Did you know that in 1961 there was a beauty contest to promote an upcoming concert of a little known country and western singer namedJohnny Cash? To a crowd of 1500, Cash sang a song he wrote for the “Girl in Saskatoon”– the contest winner. The 21 year old woman who won the contest, Alex Wiwcharuk, received a dozen red roses on stage while she sat near Cash.
The next year she was raped and murdered, in fact she was buried alive, in a pleasant spot by the S. Saskatchewan River– in the north end of Saskatoon.
I stumbled upon the book, The Girl in Saskatoon, by one of this country’s most famous writers, Sharon Butala. In 2008, before true crime podcasts were a “thing”, Butala’s book was little known around here, but made it big in western Canada. Butala went to high school and was in the school’s drama club with Alex. Both students came from settler roots (families were ‘homesteaders’) — Butala from Garrick, north-east of Saskatoon, and Wiwcharuk from a village called Endeavour, 3 plus hours south-east of the city. Both girls came to Saskatoon for school, and both settled in the sometimes rough but predominantly white working class neighbourhood on the city’s west side called Riversdale.
While Butala went to university, Wiwcharuk attended nursing school and was in her first year as a nurse at Saskatoon City Hospital that she was murdered. Over more than four decades, Butala weaves a fascinating story about the growth of Saskatoon, which in 1912 was called the Magic City. I myself lived there for 12 years and I think I learned more from this book, than I have from reading several histories of the city. Sharon Butala
Butala examines the clash of Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic cultures; she looks at the barriers set for Indigenous people who dared to move off reserve to the city; she looks at issues of women, careers and work. And she shows us how staid and unmoving conditions were for women who had to be wives and mothers above anything else.
The book is a who dunnit with no known perpetrator– or even a suspect to this day. The police were bunglers and disinterested at best, very sexist and misogynist at worst. At one point when a now middle-aged Butala tries to investigate the crime, she is hounded by the local cops — her phone is tapped, and she’s tailed by them and the RCMP while driving. I’m reminded that a short 7 years after Wiwcharuk’s murder– a nursing assistant, Gail Miller age 19– was brutally killed also on Saskatoon’s west side. Police were quick to charge 17 year old David Milgaard, who was on a cross-country road trip with two friends. Not only did he spent 23 years in prison for a crime he did not do, but the real perpetrator, Larry Fisher, was arrested in 1997 — 28 years after the murder. Fisher who had raped other women, lived in the basement of Miller’s rooming house. It seems Fisher’s ex-wife had told the cops in 1980 that she knew that Larry had probably killed Miller. But the cops dropped the case until DNA evidence exonerated Milgaard in ’97. Many say the only reason he was released
Above, Milgaard at age 17 or 18; here Milgaard in middle age.
and eventually paid $10 million in compensation was because his mother, Joyce Milgaard, ran a decades long campaign which promoted his innocence. The cops hated her for her persistence and activism. But the University of Winnipeg gave her an honorary doctorate.
The Skin We’re In is an excellent 44 minute POV (point of view) documentary made by Desmond Cole. You can watch on Youtube, or on CBC Gem. Cole’s new book The Skin We’re In has just been published and he’s done the circuit on The Current, CBC Radio gigs and on TVO (TV Ontario) premier news program, The Agenda. This week on Thursday Feb. 13 he will be speaking at King’s College in Alumni Hall at 6.30 pm. It’s necessary for whites to hear what Desmond has to say.
Lampedusa is a novel by Canadian Steven Price. This is a brilliant novel and delightful. I’m not sure how many of you have read the “national” book of Italy called The Leopard. The Leopard was published a few years after its author’s death, and a famous film was made of it in the early 60s (there is a BlueRay copy in the public library.) Lampedusa is the tale of The Leopard‘s author Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. This nobleman lived pretty much his whole life in Sicily. His spellbinding novel looks at the unification of Italy (called the Risorgimento), which is actually the founding of modern day Italy in 1861, and 80 years of politics, intrigue and culture of southern Italy –through the eyes of a progressive aristocrat. However, Lampedusa is a novel about Giuseppe Tomasi himself, his life with his wife who was a psycho-analyst, and his desperate need to write about the past and have his book The Leopard published and recognised. It never happened in his lifetime. But the book, Lampedusa, weaves a wonderful tale and takes you– the reader– to a Sicily of 60 years ago, a Palermo down at the heel, and a land all but forgotten in post-World War II modernity. You won’t put Lampedusa down.