Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Saskatoon, the largest city in the province of Saskatchewan, with a population of 220,000, has experienced both stunning growth and marked stagnation during its relatively short history. The community was founded in 1882 by John Lake, who came to the Canadian Northwest to examine the land granted by the Dominion government to the Torontobased Temperance Colonization Society and to choose a site for the administrative center of the colony. Lake and his compatriots selected a spot along the South Saskatchewan River, where the banks on both sides were low enough to provide a crossing. Legend has it that the original location on the east side was named Saskatoon after the berries growing on the bushes beside the river.

After the influx of the first Temperance Colony settlers in 1883, the community grew very slowly. The leaders of the colony realized that their isolation hindered development, and they lobbied hard for a rail connection. Their efforts paid off in 1887 when the government granted the Qu'Appelle, Long Lake and Saskatchewan Railway and Steamboat Company a land subsidy of 6,400 acres per mile to build a rail line from the main Canadian Pacific Railway line to Prince Albert, across the river at Saskatoon. The railway decided to locate its station on the lower western bank where there was easier access to water for the steam locomotives. In response, the society surveyed a new town site with the station at its center, and the original settlement was allowed to languish.

The coming of the first railway line did not spur significant development, but it did make Saskatoon a shipping center, increasing the importance of the Battleford Trail, and it made possible the export of three commodities: buffalo bones, cattle, and grain. Yet with a population of only 113 in 1901, Saskatoon was stagnating. At this point a number of factors ensuring an incredible burst of growth came into play.

Among the most important was the 1902 purchase of over one million acres of land between Regina and Saskatoon from the railway and the Dominion government by the Saskatchewan Valley Land Company, a colonization company organized by midwestern capitalists. It was the settlement of land by American immigrants, among other groups, that would provide the hinterland so necessary to the community's growth. The local economy also received a boost with the arrival by rail of the Barr colonists, drawn from industrial cities of England, in 1903. Over 1,500 colonists disembarked from the train and were outfitted by local merchants before making their way west to the Lloydminster area.

The major impetus for growth came from 1908 to 1914, when the Grand Trunk Pacific and the Canadian Pacific Railways constructed new lines to Saskatoon, making the city the self-proclaimed "Hub of the Prairies." With the coming of the railways, the wholesale-retail function expanded, and Saskatoon became the major distribution center for central Saskatchewan. Much of the capital financing new businesses came from Britain, France, and Holland as well as from eastern Canada. In 1906 Saskatoon became a city when it joined with Nutana, the original settlement on the eastern bank, and Riverdale, the village created by Barr colonists who had remained in the area. The crowning glory for the city was being awarded the provincial university in 1909, an achievement that would generate employment and provide a cultural focus for its inhabitants. Its population grew to more than 12,000 by 1911 and more than doubled during the next ten years.

All of this development took place within a context of the integration of the Canadian West into the national and world economic systems. Saskatoon was well located on a good site and far enough away from Winnipeg and Edmonton to capture its own significant hinterland. But like other Prairie communities, its fortunes would rise and fall with that of the wheat economy. During the periodic global recessions of the 1920s and the Depression the following decade, growth declined. Efforts to diversify the economy by industrializing were relatively unsuccessful because of a lack of water power produced from a river whose flow was too slow in the winter, Saskatoon's isolation from large markets, and the lack of investment occurring during times of economic recession. Saskatoon did manage to attract some industry, however, including Quaker Oats, Robin Hood Flour, and the Massey Harris and Rumely farming implement companies.

It was only after World War II that Saskatoon would enlarge its industrial base, an expansion founded initially on the mining industry. By the end of the 1940s five potash mines were operating in Saskatoon's vicinity, making the city the "Potash Capital of the World." The local economy diversified as a result of increasing exploitation of oil and minerals in the western and northern parts of the province, respectively. By the 1960s manufacturing had become increasingly important as chemical, textile, fiber optics, steel fabrication, and a host of other food-processing, engineering, and machinery industries established themselves. Since the 1990s there has been a significant development of high technology, with biotechnology, computer software, microelectronics, aerospace, pharmaceutical, and animal health firms locating in the university's research park. Major businesses, including Northern Telecom, Develcon Electronics, and Advanced Data Systems, have located in the city. All this has resulted in Saskatoon increasing its population more than 300 percent between 1951 and the present. Yet even as the city diversifies and expands its economic base, it and other communities in the province still rely overwhelmingly on a resource sector that has proven to be increasingly fragile in a fastchanging world.

Randy William Widdis

University of Regina

Delaney, William, John Duerkrop, and William Sarjeant. Saskatoon: A Century in Pictures. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1982.

Kerr, Don, and Stan Hansen. Saskatoon: The First Half Century. Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1982.

Peel, Bruce, and Eric Knowles. The Saskatoon Story, 1882–1952. Saskatoon: General Printing and Bookbinding Company, 1952.

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