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The Banff of the Prairies

Elizabeth Withey, The Edmonton Journal

MOOSE JAW, Sask. - It's not the little city that could. It's the little city that did. Moose Jaw, a community of 33,000 people about 60 kilometres west of Regina, outright refused to accept the Saskatchewan stereotypes. Flat fields of wheat. Farmers. Not much happening.

Thanks to a handful of cultural movers and shakers, there is plenty happening in Moose Jaw.

It's partly the city's title as a 2007 Cultural Capital of Canada that has made it a bustling, vibrant place. Like Quebec's Baie St. Paul and Wendake, Moose Jaw won the federal designation in the small- population category and will receive up to $500,000 to develop 14 cultural projects by 2008. Among them are a musical about the city's booze-running, gun-toting gangster history, an outdoor pageant about legendary native American chief Sitting Bull's ties to the community and additions to the growing Prairie Arts Festival. The city will also host the Western Canadian Music Awards this month.

But the Cultural Capital title is a milestone, of sorts, that pays tribute to more than a decade of efforts by community-minded citizens who wanted to make Moose Jaw a cultural hot spot.

Unlike Edmonton, whose winning application for the grant in the 125,000-plus population category was a city directive, a small maverick group of Moose Javians got Moose Jaw in the running for Cultural Capital -- and then got municipal government on board once they won. (Comox Valley, B.C., with a population between 50,000 and 125,000, is this year's fifth Cultural Capital.)

Jeff Beesley, a director who works on hit TV shows Corner Gas and Little Mosque on the Prairie, was part of that team. He grew up in Moose Jaw and is now raising his family there.

"The city has experienced great cultural growth in the last 10 years," Beesley said. "When I graduated, it was not even in the realm of possibility to live here. Anyone with a shred of talent left so fast, got the hell out, because there was nothing to stay for."

Beesley chose to move back because Moose Jaw has made such progress as a cultural-minded community in Saskatchewan. What's more, he is just a short drive from the Regina airport and Rouleau, Sask., the set of Corner Gas.

He saw the Cultural Capital program as a huge opportunity to showcase the city he calls home.

"I'm not prepared to say, 'This is a dying community, I'm going to shut off the lights and get out of here,' " he said. "We should be the Banff of the Prairies."

It was the city's cultural ringleader, Gary Hyland, who encouraged Beesley to support his hometown. Hyland, the catalyst for the Cultural Capital application, has been a longtime advocate for the community's arts and culture scene. He established the Saskatchewan Festival of Words, an annual event that draws well-known writers from across the country to Moose Jaw, and was the driving force behind Arts In Motion, a coalition of arts groups that successfully lobbied for the construction of an $8-million downtown cultural centre.

"Founding, starting things, is my passion," Hyland said. "I like to give birth. And I've got a lot of babies."

"Gary never ever loses sight of his vision for this community, and he has such enormous energy," said Graham Hall, artistic director at the Moose Jaw Cultural Centre.

The Cultural Capital program has been huge for the city. Not only has it made Moose Jaw a bigger dot on the map, it has also helped people like Hall and Hyland raise the cultural bar and pursue bigger dreams that were financially out of reach. Hall has started a new repertory theatre company, whose four-show season starts Nov. 1, and is bringing the Regina Symphony Orchestra to town for a concert series. Saskatchewan author Ken Mitchell is writing the script for an outdoor pageant about Sitting Bull's ties to the city. And in the works is a musical about the city's rich history as "Little Chicago" during the Prohibition and the heyday of Al Capone.

The grant has been a boost to Moose Javians' civic pride.

"I've seen a noticeable increase in pride," Hyland said. "People talk about the city. In the early '90s, I heard none of that. It has energized people."

What's more, residents can enjoy top-notch entertainment (besides the Warriors hockey games) at home. "They won't have to traipse off to Regina at night in the middle of winter," Hall said.

The grant has also boosted tourism to the city, which was already thriving thanks to popular geothermal waters at the Temple Gardens Mineral Spa, a new casino and historical tours through the city's underground tunnels that draw some 100,000 visitors a year. This summer, the number of tourists to the city's visitor centre was up by more than 50 per cent from last year. Tourism Moose Jaw executive director Candis Kirkpatrick said it's partly due to the Cultural Capital designation.

"We're not just a 'let's stop there on the way to somewhere else,' " Kirkpatrick said. "You get a title like Cultural Capital of Canada and it automatically paints a picture. And we deserve the title."

City councillor Dawn Luhning says the city has become an example that communities across the province want to follow. "Other municipalities are looking to mimic Moose Jaw," she said.

But can the city sustain its cultural rep after the grant money runs out? Fingers crossed, yes. Hall admits it will be a tough row to hoe, but remains optimistic he can keep projects like the theatre company and musical alive.

"I do believe that once these things are established, there will be people who want to be connected to them," he said.