Western Canada is remarkable because in many ways it looks like the Western United States, but in many ways is so different. Besides showing our passports to enter at the border, it is easy to feel like we are not in a foreign country. As we drive north from Lethbridge, even the natural landscape feels like a continuation of the Great Plains, which it is. In Alberta’s Dinosaur Provincial Park, we both felt like we were back in the Badlands of South Dakota, an arid landscape full of fossils and hoodoos.
The differences become more apparent with the people. Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba have some of the largest numbers of people from Ukraine outside of Ukraine itself. The small towns east of Edmonton contain the children and grandchildren of the early twentieth-century wave of mass migration from a troubled Ukraine. They came here for many reasons including friendly Canadian immigration policies, cheap land and that this part of the world looks and feels a lot like Ukraine.
Every person that we met for the next few days were descendants of these early Ukrainian settlers. In Vegreville, we encountered the world’s largest easter egg painted in the bright colors of traditional Ukrainian decoration. A sad, hand-painted sign listed the number of people who had recently died in Putin’s stupid war in Ukraine. We were told by several people that this region will soon receive another massive wave of refugees from Ukraine. I wondered how this new group of people will interact with the descendants of the old. Walker and I drove for many miles down a muddy dirt road (in the mighty Prius!) to a remote Ukrainian Catholic church. Many of the headstones in the adjacent cemetery were in Ukrainian and told the story of these early pioneers. That old saying that the past is prelude seemed to resonate here.
As we drove west towards Edmonton, we encountered Elk Island National Park. This small National Park receives a fraction of the visitors of the nearby and better-known Parks of Jasper and Banff. However, outside of Africa’s Serengeti, it contains the highest concentration of wild hoofed animals in the world. We saw many White-tailed Deer, Elk and a close-up and personal encounter with a herd of massive, wooly Wood Bison. The entire park is surrounded by a high fence which is a sad but good thing since many of the animals would probably not survive on the nearby roads.
Edmonton is the northernmost city over a million people in the Western Hemisphere. It is located roughly at the same latitude as Moscow, Russia. In 2019, Ellen and I visited the big city of Calgary, Alberta. Now, Walker and I drove into Alberta’s other metropolis of Edmonton. Both cities are vibrant places, and it seems accurate to describe Calgary as white-collar and Edmonton as blue-collar. With a population of around 1 ½ million downtown Edmonton rises from the prairie with a surprising density of sparkling corporate glass-towers and a fairly desperate street life. Much of the wealth here is from oil money or corporate agriculture and it’s obvious that income inequality is high. And like many cities, Covid has taken a high toll on the small businesses here. Like in San Francisco, the neighborhoods seem to be where the city comes alive. We are staying in the oldest part of the city called Strathcona. Old brick buildings, great hipster restaurants and coffee shops are here but also many closed businesses. The gloom is accentuated by the unusually bitter-cold weather. Wind and a swirling snow keep the street life scarce. I glance at the calendar and can’t believe that it’s May and not March. We were told that this weather is weird, and the locals are emphatically sick of the endless Winter.
The Main library in Edmonton is extraordinary and serves a vital role as an oasis for the community in an otherwise sterile downtown. The cold weather outside drives a large number of homeless and desperate people indoors. The librarians go from being information workers to social workers, but this library seems to be able to manage the tough situation with compassion, outreach and lots of security guards. The background for this is a spectacular atrium soaring up several floors from the ground floor to the high ceiling. I encounter two Indigenous people that work for the library as roving ambassadors/social workers with people in need in the library. In another room, I met a librarian organizing the first seed library in Edmonton. The optimistic, positive force behind that effort reminds me why I still feel that libraries are so vital.
We spent the rest of the day visiting six different branch libraries throughout Edmonton. I photographed the amazing 100-year-old Strathcona branch library, the oldest in the city. It had one of the best restorations that was wonderfully sensitive to its original design. I also photographed the two beautiful Modernist branch libraries of Calipano and Jasper Place. I included two branches in shopping malls that surround the city in an endless sprawl. One of the great things in doing these endless Library Road trips is to see each community we visit on a local level and not just as an outside tourist. Our drives today throughout Edmonton gives us a much better understanding of what life is like in this part of the world.
After an amazing dinner at a farm-to-table restaurant run by a 3rd generation Ukrainian, we walk off the meal at sunset along the beautiful wooded banks of the North Saskatchewan River.
2 responses to “EDMONTON”
Fascinating Bob – all my love to you both!
I love getting these! Thanks for sharing and I am looking forward to hearing more! Susan