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Place and Person

by Dave Yanko

You might say Jasper Huntley operated on both sides of the law, but that would miss the point.
Big Muddy
The Big Muddy Badlands of southern Saskatchewan.

In the Big Muddy Badlands of 1902, it just made plain-old good sense to lend a helping hand to anyone who needed it. So when Mounties camping on Jasper's property went searching for the outlaws who regularly slipped over the border to hole up in nearby caves, Jasper signalled the outlaws where the Mounties intended to patrol.

"He'd either tip over a barrel or put a red blanket on the clothes line to give them a clue as to where the Mounties would be riding that day,'' says Tamela Burgess, who ranches with her husband Michael on the old Huntley property, just a few kilometres north of the U.S. border.

Tammy Burgess
Tammy Burgess

When the Mounties finally caught on to Jasper's duplicity, however, they didn't charge him. Because they understood.

"The people who settled this area feared, not only the wrath of Mother Nature, but the outlaws, too. Those outlaws had no qualms at all about taking their revenge if you didn't do what you were told.''

"Preservation,'' says Burgess. It's a strong motivator.

Relatively few of our Saskatchewan predecessors dallied with infamous outlaws like Butch Cassidy and Sam Kelley, although Prohibition attracted another coterie of criminals including, some contend, Al Capone. But the point is that whether they settled in the badlands, the prairies or the boreal forest that covers the northern half of our province, early Euro-Canadian residents of this place we call Saskatchewan quickly learned to lend a helping hand to anyone who needed it. And that was regardless of heritage, creed or, in some cases, criminal activity. Our survival depended upon it. And it's become a big part of who we are.

"There's a communal bond here,'' says Bill Barry, a popular Regina author whose books look at the stories and people behind Saskatchewan place names. "There's just that gel here; you have to look after your own."

Bill Barry
Bill Barry

Home, for Barry, is the Carrot River valley in northeast Saskatchewan. But he was born in Prince Albert and his work and education have taken him to communities across Saskatchewan and eight of 10 Canadian provinces. Through all of this, he's gained a pretty good sense of what Saskatchewan is all about.

When he was living an hour southeast of Saskatoon in Watrous, for instance, he was a member of a service club that launched a project to construct a swimming pool.

"We set out a five-year plan for building the pool and went out and accomplished it all in one year,'' he recalled. "We got the community behind us and we just decided we're going to get this done!"

Barry believes our great open spaces contribute to who we are, as well. "We all have a lot of room and we're used to that,'' he says. He adds that Saskatchewanians can become a little claustrophobic when we're thrust into a big city.

Those wide-open spaces give us room to dream and create, according to Métis singer-songwriter Andrea Menard, who lives in Saskatoon. In fact, Menard admits to writing songs while driving through our "open, open, open" prairie. "If I come up with a really good melody, I'll phone my answering machine and sing it," she says. But these vast spaces offer something else, too.

"I love the quiet," says Menard. "When I get to the big cities, I'm OK for a while. But then I have to come home and recharge.''

Andrea Menard
Andrea Menard

Menard knows people from large cities and mountainous regions who felt uncomfortable when they first arrived on the prairies - she felt a bit of this herself when she left well-wooded Prince Albert. Perhaps the fewer distractions and slower pace leave more time for introspection, she says, adding that can take some getting used to.

"Yet, I also know people who've never been here before and they feel like they've come home. I think it has something to do with your own spirit. It's quiet and spacious enough here to listen to our spirit."

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