by Sarena Johnson
Situated on the traditional territory of the Métis, The Tragically Hip dubbed Saskatoon the “Paris of the Prairies” in their song, Wheat Kings. This past March, Rachel Barreca and I got to find out why. We had the pleasure of attending the fourth annual Think Indigenous conference on Treaty 6 territory. In lieu of one all-encompassing blog about our western adventure, we will be sharing three mini-blogs: 1. Paris of the Prairies, about Saskatoon in general but mostly food; 2. Mind Explosions, on revelations from several amazing conference presenters; and 3. Lessons from the Round Dance, about the actual Nehiyaw (Cree) round dance we attended.
One definition of being Indigenous to an area is having stories that tie you to that particular land. I’ve often heard my Métis grandmother tell stories about what it was like living in a tent on the prairies. And Farley Mowat’s “Owls in the Family” is about my Great Grandfather rehabilitating snowy owls in the office of his Saskatoon medical practice. While this was my first visit to Saskatoon, I immediately felt a nostalgic connection that’s hard to put into words. A connection which was most palpable when I heard the drums at the round dance. Check back in about a week for Think Indigenous: Lessons from the Round Dance – where Rachel and I will talk about the actual round dance we attended and reflect on some other cultural teachings from our trip.
Owls in the Family is about my great-grandfather, Dr. Finn, rehabilitating snowy owls in his office
In the 1880’s, Toronto based Temperance colonists were looking for a new site away from the hustle and bustle of York, and were granted land in the Métis territory of the South Saskatchewan river. Since then, Saskatoon has become a city of bridges with a culinary strong suit, aptly earning the moniker ‘Paris of the Prairies’. The city seemed quaint and quiet, with an airport so empty I swear there was tumbleweed, yet industrious and creative, with displays such as a seemingly random steampunk T-Rex statue in front of a downtown junkyard. While traces of the recession were visible through boarded-up buildings on the main drag, this University town has a rustic agrarian vibe mixed with zesty street art, a strong Nehiyaw presence, and a surprisingly rich culinary scene that makes it a delightful and dynamic place to visit.
Industrial street-art, downtown Saskatoon/Riverside
With the highest restaurants per capita in Canada, restaurant-going could be Saskatoon’s official sport. Reservations are a must here, which is surprising when one rarely finds a line-up in a retail environment. As walk-ins, my aunt Violet and I enjoyed a delightful veggie curry at the bar of Asian fusion restaurant Odd Couple. Rachel joined us for brilliant purple kombucha and heartwarming Chinese medicinal tea at Three Treasures elixir bar, which also served vegan bites and boasted an in-house acupuncture practitioner. There was a fantastic ayurvedic soup, turmeric latte and kale salad combo at Leyda’s, known for its can’t-believe-it’s-gluten-free fare. I managed to score their last fresh loaf of nationally renowned gf bread to bring home on the plane for my mom! The culinary creme de la creme, however, had to be Ayden.
Three Treasures tea and kombucha, Sarena and Rachel at Ayden
After opening several restaurants across the globe, Dale Mackay, winner of Top Chef Canada’s first season, has returned to Saskatoon and opened Ayden in a homecoming of sorts. Named for his son, Ayden serves Canadian comfort food in a casual fine dining atmosphere. The carefully curated menu ranges from seafood to charcuterie. Our favourite was the sweet potato pierogies, built on recipes from generations of Ukrainian babas on neighbouring farms.
We got a taste of local life in a charming century-old Airbnb close to downtown. In the mid-March cold, however, walking downtown felt like Lord of the Rings. Saskatoon doesn’t have Uber yet, so good old fashioned taxi cabs became our go-to mode of transport to escape the cold. It’s a different kind of cold – crisp and sharp with a biting wind that rages unencumbered over the prairie. However, the dry air was the most noticeable distinction from the Great Lakes region. This could be quite comfortable for folks with asthma or arthritis – but for us it felt like a prairie alchemist had transformed Chapstick, bottled water and hand lotion into precious commodities. On the plus side, Saskatoon boasts one of the sunniest climates in Canada, so our views of the city were clear and bright.
Check back next week for part two of this series. In the mean time, here’s The Hip song I mentioned and a video that’s basically a virtual tour of Saskatoon!
YouTube. Alternative on MV. (2000, Oct. 24). The Tragically Hip – Wheat Kings. [Video file]. Retrieved from
YouTube. The vagabrothers. (2015, July 21). SASKATOON: THE PARIS OF THE PRAIRIES. Canada’s Heartland season 1 episode 8. [Video file]. Retrieved from