east, and continued exploring the prairies on his own.

NWMP doctor Dr. Augustus Jukes was sent in 1882 to report on conditions in native camps in the Cypress Hills. He found children in rags, and thousands of destitute people starving, subsisting on dogs. With no buffalo hides for tepees, most were shivering in cotton tents. Despite his scathing criticism of government agents using starvation to force these families on to northerly reserves, they only meted out already-promised annuities.

Surgeon Major James Bell during the Northwest Resistance was commander of medical personnel at the field hospital in Saskatoon where five doctors, six “dressers,” and an orderly laboured to save lives of wounded soldiers.

Dr. Thomas Roddick was Deputy Surgeon General in 1885, tending wounded at the field hospital in Saskatoon. After hostilities ended and his patients were sent home, he stayed behind to minister to Metis wounded at Fish Creek and Batoche. He left them cash and medical supplies, and instructions to NWMP doctors for further care.

Dr. Robert G. Ferguson, superintendent of the Saskatchewan Anti-Tuberculosis League, achieved many firsts for the province, including free TB treatment, vaccination programs for “San” workers and indigenous people, and TB surveys.

Dr. Archibald Kitely of Nipawin was renowned in the 1920s for sewing a severed finger (plus two dangling fingers) back onto the hand of a three-year-old boy who had been playing with a hatchet. Dr. Kitely reportedly was pursued by wolves as he traversed the wilderness to reach patients at distant sites.

Dr. Elizabeth Matheson, “one of Canada’s first women doctors”, practised medicine from 1898 to 1918 at Onion Lake, where she and hubby John Matheson set up a mission and hospital for the Cree. At John’s urging, despite being pregnant and already a mother of two she returned East to finish the medical degree she had started earlier.

Dr. William McKay standing in row of early Saskatoon citizens.
Dr. William McKay, feisty early Medical Health
Officer (second from right) on 20th Street East
in Saskatoon in 1903. Photo LH 1493-c,
from Local History Room, Saskatoon Public Library.

Dr. William John McKay, a feisty medical health officer in Saskatoon, was horrified by typhoid outbreaks caused by contaminated water every summer from 1907 to 1912. He argued that slop disposal methods were – well – sloppy, and the nuisance grounds were a public health hazard. He insisted they be moved further from the city, and railed against outdoor privies, shallow wells, and unsanitary restaurants. McKay drafted bylaws that set a lofty standard in public health, He was listed in the 1911 Who’s Who in Canada.

Dr. Alfred Shadd was probably Saskatchewan’s first African-Canadian physician. He had started medical studies in Ontario before coming to the Carrot River area as a teacher in 1896, After helping a severely injured man there, he returned east to finish his M.D. Graduating with honours, he returned and set up a practice in Kinistino. Following post-graduate studies in Europe in 1907, he moved his practice to Melfort, bought a pharmacy, a prosperous farm and a newspaper, and became an alderman.

A Dr. Walsh, aka Muski-kewe-yinew (medicine man) travelled by canoe in 1919 with a party of fourteen to the far north of Saskatchewan, distributing treaty funds to First Nations people. Accompanying Treaty Commissioner William McKay, Walsh set up his own tent to tend to the medical needs of the native people.

[Bell: Sessional Papers no. 6A,49 Vict., 1886, cited in Tolton, Prairie Warships, 133. Hector: Friesen, Where the River Runs, 219-227; Blaine Lake history, 7-8. Jukes: Letter, Jukes to White. 7 October 1882.  Kitely: assisted by Sharon Butala; Nipawin community history; Matheson: Buck: The Doctor Rode Side-Saddle. McKay: Western People 25 November 1999. Roddick: Ballantine, Saskatchewan History spring 1964. Shadd: Saskatchewan History vol 30 no. 2 (1977): 41-55.]

Milestones in Saskatchewan health care

Medicare owes its origins to the political and cultural will of Saskatchewan people who pioneered several innovations in health policy. Here we note some other health-related milestones that helped pave the way and distinguish the province as Canada’s conscience in healthcare. But, the journey was not an inevitable one. As of 1905, medical care in Saskatchewan was typically provided by individual doctors residing in smaller communities.

Paid doctors:  In 1916 Dr. Schmitt of Holdfast became the first doctor paid an annual salary, organized through the municipal doctor plan in the RM of Sarnia. Paying doctors a salary rather than a fee-for-service became one of the most contentious issues in the struggle for Medicare, ultimately erupting in the world’s longest doctors’ strike, when Saskatchewan doctors withdrew their services for twenty-three days on the eve of Medicare’s implementation in 1962.

Community clinics: In 1962, socialist-minded physicians, who supported the government and opposed the doctors who went on strike, formed a working group to create an alternative to fee-for-service, hospital-based medical care.  Combining the need for prevention with family practice, community clinics remain a critical primary care service and are a reminder of the importance of prevention and education as key elements of our healthcare system. 

Tuberculosis: Indigenous deaths from TB were ten times higher than non-indigenous rates in the first half of the 20th century.  Dr. Robert G. Ferguson, working at the TB Sanatorium at Fort Qu’appelle, introduced the first controlled trial of a TB vaccine (BCG), which relied on experiments on Indigenous children.  The trial proved successful, if controversial.

Mental health: In 1921 Saskatchewan allegedly built the last Victorian asylum in the western world: the Saskatchewan Mental Hospital, Weyburn.  Forty years later ours was the first province in Canada to aggressively reject the long-term confinement of people with mental illnesses or intellectual disabilities, and provincial reformers took a leading role in developing a new system of care: care in the community.

Cancer: In 1931 Saskatchewan introduced the first cancer registry in the nation; this systematized accounting helped to improve early detection and bolstered research that led to major technological innovations, including the cobalt-60, the betatron, and much later, the synchrotron, all of which made Saskatchewan a leader in radiation physics and cancer care services.

Medical education: In 1952 the University of Saskatchewan introduced a full program of medical education, allowing local students the opportunity to complete their training in the province.  This move coincided with the opening of the University Hospital, fulfilling international recommendations that academic medical education occur in tandem with laboratory research and bedside observation.

Spiritual care: In 1954 Plains Cree people established the first (and only) Canadian branch of the Native American Church.  This organization provided spiritual guidance and post-colonial healing through prayer, worship, and the use of peyote (mescaline).

Hospitalization: Drafting the blueprints for a publicly funded healthcare system, Saskatchewan communities pooled their resources to retain physicians, maintain local hospitals, and invest in medical and nursing education programs.  The results of investing in communities paid off:  in 1947 the province passed the Hospitalization Act – the first of its kind, covering the costs of in-hospital care for all provincial residents. 

Medicare: A decade later the Medical Care Services Act (1957) expanded the coverage to services outside of hospitals, excluding pharmacare.  In 1984 the Canada Health Act recognized the culmination of these policies at the national level; all other provinces and territories had followed suit and established their own publicly funded systems of healthcare.

Dental care: Building on its health care promises, in 1978 Saskatchewan introduced the children’s dental service in, what later amounted to a short-term attempt, to bring more health services under the public umbrella.  Recognizing that preventing illness is much less costly than restoring health, dental care became an important area for expanding healthcare services in the community. 

[Erika Dyck, U of S professor & health historian; Canada Research Chair, History of Medicine]

Medicare super-heroes

Leaders in the fight for Medicare

What we know as “Medicare” was made possible by a succession of individuals and groups determined to institute a system of publicly-funded medical care in Saskatchewan. They weathered heated conflict between doctors and government, and a tumultuous doctors’ strike.

Dr. Maurice Seymour served in the 1885 Resistance, practised in the Qu’Appelle Valley, then headed the provincial department in charge of public health. He pushed for public funding of hospitals and physicians, made important contributions to public health, hired Dr. R.G. Ferguson for the tuberculosis program, and dealt with outbreaks of the Spanish flu and other serious infectious diseases.

Bold Experiment book cover
Matt Anderson was significant in the Medicare saga. This book is his take on it.

Norwegian immigrant Mathew (Mathias) S. Anderson could be called the grandfather of Medicare. Starting in 1927, he pushed repeatedly at rural municipality conventions for publicly-funded medical care and hospital insurance. The Matt Anderson Plan, passed as an Order-in-Council in 1939, allowed municipalities to impose taxes for health services. Several did. It cost individuals $5 a year.

Rural Saskatoon resident Diana Wright, after hearing renowned Swiss medical historian Dr. Henry E. Sigerist lecture at Queen’s University on the topic of tax-funded health services for the poor, arranged for him to meet CCF leader T.C. Douglas and CCF MPs from Saskatchewan in 1943.

Dr. Henry Sigerist was a towering figure in the march toward Medicare. He agreed to come to our province if the CCF won the next election, and they did. Sigerist came to Regina for three months, then prepared a report containing advice that would later be implemented in the provincial Medicare scheme.

Thomas Clement Douglas, once voted Canada’s top Canadian, is revered as one of the two “Fathers of Medicare.” Photo QC-1463-3 by CFQC staff
ca. 1961, from Local History Room,
Saskatoon Public Library

Thomas C. (Tommy) Douglas, a former Baptist minister, was horrified by the expense of health care in the harrowing 1930s, care not available to the poor. He pioneered Saskatchewan’s 1947 hospitalization plan, our country’s first, emulated across Canada by 1958, and became a seminal figure in the genesis of Medicare. He oversaw the adoption of the Saskatchewan Medical Care Insurance Act on November 17, 1961, before resigning to lead the new federal NDP party.  

W.G (Bill) Davies, Saskatchewan’s Minister of Health at the time, countered a resulting doctor’s strike by bringing in pro-Medicare doctors from Britain.

Succeeding Premier W.S. Lloyd saw Medicare put into effect on July 1, 1962. it was the first government-funded, comprehensive and universal medical insurance plan in North America.  It was born in a maelstrom of controversy and a doctors’ strike, but within ten years all Canadians benefited from Medicare.  

Dr.  Sam Wolfe was a mover and shaker in setting up Saskatoon’s community clinic. He co-authored the definitive 1967 book, Doctor’s Strike: Medical Care and Conflict in Saskatchewan.

Dr. Orville K. Hjertaas was a key figure in setting up a community clinic in Prince Albert.

Ed Mahood was the first chair of the Saskatoon Community Clinic board, which started the first “interdisciplinary community medicine” in Saskatchewan.

Saskatoon’s Citizens in Defense of Medicare called for citizens to demonstrate their support for Medicare.

Stan Rands, executive secretary of the Community Health Services Association (CHSA), wrote Privilege and Policy: A History of Community Clinics in Saskatchewan.

Dr. Frank Coburn, a professor of psychiatric medicine, played a strong role in the fight for Medicare, and helped set up community clinics.

Bill Harding, founding president of CHSA, chaired the Regina clinic board from 1962-65. With Rands, he helped establish thirty-five clinics in Saskatchewan.

Roy Atkinson was a CHSA founder and its second president.

Citizens for a Free Press, led by Ben and Adele Smillie, challenged the Saskatoon daily newspaper to stop refusing pro-Medicare letters to the editor.

Steps on the Road to Medicare - Why Saskatchewan Led the Way - book by C. Stuart Houston

Notably, in 1961, Prime Minister Diefenbaker appointed Justice Emmett Hall – who had experienced poverty and hardship as a young man in the dirty thirties in Saskatchewan — chair of a Royal Commission on Health Services, charged with exploring ways of publicly financing medical services country wide. The resulting Hall Report (1964) pushed for the implementation of a national Medicare scheme, modelled on ours.

[Seymour: Houston, Steps on the Road to Medicare chapter 2. Wright: Diana Wright fonds, Sask Archives. Anderson: Marilyn Deck, in Canadian Encyclopedia. Sigerist: Houston, Steps on the Road to Medicare; Diana Wright fonds, SAB. Other information: Canadian Encyclopedia; Houston; Canadian Dimension, vol. 46 no. 4, 2012; Jim Harding’s blog]  

Medical honourees

Some people honoured by the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame (CMHF), the government, or a university

Dr. Baltzan, family and associates. Photo CP-5244 by Creative Professional Photographers, from Local History Room, Saskatoon Public Library

Dr. Marc Baltzan, Saskatoon, (OC, SOM), pioneer in kidney research who helped perform the second kidney transplant in Canada at Saskatoon, was president of the Canadian Medical Association.

Dr. Richard Baltzan, Saskatoon (OC, QJM, SOM, LLD) was instrumental in hemodialysis treatment of kidney disease. He chaired the Deptartment of Medicine at U of S, and president of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada.

Dr. John Conly, a graduate of the U of S Medical College, was recognized by his alma mater for his work as an infectious disease specialist and expert in microbial resistance at the University of Calgary.

The Honourable Dr. Sylvia Fedoruk (OC, SOM) a medical physicist, was born in Canora. She helped develop the world’s first calibrated cobalt-60 unit used for cancer treatment at the U of S.  She was also lieutenant-governor, and a champion curler.

Dr. William Feindel lived for a time in this province, and founded the neurosurgical department at Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon. He is honoured in the CMHF.

Dr. Robert George Ferguson led in the battle against tuberculosis and received a lifetime membership in the Canadian Medical Association.

Emmett Hall as younbg man. Photo from Uiversity of Saskatchewan Archives
Justice Emmett Hall as young man..
Photo from University of Saskatchewan Archives

Justice Emmett Hall attained an LLB from U of S, and is known by many as one of the Fathers of Medicare. He is in the CMHF.

Dr. Louis Horlick of Saskatoon (OC, SOM, QJM) was a specialist in internal medicine and cardiology, and taught medicine at the U of S.

Dr. C. Stuart Houston of Saskatoon (OC, SOM, QJM) is former head of radiology at the U of S, and author of books on topics ranging from natural history to Medicare.

Dr. Harold Johns, best known for his work in using a calibrated Cobalt-60 unit for treatment of cancer while a member of the U of S. faculty, is in the CMHF.

Dr. Sam Landa of Saskatoon (OC, CM), popular physician catering to athletes, was inducted into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame.

Dr. Roberta McKay of Regina, is a physician specializing in dermatology. she received a YWCA Lifetime Achievement award for her philanthropy.

Dr. James Till from Lloydminister, earned a BSc and MSc in physics at U of S. His most stunning contribution to medical science was the discovery, with a colleague, of stem cells while at the University of Toronto. He is in the CMHF.

Dr. Calvin Stiller, who grew up in Naicam and graduated from the U of S College of Medicine, was one of the first to use ciclosporin to prevent rejection of transplanted tissues. He is also in the CMH.

[Wikipedia, Saskatchewan government; email 13 Feb 2018 from CMHOF]

They also served

Other health heroes

Indomitable nurses and others worked in developing countries or countries under siege, and multitudes of other heroes saved folks here in times of crisis.

Ella May Matthews of Maple Creek was a nurse in Europe during the Great War. She nursed in France with the Queen Alexandra Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) in 1917, and at the Somme and Paaschendaele battles. 

Nursing sister Harriet Graham went with the first Canadian contingent to France in World War I, where she served as matron at No. 1 Casualty clearing station. King George awarded her the Royal Red Cross, first rank. She lived in Saskatoon after her marriage to J.D. Macdonald in 1914.

Sophia Dixon of Saskatoon lobbied for change in the law governing birth control in 1931, through the United Farmers of Canada. A founding member of the CCF, she later won a Governor-General’s award for her involvement in the famous Person’s Case.

Allen May of Saskatoon was a university student in 1937 as civil war raged in Spain. A devotee of Dr. Norman Bethune, then pioneering mobile blood transfusion units there, May led a massive blood drive in Saskatoon, inspiring four hundred local donors to donate blood, in just ten days.

Portrait of nurse Jean Ewen, in cap
Jean Ewen accompanied Dr. Norman Bethune to China in 1937. Her book China Nurse chronicles that adventure.

Jean Ewen of Saskatoon accompanied the famous Dr. Norman Bethune to China in 1937 and helped him perform operations in the far northwest during the civil war. After she and the truculent Bethune parted ways, she continued to nurse in the war-torn country on her own for a couple of years. At her request, she was buried in China, next to Bethune. Her family quipped that she probably would have said, “Move over Norman, I’m back.”

Kathleen Ellis, first professor and director of the nursing school at the U of S. Ellis Hall was named for her, the only building on campus named after a woman.

Mary Pyne worked as a nurse for two years in Angola and four years in Zaire (aka Congo). She got her pilot’s license in Medicine Hat in 1976, was a member of Amelia Earhart’s “99s”, and was a founding member of its Saskatchewan chapter, the “Flying Tigers.” As a nurse, she flew into many northern communities in her Cessna two-seater. She received a global citizen award from the Sask. Council for International Co-operation

Barbara Carpio (in braids) and Manuel Carpio (behind her) are shown in the back row
of this photo, taken in Peru. – Supplied photo.

Barbara (Kirkby) Carpio, formerly of Saskatoon, was a public health nursing supervisor from 1971-75 in Pucallpa, Peru when she was called to attend victims of an airplane crash in the jungle. Unfortunately, the plane she was riding in also crash landed, but the occupants were all unhurt and able to tend to patients. They had to catch a ride home in a military helicopter. Back in Canada, Carpio taught community health nursing at the U of S from 1975 to 1979.

The Canadian Red Cross awarded their Florence Nightingale Award to Dawn Marie Anderson, a U of S graduate, for her service during the Israeli-Gaza conflict in 2015.

Jo-Ann Hnatiuk received a U of S alumni award for outstanding service. She went to Afghanistan as a critical care nursing officer for the Canadian armed forces.

Nurse Gerri Dickson of Saskatoon (PhD in community health and epidemiology). did two-year stints in Nicaragua, Papua New Guinea, and Mozambique, and also worked in Saskatchewan’s north with Aboriginal people. A faculty member at the U of S, she received a global citizen award from SCIC.

[May: StarPhoenix 26 July 1937. Ewen: Ewen, China Nurse. Anderson: Green & White fall 2015: 31. Pyne: SCIC, Ned Powers, “Pilot Project”, StarPhoenix. Hnatiuk: www.alumni.usask.ca/awards. Dickson: StarPhoenix Sept 2016]

Spanish Flu, 1918

Deadliest epidemic in Saskatchewan history

The first cases of this H1N1 influenza variant in the province, reported in October, 1918, were soldiers returning from the Great War, then railway and restaurant personnel who had come in contact with them.

One of Saskatchewan’s heroes during the Spanish flu was Usask president Walter Murray who quarantined the university campus for seven weeks after all those who wished to leave had left, in the fall of 1918. Until the university re-opened in January 1919, the campus was influenza free — except for Emmanuel College. It was used as an emergency hospital staffed by sixteen volunteers, only one of whom died. Off-campus, Saskatoon was “like a city of the dead.”

This flu spread rapidly, as in the case of the farmer who — with his wife and one of his daughters— died of it within days of getting a haircut from an infected barber in Rouleau.

The Saskatchewan government received several reports in late 1918 of frozen corpses of families, on homesteads, who died from this flu.

Saskatchewan records don’t include the number of deaths on First Nations due to this flu, but it is known to have been higher than the provincial average. Children in residential schools were particularly susceptible, such as at Onion Lake where the dead were reportedly buried in a trench.

There were 4,916 recorded off-reserve deaths due to Spanish flu in the province between September 1918 and December 1919. About half of these occurred after Armistice celebrations in November, 1918.

Of the 2,217 recorded off-reserve deaths due to this flu during 1918, 716 occurred in cities (including 167 in Saskatoon and 255 in Regina), 417 in towns, 546 in villages and 538 on farms.

The provincial Temperance Act was amended by order-in-council in October 1918 to allow druggists to sell a customer up to eight ounces of alcohol “for medicinal purposes”, while the Spanish flu was prevalent.

October 20, 1918 was the first “Churchless Sunday” in the province, when all gatherings for church services were cancelled to prevent the spread of the flu.

To reduce the chances of the flu spreading, there were often burials without funerals that year.

As a further precaution, schools and places of entertainment in cities and towns across the province were also closed for much of the fall of 1918 and into 1919.

[See article in Saskatchewan History (journal) v. 49, no. 1 (spring 1997) and other sources]


How people in Regina handled the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918

Regina suffered a loss of 350 lives. Could we cope with a pandemic today? Would people obey these rules?

Formed an influenza relief committee to coordinate public health efforts

Isolated houses where the residents had flu, with placards in front

Banned church services, public meetings and entertainments

Wore masks, especially barbers

Imposed $50 fines on spitters, sneezers and coughers

Disinfected streetcars every night.

Ate garlic and onions as a preventative measure, along with dubious vaccines.

Volunteered to do clerical work at the relief office

Women staffed soup kitchens, and men provided transport

Nurses, trained and untrained, cared for severely ill patients.

[Riddell, 5]