From agriculture to iconic Indigenous art, the North Battleford region has much to be proud of

It is worth looking at the region around North Battleford through the strokes of Allen Sapp's paintbrush. 

CBC's virtual road trip series Land of Living Stories explores hidden gems across Saskatchewan

Garry Albert says his crops have gotten better and better each year. (Submitted by Garry Albert)

CBC's virtual road trip series Land of Living Stories explores the hidden gems across Saskatchewan. You can invite CBC's Laura Sciarpelletti to your community for a virtual tour. Visit to pitch your ideas.

This story was originally published on Nov. 27, 2020.

It is worth looking at the land around North Battleford, Sask., through the strokes of Allen Sapp's paintbrush. 

In his paintings you will find scenes of families helping families, Cree drumming circles, early ways of farming the land, mothers with their swaddled babies and families joining around the fire to eat. 

It's a sincere look at what makes the community electric with life, strength and beauty. 

Allen Sapp (left), Ruth Gonor (centre) and Allan Gonor (right) in their home in North Battleford in the late 1960s or early '70s. (Allen Sapp Gallery: The Gonor Collection)

Sapp was a Cree painter born on the Red Pheasant Reserve, 30 kilometres south of the city of North Battleford. As a child, he was often sick, so he watched people and his surroundings. That is evident in his paintings. 

Sapp eventually moved to North Battleford, which sits by the North Saskatchewan River, to try to make a living as an artist by selling his paintings door to door.

He gained momentum when, in 1966, he met art collector Dr. Allan Gonor, who recognized Sapp's artistic talent. Gonor encouraged him to paint what he knew — life on the reserve.

Sapp began to do just that. And by the 1970s, His work was known across North America. 

Allen Sapp playing his drum for visiting students at the Allen Sapp Gallery in North Battleford. (Allen Sapp Gallery: The Gonor Collection)

Today, his work can be found at the Allen Sapp Gallery: The Gonor Collection in North Battleford. 

"Allen captured that agricultural life at a very difficult time for most people, let alone First Nations people who had pass and permit restrictions upon their endeavours of making a living," said Leah Garven, curator and manager of the gallery.   

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"He recorded in his paintings a lot of traditions and ceremonies that were technically banned and outlawed. ... Speaking for people from Red Pheasant First Nation, of course they're very proud of their son and who he became and and how he represented their community."

We still have people who come to the gallery, men in their 60s and 70s, who will just weep looking at the paintings because of the memories that he brings back for that generation and that way of life that's kind of gone.- Leah Garven

Prior to his death at age 87 in 2015, Sapp drove around North Battleford in a Cadillac wearing big hats and other cowboy fashions.

"He was a larger than life character in town. He was very singular and very much an individual. He brightened the historical cultural persona in town," Garven said. 

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      Garven describes Sapp as humble, loving, sensitive and generous.

      "He was brilliant, frankly. In his last days when he would visit the gallery, he knew exactly where he was. And he would come alive when he saw his paintings and he'd sing a song when he come to the gallery," Garven said.

      "We still have people who come to the gallery, men in their 60s and 70s, who will just weep looking at the paintings because of the memories that he brings back for that generation and that way of life that's kind of gone."

      One of Garven's fondest memories of Sapp is the way he would interact with children at the gallery. Sapp would often sing and play his drum with them. 

      "I think he had a huge impact on the thousands of students that he met over the years. Imagine the power for Indigenous youth to have a prominent building in North Battleford dedicated to the art of Allen Sapp. In my mind, we work every day for Allen."

      (CBC News)

      Positive stories

      When you think of North Battleford or the neighbouring town of Battleford, what comes to mind?

      It might be headlines about crime. Or maybe it's the historical armed conflict between First Nations and white settlers in 1885.

      For the people who live in the Battlefords and surrounding area, there is much beauty and much to be proud of. 

      Photographer and journalist Matt Jacques hosts Untapped: An Original Battlefords Saskatchewan Podcast. The podcast focuses on positive stories and the people within the community.  (Matt Jacques)

      Rob Rongve is the co-creator of Untapped: An Original Battlefords Saskatchewan Podcast. The podcast, hosted by photographer and journalist Matt Jacques, focuses on positive stories and the people within the community. 

      "We decided to create the podcast series to try and maybe showcase that things are very, very good here. Despite what the headlines may say as far as crime and other social issues in the community, you don't usually hear the really positive stuff coming on the news," said Rongve.

      "North Battleford has been very publicly advertised as the crime capital of Canada. It's not the reality for the vast majority of us that live in the community."

      Read Battlefords Untapped Top 5 submitted by Rob Rongve:

      That is not to say that the city and surrounding area does not have crime and social issues, Rongve said. It does — particularly due to poverty, he said. 

      "But there's a huge amount of work being done in the community to help and change that. The podcast was one way to promote the very, very positive underbelly of our great community."

      Rongve said podcast episodes about young and diverse people who are doing things to help their community or beginning creative projects are what impact him the most. 

      The City of North Battleford. (Matt Jacques)
      Today on our Land of Living Stories series, we head to the Battlefords to hear more about agriculture, history, and iconic Indigenous art. 10:22

      Taste of North Battleford

      Have you ever wondered if you could enjoy a proper sit-down meal at a restaurant while also catching a live game of curling? Yes, that may be the most Canadian question of all time.

      Well the answer is yes, you can. 

      Rachel Lee owns and operates Beaver Grill Exprezz with her husband Howard in North Battleford. 

      Howard and Rachel Lee own and operate Beaver Grill Exprezz in North Battleford. In the background is the local curling rink. (Don Somers/CBC)

      The Korean couple moved to the city from Vancouver six years ago and serve up many different cuisines, including Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese and Western. 

      "All the people who come to our restaurant, they're all from everywhere ... all different diversities ... all different taste buds. But we have so many different [items on] the menu that they get to choose many different options here and they all enjoy," Lee said.

      The restaurant sits atop of the curling rink that is home to the Twin River Curling Club. Diners can catch the action. 

      "It's definitely excitement that you can see when the curling is happening. And also the customer gets to join as well."

      Vietnamese noodle soup from Beaver Grill Exprezz in North Battleford. (Beaver Grill Exprezz/Facebook)

      Lee said their spin on the traditional Thai rice noodle dish Pad Thai is the favourite dish among customers. Her personal favourite is the Korean Kan-Poong Chicken — a deep-fried chicken breast mixed in Korean sweet and spicy sauce with rice. 

      Elsewhere in North Battleford is Armoury Brewing Company. The microbrewery opened in late 2018 and quickly become a hub for the community. It was started by five friends and the enthusiasm is palpable as soon as you wank through the doors. 

      The taps are always rotating with beers ranging from simple lagers to special holiday brews. Right now Armoury has the cinnamon Vi-Co stout — a bold stout with dark chocolate, cinnamon, vanilla and lactose. 

      Armoury Brewing Company opened in North Battleford in late 2018 and quickly become a hub for the community. (Don Somers/CBC)

      Saskatchewan Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum 

      Let's head across the river to the town of Battleford. There sits the Saskatchewan Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum, a treasure trove of memorabilia including uniforms, photographs, baseball bats, baseballs and trophies.

      "Baseball played such a big role in the development and the settlement of this province. It was a game that everybody could participate [in].They did not need a whole bunch of equipment," said Jane Shury, president and CEO of the museum.

      Baseball also turned out to be a bit of a matchmaker.

      "Baseball became a social event. Many of the ballplayers played ball because it gave them something to do. They loved the game and they would meet their girlfriend at the baseball game. And so the girls also would go to the game to watch the game ... but mostly to see if they could find themselves a boyfriend!" Shury said. 

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          Between 1876 and 1883, Battleford was the capital of the Northwest Territories. The first recorded baseball game in the history of the North West Territories was played there on May 31, 1879. 

          Today, you can find a picture of that historic game at the museum. 

          Shury's favourite artifact is a photo of the pitcher in an 1886 baseball game in Lumsden. That pitcher was Walter Scott, the first Saskatchewan premier. 

          Also outside the museum, you will Canada's biggest baseball bat.

          (CBC News)


          Residents and visitors of North Battleford and the surrounding area do not lack things to do and see in the great outdoors.

          Head 70 kilometres east of North Battleford and you will find Crooked Bush — equal parts magical and eerie.

          Crooked Bush is considered to be a botanical mystery. The Crooked Bush trail winds through a cluster of aspen trees that twist and turn in all directions ... except, for some unknown reason, upwards. 

          Then, 50 kilometres north of North Battleford, is Jackfish Lake. It's a gorgeous body of water surrounded by several beaches, with three campgrounds and several hiking trails at Battlefords Provincial Park.

          The lake provides great fishing with perch, walleye, pike and whitefish. An annual ice fishing derby takes place every February, usually attracting more than 2,000 competitors during non-COVID times.

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              Saskatchewan's first Black settlement

              Murray Mayes will repeat at least 20 times in an interview how hard it was growing up in Saskatchewan's first Black settlement during the first half of the 20th Century. But he will immediately follow that up with how thankful he is for those hard times, because they made him stronger.

              Mayes has a lot of joy, and a lot to be joyful about. He exudes pride and love for all his children, who have gone on to have successful careers, give him grandchildren and make differences in their communities. 

              Murray Mayes is a descendant of black pioneers in Saskatchewan. (CBC)

              Mayes was born at the beginning of the Great Depression in the Black settlement of Eldon — 100 kilometres northwest of North Battleford.

              After the U.S. Civil War many freed slaves, like his grandparents Joe and Mattie Mayes, who moved to Oklahoma to begin a new life.

              "Then some of the people that came from the south came up and see these African people. And they said, 'let's re-enslave them.' And they thought, 'we better get out of here,'" said Mayes. 

              Freed slave Mattie Mayes was a well-respected midwife in the Eldon district. (Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan/R-A10362)

              At the time, Canada was inviting people to settle in the country and cultivate the land. 

              In 1910, Joe and Mattie Mayes led a group of Black families up from the U.S. The pioneer family bought about 49 hectares of land in Saskatchewan for $10.

              I just thank God I came through all those hard times because I learned so much from them.- Murray Mayes

              They weren't exactly welcome, however. The Canadian government discouraged Black immigration, preferring white immigrants, according to Mayes. 

              The family set up a life in Saskatchewan regardless. 

              During the Depression, Mayes lived in a one-room log house with eight other people.

              "I used to trap weasels and did some hunting. We didn't have a gun even out there. We were so poor," Mayes said of his upbringing. 

              "We struggled and we had bedbugs. But I just thank God I came through all those hard times because I learned so much from them."

              Three generations of the Mayes family in front of the Shiloh Baptist Church they built. (Leander Lane Family Photo Archives)

              Sweetgrasss First Nation

              Saskatchewan has a rich agricultural history. As early as 1885, Battleford area farmers had formed an agricultural organization. Then in 1906, the North Battleford Agricultural Society was formed. It advocated for farmers and ranchers and spotlighted their successes in the industry.

              The Cree First Nation of Sweetgrass — located 25 kilometres west of North Battleford — is part of Saskatchewan's agricultural legacy.

              Garry Albert and his wife Carma Swimmer Albert on their farm in 1997. They have been married for 47 years and counting. (Submitted by Garry Albert)

              Back in 1884, a reserve was surveyed for Sweetgrass band members. At that time they sold hay and wood, and kept gardens and livestock.

              Today, Sweetgrass farmers like Garry Albert carry on the tradition of their ancestors. Albert's efforts on his land have produced results that he takes great pride in.

              Albert is a third-generation crop farmer with 5,500 acres of land. His grandfather began farming on Sweetgrass land in about 1920. His father would go on to farm the land as well. Albert took over in 1974. 

              Albert says he's been continuously cropping his land since the 1980s, and he's seen positive growth ever since. 

              Meanwhile, the Sweetgrass First Nation reserve had between 12,000 and 15,000 cultivated acres around 1920, according to Albert. 

              In 1992, the federal and provincial governments signed a treaty land entitlement agreement with Saskatchewan First Nations. Under the agreement, the First Nations received money to buy land on the open market.

              "With that Sweetgrass has gone forward and purchased an additional 12,000 and 15,000 acres of land."

              An aerial shot of the Sweetgrass First Nation. (Submitted by Chief Lorie Whitecalf)

              Albert thinks he was always meant to become a farmer. He said he knew from an early age. 

              "I think I was as young as 10 years old I was involved with following my grandfather around and my dad. I would be with my dad on an open-cab combine. He was combining into the evening, and I'm there in a little platform falling asleep ... a little blanket covering me," he said.

              "Then there would be times he'd be hauling grain on a small truck to Cut Knife, which is only about 15 miles from here. I'd be right there. I never turned them down when they asked me if I wanted to come along."

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                  Albert said he clearly remembers his grandfather running a team of horses and a wagon on the farmland. 

                  "I'd go with him to a little pasture to the north of us where he kept a few horses and maybe a few cows. That was the biggest fond memory about my grandfather."

                  About the Author

                  Laura is a reporter and associate producer for CBC Saskatchewan. She is also the community reporter for CBC's virtual road trip series Land of Living Stories. Laura previously worked for CBC Vancouver. Some of her former work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, NYLON Magazine, VICE Canada and The Tyee. Follow Laura on Twitter: @MeLaura. Send her news tips at