Good reason to wonder whether history is in good shape in Saskatchewan

Now that Canada Day is over and the Canada 150 veneer is stripped away, Bill Waiser asks whether history is hurting in Saskatchewan, especially given recent provincial budget cuts.

Recent developments could prevent research that helps create better understanding of provincial story

The Canadian flag is displayed prominently at the Warman, Sask., branch of the Wheatland Regional Library. (CBC/Leisha Grebinski)

It's been a banner year for history and heritage.

Canada 150 has spawned history books, community celebrations, special events and a controversial CBC-TV series, Canada: The Story of Us.

The controversy has even extended to whether Canada 150 should be recognized given Canada's treatment of Indigenous peoples.

There has also been debate about the choice of 150 years, with many rightly insisting that Canada has a long and rich history, going back not hundreds, but thousands of years.

But now that Canada Day is over and the Canada 150 veneer is stripped away, there is good reason to wonder whether history is in good shape in Saskatchewan.

Indeed, a number of recent developments will frustrate — even prevent — people from doing the kind of research that will satisfy the public's appetite for historical knowledge and help create a better understanding and appreciation of the provincial story.

Saskatoon libraries face budget challenges

Let's start in Saskatoon. 

Although the draconian library cuts in the March provincial budget were reversed, the Saskatoon Public Library is still facing budgetary challenges and has decided to eliminate the position of a dedicated local history co-ordinator in the Local History Room.

It's not known how the room will continue to operate, especially how it will be staffed, under any new library service delivery plan. Expert historical advice, along with use of the collection, could be casualties.

This photo from the Local History Room shows Saskatoon's original downtown arena. (Saskatoon Public Library, Local History Room)

The Local History Room is a historical treasure chest, painstakingly collected over the years, containing books, photographs, clippings binders, historical files and searchable databases.

And it demands a specialist with a detailed and comprehensive understanding of the collection.

It is not enough to know where things might be on the shelf. It is more important to know what's in the records — what's there and not there — and how they were created.

It is also necessary to have a specialist in place who can competently answer questions and suggest avenues of inquiry to the researcher.

The Local History Room is a great resource, but its true value is realized only when the collection is used.

This Local History Room photo from 1975 shows 'The Barn,' which opened in 1937. (Saskatoon Public Library, Local History Room)

Archives to release last issue of Saskatchewan History

The Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan, in the meantime, has been forced to make a difficult decision.

These same activities and agencies have been under-funded for years.

In January 1948, the archives launched Saskatchewan History. It is one of the oldest provincial journals in the country, but that 70-year run will come to an end this fall when the archives releases the last issue.

Scanning the list of contributors over the decades reads like a who's-who of Saskatchewan history. Their articles continue to be consulted and cited in other history works.

The demise of Saskatchewan History will mean that researchers will lose an avenue for disseminating their research findings. And provincial history will be poorer as a consequence.

Budget cuts to Heritage Foundation

Then, there is the sorry situation at the Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation.

Its budget was pared back 40 per cent — not good news when the agency serves as one of the few sources of provincial funding for built heritage in the province.

The foundation was also preparing to support other heritage activities, but that is now doubtful.

Plus, the Main Street Saskatchewan program has been suspended.

Communities seeking to preserve and restore their historic downtowns have lost this much-needed financial assistance. 

It's yet another blow to small town Saskatchewan.

And there is no guarantee that the funding will be restored. "Suspended" is often a nice way to say "ended."

This 'human flag' was created on the Legislature grounds in Regina on Canada Day.

Many will likely argue that history and heritage activities and agencies should share the burden during an economic downturn — that cutbacks are a cruel fact of life in tough times.

But these same activities and agencies have been under-funded for years, even when the provincial economy was booming.

Since when did history become a part-time endeavour?

In March 2012, for example, the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan closed its public reference room two days per week. 

People continue to show up those days, ready to do research, only to find the doors locked. 

Since when did history become a part-time endeavour?

Others might suggest that history is a "frill." But history not only provides a sense of place but also a sense of identity. It helps create a feeling of connectedness and who we are as a people.

And if you don't find yourself in Saskatchewan history, you need to ask yourself "Why? Why isn't my community part of the provincial story?"

That, in itself, is a learning experience, one that can be painful but also empowering.  

History also provides the means and tools to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow by providing some much-needed perspective on Saskatchewan's past and why things happened a particular way.

Individual memories and stories can have resonance across generations at the provincial and national level. The ongoing truth and reconciliation process is just one example.

Saskatoon's Joni Mitchell sang about the dangers of thinking only of the present in her hit Big Yellow Taxi.

"Don't it always seem to go," the refrain warned, "That you don't know what you've got til it's gone." 

About the Author

Bill Waiser

Bill Waiser is an author, historian and retired University of Saskatchewan professor. He is the author of A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan before 1905, winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction. He lives in Saskatoon.


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