NORTH BATTLEFORD — All that remains of the old Saskatchewan Hospital is a chapel and nearly 10,000 rescued bricks.
When the province considered building its first mental health hospital nearly 115 years ago, they scoured North America to find the best mental healthcare practices at the time, striving to be consistently innovative in their approach to treating patients.
The hospital opened its doors in 1913 without restraints on the beds or bars on the windows, but instead built as a self-sufficient community with a power station, curling rink, residences and a chapel.
This approach influenced mental healthcare across North America, with North Battleford serving as the home of a hospital that didn’t aim to institutionalize but aimed to treat patients with kindness, integrity and respect.
When the government of Saskatchewan decided to build a new hospital, one that would better serve its residents, staff and community, a group known as the Save Saskatchewan Hospital began its tireless work to preserve the history of the iconic building.
The hospital was finally demolished in 2019, but the old Saskatchewan Hospital building’s story does not end with its demolition.
After the demolition, the group evolved into the Saskatchewan Hospital Legacy Trail Committee, which still works to preserve Saskatchewan history.
A trail built using bricks saved from demolition weaves through the remaining towering trees that dot the land where the Sask. Hospital once stood. The trail winds above the river valley, while along the way interpretive plaques and signs tell the history of the people that made up the hospital’s story.
A plaza is planned beside the cenotaph and underneath where the front doors used to sit, with bricks from the smokestack reconstructing the architectural style of the building and the aforementioned smokestack.
The Legacy Trail recounts the lives and stories of patients, families, nurses, doctors, and community members and the countless lives the building has touched. A key piece of history is preserved for generations, and visitors across the country can see what remains of its heritage.
This is the picture the committee painted for people attending their inaugural event at the Armoury Brewing Company in North Battleford on Nov. 22.
Now the committee is turning to residents, community members and organizations who can help make the Legacy Trail a reality.
“...when it became clear that a new hospital was being built to better serve patients and staff, they worked really hard to repurpose it,” Debi Anderson, chair of the committee, said of the efforts of Jane Shury and the Battlefords Historical Society to preserve the hospital.
“The site [of the old hospital] is in pretty good shape; they did a great job protecting the trees,” Anderson said, noting that the site of the legacy trail is well-preserved.
The original thought was to save the facade of the building, but that proved too costly. Instead, the committee was able to tour the facility, preserving many artifacts from destruction. Signs, plaques, bowling pins, auditorium doors, a collection of tools and more were saved, which Anderson says can be used for construction or silent auction items in the future.
“Starting at the plaza, following the curve of the road to the chapel, we see having eight to ten interpretive pedestals to tell a story,” Anderson said.
History pre-dates building
The committee has formed a storytelling group to tell the story of the Sask. Hospital in the Battlefords. Though it’s not settled, there are plans for a section of the trail to tell the story of the pre-colonization use of the land.
“We know there is a lot of First Nation history in the area, and the site overlooks the Battlefords. This space is not quite as well-researched … and we’re hoping to work with the Indigenous community.”
The storytelling group hopes to host events allowing community members to share their stories of the Sask. Hospital, though specifics are in the air currently.
During the event on Nov. 22, where these plans were shared, Chris Odishaw and Don Backus spoke on the history of the first landowner, Dr. Issac Adam.
“In 1903 and 1906, he facilitated the immigration of people from Persia. Two groups of Assyrian folks came and settled on the land before becoming important members of the Battleford community,” Anderson said, recounting the event.
Odishaw called for the community, especially employees of doctors and nurses and their families, to support the Sask. Hospital Legacy Trail.
“Let’s celebrate that, let’s tell the story and raise 750,000 thousand,” Odishaw said., making a commitment himself to building a pedestal, which amounts to 25,000 dollars.
“We’re very happy that we’re off to a good start,” Anderson said.
The Battlefords ACT was there to donate the first $5,000 to build a bench along the trail.
Though all donations are happily accepted, specific contributions of a pre-set amount will award the donor with perks.
- Engrave a hospital brick for $250
- Engrave a smokestack brick for $500
- Build a bench for $5,000
- Build 50 metres of trail for $10,000
- Build a pedestal for $25,000
Anderson said the committee was initially delayed due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, and they anticipate a start to construction in late 2023 or early 2024, coinciding with their fundraising efforts.
The Historical Society and the Legacy Trail committee are thankful to have partnered with the provincial government, the City of North Battleford, the Town of Battleford and their numerous sponsors as they begin their exciting journey to make the Legacy Trail a reality.
People interested in experiencing plans for the Legacy Trail in person at the site can join a guided tour, with two currently scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 3, at 1:30 pm and on Tuesday, Dec. 6, at noon.
Tours start at the parking lot near the cenotaph, closest to where the front doors used to be.
Donations can be made at their website at: www.saskhospitallegacytrail.ca.