Temperance colony or sex trade boom town?: Saskatoon's little-known history

Candice Klein says people mostly don't know about Saskatoon's raunchy past because more conservative narratives have been pushed forward.

Candice Klein says people don't know the city's past because of narrative pushed in past few decades

Saskatoon has long been more permissive toward the sex trade than its reputation as a temperance colony would indicate. (Submitted by Candice Klein)

Saskatoon may have started out as a temperance colony, but there were plenty of people below the surface bending the rules, according to a historian. 

Candice Klein is studying Saskatoon's bawdy past as she completes her PhD in history at the University of Saskatchewan. Her dissertation looks at Saskatoon's changed sexual mores over the course of the 20th century. 

It turns out the small settlement was away from prying eyes and has an X-rated past. 

Candice Klein is a history PhD student at the University of Saskatchewan. (Submitted by Candice Klein)

Klein said that in the 1880s, a group called Temperance Colonization Society handed out pamphlets around Ontario telling people about this new place in the prairies that was partly owned by the society and partly owned by the Dominion. 

"The Temperance Colonization Society had a really specific plan to create this utopia," Klein said.

"[But] if you're trying to have a temperance colony and only one section is dry and then the other is allowed alcohol, that doesn't really work very well."

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Saskatoon's Broadway Theatre openly showed X-rated films beginning in the 1970s. (Submitted by Candice Klein)

The North-West Mounted Police were in charge of the community at the time. Many officers turned a blind eye to the "wet" culture that involved alcohol or the sex trade, Klein said. 

"Just a few years after this temperance colony is founded you see sex workers come in and it becomes a city flush with sex trade," Klein said. "The North-West Mounted Police aren't particularly concerned with policing sex and sex work."

Her research even found that at the times police were "very much active participants." Klein said there is evidence of higher-ups encouraging homosexual officers to visit sex workers to "straighten" them. 

Keyhole Expose was one of the shows for 18 and over patrons at the Broadway Theatre. (Submitted by Candice Klein)

Despite the homophobia, officers allowing the sex trade to flourish also set the groundwork for queer people to be themselves at the time, Klein said. 

Lax policing in "red light districts" made them gathering places for queer people. 

Klein said she has studied newspapers, RCMP files and secondary literature from authors, merchants and other historians.

Some newspapers from the early 20th century contain outright examples of queerness. There are advertisements for queer films and stories about women dressed as men — who would now be recognized as trans.

A newspaper clipping shows a 22-year-old girl who had been "masquerading" as a man. (Submitted by Candice Klein)

Then sexuality became heavily policed starting around the First World War. 

"Then we see it sort of become closeted as it is in the rest of the world at the time," Klein said. "And then it kind of re-emerges in the '60s and especially in Saskatoon in the '70s."

In the 1970s, the University of Saskatchewan became an epicentre for the gay rights movement, she said. Underground private clubs started popping up, including After Midnight, which became Numbers, which became Divas, still open to this day.

Conservative narrative largely pushed back sexual past: Klein

Klein said not many people know Saskatoon's sexual history, largely due to conservative governments being voted into office in the early to mid 1980s and conservative narratives being pushed forward. 

"It completely changes the sexual landscape," Klein said.

"Politics really do affect the way we think about ourselves, the way that we think about sex, the way that we think about our history and I think it becomes erased."