This summer in the prairies was incredibly eye-opening for me—although I did my best to temper my expectations, it still gave me insights I could not have anticipated. Some of these, I am sure I will chew on for some time. Although I wish I could explain this all now, I decided to focus on a highlight: the road trip our office made to Pinehouse in Northern Saskatchewan, in order to attend the annual Elders’ Gathering.
On Tuesday morning, my boss picked me and two colleagues up from Saskatoon in a massive truck. I had never seen such an intense, road-ready vehicle before. Where we were headed, though, everyone drove trucks. Pinehouse, Saskatchewan is about six hours North of Saskatoon (which is already at a much higher latitude than Montreal). On our road trip, we enjoyed my boss’s tales of her many adventures living in Japan, Ukraine, and Nunavut. We had snacks and music and watched the countryside go by: first, in rolling yellow fields of wheat and canola, marked by the most magical, serene blue lakes; later, as the climate changed and prairie surrendered to boreal forest, in row upon row of evergreen trees.
The last three hours of the trip were along gravel road, with hardly a gas station in sight. When we slowed down, horseflies and wasps swarmed, and our truck’s grill was covered in their battered bodies at the end of the ride.
The forest also contained corpses—charred trees. Areas of forest were totally empty of life, but for these lonely stalks. Others had life creeping back into them, a short but resolute greenery sprouting where wildfires ravaged years ago. It was nice to see the forest rejuvenate, but I was not without worries about its ability to do so sustainably for years to come. As you probably know, this summer was by far the worst wildfire summer on record in Canadian history. We were familiar with the smell of smoke by the time we made our trip to Pinehouse in June—Saskatoon’s air was clogged for many days following smoke from wildfires in Northern Saskatchewan and Alberta. As such, the vast expanses of dead forest we passed on our road trip felt especially foreboding. It was hard to imagine what this area had resembled just a few weeks earlier, with fires raging potentially on both sides.
There was a hush in the air as we drove by these areas. Fortunately, not long after, we arrived in Pinehouse—in time for a late dinner of wild meat and fried fish. Afterwards, full and exhausted, we headed out to where we were staying at Recovery Lake.
I remember my first impressions as we parked. Surprisingly, the nature around us provoked a jolt of familiarity and fondness in my chest. The looming dark green conifers, mossy underbrush, and cool lakes evoked my childhood summers in Sweden. This instinctive connection to good memories with my family across the ocean felt odd but comforting. It spoke to me of the fundamental interconnectedness of life across the globe.
Of course, the recollection of Sweden could not endure. Northern Saskatchewan felt unfamiliar in many ways. Homes in Pinehouse were nothing like the red cottages of Swedish summer—they seemed both more functional and more cheaply-made. Nor was the nature totally familiar. Still, the scent of my happy memories reassured me as I stepped into this novel, stunningly beautiful place.
Recovery Lake is an extremely isolated place. Those suffering from addictions spend several weeks living there with nothing but the essentials. It has several cabins, but no running water or toilets, nor cell service. This successful addiction recovery program is a point of hope and pride, especially given the province’s ongoing drug crisis. It is humbling to consider what is important to a good, healthy life in recovery: nature, food, shelter, etc.
This was rustic living compared to what we were used to in Saskatoon. My boss, my two colleagues and I shared a single room for the week. We felt quite on our own there, with nothing for company but each other and the natural world. It was refreshing not to check my phone at regular intervals, knowing that it was but a glass brick devoid of new information. At the same time, being alone there at night, without the ability to get in touch with anyone, was terrifying. The radio blared all day and night to keep bears away. Still, no one felt safe going to the outhouse after darkness fell.
On our first night, the car alarm went off at about one in the morning. All of us panicked. We tried to peer outside but the darkness there was thick and cloaked everything in an unfamiliar way. It was impossible to discern anything, and very, very hard to fall asleep again. Yet the next morning, in broad daylight, everything felt unbelievably peaceful. We started every day with a cup of coffee on a bench by the lake. Waves lapped the sand there and we could sometimes spot animals. I remember seeing a woodpecker, and what I think was a muskrat. We never did figure out what caused the car alarm.
Pinehouse Elders’ Gathering
Apart from nights at Recovery Lake, we spent our days in Pinehouse, a small Métis town. Our office was invited there to attend the Elders’ Gathering, an annual festival celebrating Métis culture and traditions. Every meal there was a feast. I especially enjoyed trying locally harvested wild rice and fish. Bannock was served at regular intervals with butter, jam, and peanut butter, often still piping hot. During the day, we had the opportunity to attend workshops on everything from traditional medicines to beading. Evening performances included live music, jigging and square-dancing.
It was an incredible introduction to this Métis community’s vibrant, welcoming culture. My colleagues and I loved learning how to bead, although we struggled with the simplest daisy-chain design. This gave me an appreciation for how much hard work and skill goes into every piece of handmade beadwork—it is usually well worth the price. Moreover, it was amazing to see the jigging and square-dancing performances. I saw children as young as five or six dance enthusiastically to fiddle music, as well as intricate dances by professionals, complete with bright floral outfits and clicking shoes that accentuated the complex footwork.
We were shown incredible hospitality. At every meal, people queued to get a plate of food, with the long lineup of people often snaking up the hill. Yet we were consistently ushered to the front, told by locals that Elders and guests should not have to wait in line. It felt odd to bypass dozens of people in order to get our food first, but we eventually felt rude declining the invitation to do so. I am still learning how to graciously accept gifts.
One morning, a local fisherman took us on a spectacular boat tour of the lake. We saw beavers’ dams and several eagles’ nests from the water, as well as the regal bald-headed eagles themselves, perched or swooping through the sky. The man also welcomed us onto the island on which he had built his home. He had chosen to live traditionally although he had been forced to recover this lifestyle due to the legacy of assimilation. Our interaction that morning opened my eyes to the complex challenges faced by people who make that choice.
I was also struck by our visits to Pinehouse itself, which is a very small town. It only has two stores—one grocery and one gas station-and-convenience store. It has one elementary and one High School—with a graduating class of about 15 people. And, as I mentioned, it is at the end of a gravel road, with the closest neighbouring town, Beauval, accessible only after over an hour’s drive. I cannot imagine what it feels like to grow up there.
My four days spent in Pinehouse reminded me of just how much I do not know. My life is so different from those of its inhabitants. Yet I believe that good advocacy and human rights work begin with understanding. Trips like these are steps in a lifelong endeavour. I am so grateful that I was given the opportunity to experience as much as I did.
 See e.g. Peter Zimonjic, “Canada still faces a high risk of wildfires for the rest of the summer, government warns” CBC News (6 July 2023), online: <www.cbc.ca/news/politics/federl-wildfire-record-worst-summer-1.6898955>.
 See e.g. Brooke Kruger, “Saskatchewan already at 291 suspected and confirmed overdoses in 2023: Coroners Service” Global News (16 Aug 2023), online: <globalnews.ca/news/9899777/saskatchewan-already-at-291-suspected-and-confirmed-overdoses-in-2023-coroners-service/>.