For more than a century, Saskatoon was minding its own business in the middle of nowhere, a blue-collar Canadian town whose residents prided themselves on their hardiness and sense of shared identity. And then the money started pouring in.
Author Michael Kaplan Photography Whitney Tressel Illustration James Taylor
FROM THE AIR, Saskatoon looks like a postage stamp, a tiny patch of color on a vast brown envelope. The largest city in Saskatchewan, a province in Western Canada that covers some 250,000 square miles of prairie, Saskatoon has long represented the kind of nice-enough backwater settlement where the locals smile at you for no reason and the kids leave home at the earliest opportunity.
From the ground, too, Saskatoon seems a perfectly run-of-the-mill North American enclave. A river flows languidly through the city center. A couple of old-school movie theaters keep the locals entertained. There’s a casual bar called Flint that everybody seems to hit sooner or later. And if you need a new suit, you buy one from Atch & Co., owned by Saskatoon’s mayor, Don Atchison.
That’s how Saskatoon has been for as long as anyone can remember. But walk its streets today, and you catch glimpses of something new emerging. On Broadway, across from the beer-and-shot joint Bud’s, you’ll find Weczeria, a swanky French eatery where the wine list has featured a “Bordeaux-inspired” red at $175 a pop. Nearby is The James Hotel, a boutique establishment whose “luxurious and progressive” lounge is invariably jammed with patrons who appear to have been plucked out of Brooklyn.
The James opened in late 2011, roughly five years after the onset of what has been dubbed the “Saskaboom”—a period of double-digit growth that has left this blue-collar city with the feel, if not quite the look, of a miniature, chillier Dubai. Saskatoon is now the fastest-growing city in Canada, the type of place where Asian business execs snap up farmland and the local art center has Picassos on the walls. “High-net-worth people keep coming through here, looking for things to invest in,” says Grant Kook, president and CEO of the Golden Opportunities Fund, a local venture capital firm. It’s a comment that a decade ago might have been taken for sarcasm.
The reason for Saskatoon’s rapid rise in fortune can be summed up in two words: buried treasure. Saskatchewan has been pumping oil from the ground for more than five decades, but over the past five years production has spiked, thanks to new drilling technologies. Today, the province sells more oil to the U.S. than Kuwait does. Furthermore, it’s the world’s No. 1 producer of potash—a key fertilizer component that’s in ever-increasing demand in China and India—and No. 2 in uranium. As the commercial hub of the province, Saskatoon has benefited mightily from the increased exploitation of these resources, as evidenced by the glistening Porsche dealership that opened here last year.
It’s heady stuff in a city where traditionally the bigwigs were the ones toting hockey sticks and everyone else cheered them on. But there’s also a sense of bemusement—something reminiscent of the vaguely alarmed look in the eyes of a lottery winner beaming from behind a giant check. Sudden wealth has a way of shaking up a person’s values and sense of self; the same could hold true for a city. “Having to call ahead for a reservation,” says Saskatoon-born real estate developer Curtis Olson, trying to put his finger on the post-boom changes, “is not the sort of thing that a lot of people here are used to doing.”
One night during dinner service at the tapas spot Duck Duck Goose, a middle-aged woman from the working-class suburb of Martensville can be heard bemoaning the downside of the upswing. “A few years ago, housing [prices] doubled,” she says. “I remember when you used to be able to buy houses here with credit cards.” The woman’s daughter, a corkscrew-haired blonde in her early 20s, chimes in with a recollection of a recent night out at a new restaurant called The Hollows: “It was filled with hipsters, and I figured that we weren’t welcome there.”
Olson, who wears designer jeans, snazzy boots and well-tailored sports jackets, is familiar with such sentiments. “I like the change, but there are some people who don’t,” he says. “For them, there’s a feeling that the city is not theirs anymore. They’re seeing new faces, and the deck is being shuffled. There is some turbulence.”
WHILE PEOPLE HAVE INHABITED the Saskatoon area for more than 8,000 years, the modern city didn’t take shape until the 1880s. It was founded by a group of moral refugees—Methodists looking to escape booze-sodden Toronto. By the early 1900s, though, this temperance colony had transformed into “Hub City,” a focal point of agricultural trade and rowdy drinking sessions. This marked the first of Saskatoon’s many boom periods, which have invariably been followed by busts (there was a big one in the late 1990s, when oil prices went into free fall).
Through the ups and downs, Saskatoon’s identity stayed more or less the same. Reliance on agriculture diminished and the population grew, but the city remained a place that favored those who were able to make do with little, who squirreled away their nickels—a fact that is a source of pride as much as it is an economic reality. “There weren’t a lot of million-dollar houses five years ago,” says Paul Leier, co-owner of Cavalier Enterprises, the parent company of The James Hotel, “and there wasn’t a Porsche dealership either.” What Leier doesn’t say is that these improvements have brought with them a kind of economic relativity, one that sheds a harsh light on the gulf between the city’s haves and have-nots.
Dan Canfield, proprietor of the music shop Village Guitar & Amp, caters to well-heeled customers who enjoy making like Jimmy Page on the weekends. But things were very different when he first arrived from Toronto, back in 2004. “I would be driving around this depressed Saskatoon and wonder what the heck I was doing here,” he says. “A year later, I saw it getting busier. I sensed something happening. A year after that, you could smell the money in the air. I felt as though anybody with half a brain could come here and do something entrepreneurial.”
While Canfield certainly doesn’t mean his comment to be snide, it still points to a shift in attitudes here. After all, if anybody with half a brain can succeed in Saskatoon, people who fail to do so—those who, say, are being squeezed by rising real estate prices rather than enriched by them—must be deficient in some way. According to the Saskatoon Poverty Reduction Partnership, the city has one of the worst income gaps of any Canadian urban center.
Reminders of Saskatoon’s spiraling affluence are everywhere you turn. One elementary school pickup point often looks like a luxury car dealership. A cluster of chic condos is going up downtown. There’s a surging technological park, Innovation Place, filled with enterprises financed by locally sourced venture capital. In the Riversdale district, Curtis Olson has developed The Two Twenty, a “co-working facility” whose tenants (an architect, a software writer, a publisher, a guy who remixes music) pick up bottles of aged balsamic vinegar and artisanal jewelry at Lifestyles by Darrell Bell.
Conventional wisdom states that this kind of transformation is a good thing, a mark of true and lasting progress. After all, Riversdale, home to Olson’s hip commercial building, used to be so sketchy that cabbies would refuse to go there. “Drivers figured they would have problems here,” says a bearded barista in the coffee shop below the offices. “That’s changed.”
AS SASKATOON’S SKYLINE rises, so too does a sense of optimism. “We are such a young city, we’re going to go up,” says Christie Peters, a chef and co-owner of The Hollows (and former Vancouverite). “I still feel like we’re at the beginning of something. This is the best time.” Sitting in her restaurant, Peters says this as waiters scurry past bearing trays of oxtail ravioli and steelhead trout, bound for a long table loaded with businessmen enjoying a wine-fueled blowout on the company card.
A few days later, 800 Saskatoon socialites congregate at the city’s art complex, the Mendel Art Gallery, for an annual fundraiser. They’re being served samplers from The Hollows and wild-boar canapés from Weczeria. The affable owners of local distillery Lucky Bastard mix gin and tonics. Abstract images flicker on one of the walls as a Sonic Youth–style indie rock band rips it up onstage. The manager of Duck Duck Goose, a young, slender guy named Aman Saleh, watches from the edge of the dance floor. “Isn’t this great?” he asks.
It is great, undeniably, but there’s also an undercurrent of tension here. The Mendel, it turns out, has been at the center of a bitter dispute, one rooted in Saskatoon’s burst of good fortune.
A few years ago the Mendel board of trustees announced plans to expand and, in conjunction with the city council, decided to relocate the Mendel to ritzy River Landing, a $93 million project that would also include changing the name of the 49-year-old institution to the Art Gallery of Saskatchewan. Camille Mitchell, a granddaughter of gallery founder Fred Mendel, was furious. “By basically stealing the paintings of the Mendel Gallery and stripping the Mendel name,” she told a local newspaper, “[the board] has a great way to get more money in their pockets.”
Adding insult to Mitchell’s injury, in 2011 the city council voted to change the name again—to the Remai Art Gallery of Saskatchewan—as a gesture of gratitude to the Frank and Ellen Remai Foundation. A philanthropic venture bankrolled by property development dollars, the Remai Foundation is underwriting a large part of the Mendel’s move; it’s also given the gallery 405 Picasso linocuts valued at $20 million.
In helping lead a movement to save the existing gallery, Mitchell is doubtless on something of a quest to preserve her family honor, but her criticism of the project can be seen as part of a wider conflict, too. For all its recent gains, Saskatoon has also lost something—its identity, perhaps, maybe even its way—or at least this is the view of a small and hitherto silent minority. It took the Mendel controversy to bring things to a head, but the traditionalists finally squared off with the progressives, and the response of the majority of Saskatoon’s residents was resounding. They shrugged, sipped their designer coffee and got on with the business of doing all right for themselves.
As for whether Saskatoon has changed irrevocably, nobody knows. Eric Howe, an economist at the University of Saskatchewan, believes the city may rediscover itself sooner than anyone imagines—specifically, at any time between now and 2019. Howe is a believer in a kind of economic determinism: As surely as night follows day, the thinking goes, boom times will be followed by busts. “They always are,” Howe says. “They always are.”
MICHAEL KAPLAN is a writer in New York City. While in Saskatoon, he lingered in Village Guitar & Amp longer than was absolutely necessary.