When we live in a province where winter sticks around for half the year, we must, at some point, decide to get with the program. Let’s agree that we will discover just how great winter is if we approach it with less of an “I gotta get through this!” kind of attitude and more of a “Bring it on!” perspective.
Saskatchewan does an excellent job of bringing in visitors to enjoy our diverse province and enticing residents to explore their backyards. Pre-pandemic tourism spending generated $2.17 billion for the provincial economy and employed 12 per cent of the total labour force. But overall, we lack a unified approach to Saskatchewan’s winter economy. If the season—which numerous informal surveys rank as Canadians’ least favourite—was promoted amongst municipal and provincial governments, commercial and hospitality organizations, and residents as an authentic destination experience, what impact would that have?
Strasbourg, France, is home to the country’s oldest winter market. Since 1570, Christkindelsmarik (“Market of the Christ Child”) has attracted people to the region to explore food, drink, and artisan products. Approximately two million visitors attend the month-long event on an annual basis, generating more than 16 million Euros for the local economy.
Last year, a campaign partnership between Tourism Saskatchewan and Hospitality Saskatchewan that endorsed fall and winter excursions within the province generated 60 per cent more travel offers than anticipated. The curiosity to get out and explore is there, even during the coldest months of the year.
Saskatchewan is home to several ski resorts catering to family fun. Look around, and you’ll see endless kilometres of open space for cross country skiers and fat bikers. Northern lodges welcome guests year-round, offering a different sort of adventure than sun and water. We have over 100,000 lakes for ice fishing and more than 100 million acres of boreal forest, perfect for winter hiking and snowshoe expeditions. The Saskatchewan Snowmobile Association has built 10,600 kilometres of trails for sledders around the province. There is a lot to do throughout those frozen six months.
But what about our urban centres? Yes, we welcome hockey tournaments, a craft show here and there, and the odd short-lived outdoor festival. However, is it too much to ask for a full six months of fresh air activities? Could we have our version of Christkindelsmarik that lasts all season? A gathering spot boasting outdoor cafes, retail outlets, entertainment venues, and perhaps cultural opportunities featuring Indigenous heritage? These are all components of an overall winter city strategy that encompasses various city planning and design elements to create a vibrant, prosperous winter economy.
A nearby winter city concept is Winnipeg’s The Forks, an all-season meeting place that offers visitors recreational and commercial opportunities, as well as historical and cultural experiences. It is an international gathering spot in the winter months, specifically with its world-famous warming shelter design competition. More than four million people visit The Forks each year, contributing approximately $126 million to the local economy and keeping 1,200 people employed.
Both Saskatoon and Regina are beginning to implement winter city strategies that support a winter economy, winter life and culture, and winter spaces. Projects currently underway or set to be unveiled within the next few years include public art installations, promotion of economic opportunities, snow management, and activating more social opportunities in public spaces such as Regina’s Wascana Park and Saskatoon’s River Landing. Last winter, the City of Saskatoon provided a total of $175,000 through its Take it Outside Winter Animation Fund to various community groups that hosted outdoor activities and events that supported WintercityYXE goals. Currently, the City of Regina is offering $50,000 in grant funding for initiatives that support its winter city strategy. Operating with the adage, “If you build it, they will come,” in mind, other winter city plans to look forward to in each centre include more public firepits, improved lighting and trail maintenance, and homegrown warming shelter design competitions.
Winter is long, and it’s easy to get stuck in hibernation mode. For a province like Saskatchewan, rich with innovation, capitalizing on winter living is not a stretch of the imagination. To become a true winter destination, a province for all seasons, we need government leaders, business owners and community groups to come together and address our winter challenges. As for each resident of this great province—it’s up to us to create the demand for this bountiful winter society.