The wind is absolutely howling, but it's blowing towards downtown, so I venture out onto the street and allow it to blow me into town. The town map from the telephone book shows city buses, so I can get one of those back uptown if I find can't walk comfortably against the wind. Walk planning can be so much more spontaneous than flight planning.
There's an armoury on the main street (I'm in Saskatchewan now, not Alberta, so it's called "Main Street"). Outside the armoury, like pretty much every armoury in the country, and possibly the world, is a display of obsolete tanks, field guns and armoured personnel carriers. Some of them are painted in UN colours. They look ancient, from another era, but knowing our military they were probably parked there last week. A sign outside says they sell memorabilia, so I go in, hoping for postcards or pins for friends who collect them.
There's no evidence of a dispensary, just an assembly hall with some women at tables, and some kids assembling and disassembling rifles on blankets on the floor. One of the kids comes and asks me shyly if she can help me. I think it's supposed to be the sort of "can I help you?" that means "what are you doing here?" but she's so
soft-spoken it doesn't really have the right effect. She doesn't
know, but directs me to the rifle-supervising mom who says the sales have moved
downtown with recruiting, so I go back out into the wind and continue
down the street.
Downtown Moose Jaw is mostly two to four storey stone buildings,
the kinds with little ins and outs, like turrets and columns and
archways. It was common architecture in the early 20th century, but
most downtown areas have been replaced with taller buildings but I
guess there hasn't been a lot of demand for urban growth in Moose
I never find the recruiting storefront, but I pick up some
postcards at a drugstore. Half of the local postcards are advertising
something called "Tunnels of Moose Jaw," so I asked about that. It's
some kind of tourist attraction. The clerk shrugs when I ask if it's
any good, but it appears to be the only game in town, so I check it
It's right on Main Street, and the lobby explains that history is
brought to life in the underground passages of Moose Jaw. They have
bios of all the actors up on the wall. They're students, some looking
for acting careers, some business, some agricultural. It might be a
bit like the Seattle Underground tour that Phil recommended. I went
to buy a ticket, opting for The Chinese Experience over Al
Capone, because I don't like gangster movies.
Everyone else must have liked gangster movies, because when the
tours were called I was the only one who had signed up for the
Chinese option. The guide introduced himself and I didn't remember his
bio specifically from the wall so I guessed. "Or are you from New
Brunswick?" He wasn't. He was local, studying business and tourism at
the Bible college. His roommate was the one from New Brunswick. He
led me outside and around a corner, and hadn't slipped into character
yet, so I asked him what these tunnels were, where they came
In the old days, when Moose Jaw buildings were heated by
individual coal-fired boilers in the basements, the engineers whose
job it was to maintain the boilers didn't enjoy going from the
sweltering basements, up to street level, crossing the streets in
prairie winter weather, and then going below to do it again on the
other side of the street. It was worth their while to dig passages
that allowed them to go from boiler to boiler without stepping out
into the freezer outside. These passages didn't have any official
city planning behind them, so weren't on any city utility map, and
when Moose Jaw businesses moved on to more modern heating technology,
the tunnels were walled up and completely forgotten. Later other
services went underground, but none of the new tunnels intersected
the old tunnels so they continued a secret until one day a car
dropped through the road into a hole that opened up underneath it,
into one of the tunnels.
A bit of handwaving here from the guide. He couldn't tell me the
year, or the sort of car or if anyone was hurt, just that the company
he worked for was at least the second, possibly the third to run a
tourism business in the tunnels. And then we went into an initially
unremarkable basement and began the tour.
Moose Jaw is a railroad town. The trans-Canada railroad, as every
schoolchild knows, was built principally by immigrant Chinese men.
They worked for very little pay, much of which had to go into paying
off the debt they had incurred getting here in the first place. Their
agents controlled them until the debt was paid, so they could get no
other jobs so were obliged to work hard and abide living and working
conditions that more mobile Caucasian labourers would have refused.
When the railroad was complete, they were all laid off. The tour
consisted of what might have been my experience as a Chinese man laid
off in Moose Jaw.
The first set was a large white-owned laundry where we could see
customer orders all wrapped up in white paper awaiting collection and
then the guide pushed aside a section of wall and we went into the
back room where he became a foreman for the laundry owner, giving
"us" a short tour of the facilities where "we" would be working.
Clothes were laundered by hand on washboards and ironed with solid
pieces of iron that had been heated on a stove (hence the name, eh?)
The tour lost a bit of zing I'm sure with there just being one person
for the guide to act to, but he gave me a few tasks like carrying a
lantern through an unlit corridor. There was a film where a Canadian
doctor described her grandfather's life in Canada. He had apothecary
knowledge and after working on the railroad and in a laundry, where
he used his knowledge to help injured and sick coworkers, he did set
up his shop.
After the laundry, with the living and working quarters and the
darkened tunnels, the rest of the corridors were set up not so much
as a recreation of the tunnels, as just scenes from early Moose Jaw
life. There was a Chinese restaurant, for example. Apparently such
businesses were hampered by a fairly recently-repealed law
forbidding Chinese entrepreneurs from hiring white women to work for
them. And there weren't any Chinese women, because immigration was
only approved for men. For a while no Chinese immigration was
approved to Canada and then finally families could be reunited.
At the end of the tour an old photograph of downtown Moose Jaw
shows that the town has hardly changed in eighty years. Most of the
electrical lines are underground now and the cars and fashions are
newer, but an early resident transported forward in time would be
able to find his way around just fine.
I hope there has been more change with respect to racism. The
actor/guide who pretended to berate me and list my inadequacies as a
coolie didn't sound much different from what I hear frequently above
ground concerning natives and others of discernible and non-European
ethnic origins. I suspect Moose Jaw hasn't experienced much but
cosmetic changes there, either, and I'm not singling out Moose Jaw,
either. It's quite startling what humans can make themselves believe
about others, and what humans can achieve, despite everything.
The wind isn't quite so bad as I make my way back uptown to the
hotel. The Moose Jaw Comfort Inn front desk doesn't answer their
phone. I started typing this as I picked up the phone to dial and I
typed the first draft of this blog entry, with one hand, while the
phone was ringing. By the time they answered, I almost forgot what I
wanted. Oh yes: Internet access.
I check the weather. Here's a sample:
TAF CYZH 260638Z 260719 FCST CNCLD DUE WND SENSOR MALFUNCTION
RMK FCST BASED ON AUTO OBS. NXT FCST BY 13Z=
Translated into English, that means the wind was so strong that
the anemometer at Slave Lake blew down, so they can't give me a
prediction. I'm thinking it's a good thing I wasn't out there trying
to land in a snowstorm in unknown winds.