Journalism school graduate Nehal El-Hadi reflects on her journey – from Sudan where she was born, to England where her family immigrated, to Moose Jaw where she learned to revere the open spaces and endless sky.

I’ve seen the sky do things I never knew a sky could do.

I first came to Saskatchewan in the autumn of 1999, from London via Toronto. My limited exposure meant that I had fallen into that fallacy of Toronto being the centre of the Canadian universe from which the rest of the country emanated. And so, I expected Moose Jaw to be some kind of Toronto-lite. Thankfully, I was so terribly, horribly wrong.

Now, I live in Toronto. My annual trips to Saskatchewan give me a much-needed recalibration, a reprieve from the neurosis of this city where I make my home, and a reminder that everything is so much bigger than my tiny urban life. And, more intensely, my visits back give me a fix of the flatlands.

Moose Jaw is where I became Canadian.

The last time I lived in Saskatchewan was over 15 years ago. My parents still live in Moose Jaw, and I visit at least once a year, and more frequently when I can. I don’t go only for them, but for what has turned into a necessary and vital reset. More significantly for me, my residency in, and relationship to, Saskatchewan has been formative in my becoming-Canadian identity story.

It’s a landscape that gets in your bones; a constant craving.

While we arrived in Canada as landed immigrants in Toronto, my family relocated to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, for work opportunities a year later. I lived in Moose Jaw for a year, having recently completed an undergraduate degree and needing the time and space to figure out what it was I wanted to do. (And that’s something Saskatchewan always has and gifts in abundance: time and space.)

I moved to Regina, where I enrolled in the University of Regina’s Bachelor of Journalism program. The first Tuesday of classes was September 11, 2001. It was an intense time to begin training to become a journalist. We were being taught approaches to a field that was literally changing before our eyes; as a media event, the coverage of 9/11 has transformed the news industry in ways that are still analyzed and dissected today.

Nehal El-Hadi poses on bridge
El-Hadi is Visiting Scholar at the City Institute at York University and sessional faculty at the Department of Human Geography at the University of Toronto Scarborough. (Photo by Christopher Dew)

That week, my first ever journalism assignment was to go out and gather people’s responses to the tragedy. I almost dropped out – I hated this aspect of journalism and still do. While I’m glad I didn’t drop out, that aversion to post-traumatic breaking-news reportage was firmly planted in me during that first week. It led me to focus on developing my skills as a long-form journalist, and to continue to study critical approaches to inclusive, ethical and responsible journalism.

While I don’t claim Saskatchewan as my land or territory, I maintain that who I am – my Canadian-ness – is inextricable from my relationship to that land.

For my internship, I returned to Toronto to work on the Discovery Channel’s daily flagship show, called The Daily Planet at the time. There, I fell in love with science journalism and producing television and online content. I came back to Saskatchewan to complete my degree and to become a Canadian citizen. My family and I took the oath of citizenship surrounded by a supportive and celebratory community. Moose Jaw is where I became Canadian.

The clichés are true: rodeos and country music, ranchers and poets, canola, and Saskatoon berries.

Almost ten years later, Moose Jaw became where I chose to marry my husband, the Black Canadian composer Bruce Russell. Bruce and I had met in Toronto, but he’d grown up in Sault Ste. Marie. He’d never been to Saskatchewan until he flew out to meet my family, and now he comes to visit with me each year. We got married at a mosque in Regina, and our reception was held at the Temple Gardens Mineral Spa in downtown Moose Jaw. We took wedding photos earlier that day at different locations throughout Moose Jaw: the old train station, Wakamow Valley, South Hill. The wedding photo we later distributed to friends and family was of Bruce and I “traipsing through the Prairies” (really, somewhere around 4th Avenue SW), a quintessential flatland scene. We now have two children together, and it is important to me that my children’s Canadian-ness extends beyond Toronto to Moose Jaw, that the city environment they are growing up in is tempered by an understanding of different landscapes. I’m glad that my children also get to attach themselves to Saskatchewan.

While my entry portal to Canada was the high-density, multi-ethnic neighbourhood of Thorncliffe Park Drive in Toronto, my becoming a Canadian took place in an inverse setting of flatlands and farmers. There’s always a sense of incredulity when I mention my affinity for Saskatchewan, a disbelief that underscores a sense of displacement that I understand is meant to convey that I will never belong there. I don’t care much for being challenged in this way, and while I don’t claim Saskatchewan as my land or territory, I maintain that who I am – my Canadian-ness – is inextricable from my relationship to that land. My inclusion in a forthcoming Canadian literature collection called The Black Prairie Archives: An Anthology underscores this, and I take pride in being considered part of what has been called “a new black prairie literary tradition.”

Nehal El-Hadi seated
El-Hadi says that Moose Jaw is where she became Canadian. (Photo by Christopher Dew)

But what’s also true is the radical history of social organizing in Saskatchewan, something that I wish more people knew about. Like the feminist work of the Saskatchewan Indian Women’s Association, or the fact that the Gay & Lesbian Community of Regina bought property and founded a collective-run community centre and nightclub.

I appreciate the role of the Prairies in my narratives of becoming – a citizen, a journalist, a wife – and I am extremely grateful for the ways of seeing and being that my connection to Moose Jaw and Regina has given me. But living there was an extremely culturally isolating experience, especially for an Arabic-speaking young Black woman. This was before we were all online 24/7, before the internet could deliver any product or foodstuff I could desire. Before MySpace, Twitter, Amazon, SSense, Netflix.

There were unpleasant encounters, and some were terrifying. In addition to experiencing random, sporadic instances of explicit and violent racism, my sojourn in Saskatchewan was also a witnessing of the ugliest side of Canada. The thinly-filtered anti-Indigenous undercurrent that pulses through the landscape, that manifests in unimaginable violence. I had grown up elsewhere, not there, and I had no way at the time of understanding the histories and the legacies that could produce such inequity and trauma as I had witnessed. Late-night conversations with friends, other journalism students, and my professors provided history, context, sources, and explanations. It wasn’t until much later, more recently, that I acquired the critical analysis skills to be able to examine and address these issues and to also consider my own role as an immigrant-turned-citizen.

I’ve seen and experienced things I never would have elsewhere. The small size of communities also makes for surprising and delightful interactions of a kind that don’t ever happen in larger cities. Social relations are flattened, too, and social groups are more porous and welcoming when there aren’t too many other people around. Saskatchewan is where I learned to ride and desire motorcycles. Where I found out about mutton-busting, and that buckles had to be earned not bought. Where I discovered sun dogs and mammatus clouds. I spent more time at punk shows and raves when living in Saskatchewan than anywhere else, learned more about classic rock and football than I ever intended to. The clichés are true: rodeos and country music, ranchers and poets, canola, and Saskatoon berries.

But what’s also true is the radical history of social organizing in Saskatchewan, something that I wish more people knew about. Like the feminist work of the Saskatchewan Indian Women’s Association, or the fact that the Gay & Lesbian Community of Regina bought property and founded a collective-run community centre and nightclub.

Returning to the love of science journalism I discovered during my University of Regina journalism degree, I became the science and technology editor at The Conversation Canada.

I left Regina to pursue postgraduate education in Toronto, a master’s in environmental studies degree where I focused on environmental journalism and risk communication in the Canadian mass media. Five years after completing that program, I returned to university and obtained a PhD in planning, where my research looked at the intersections of online and offline spaces for women of colour social justice activists in Toronto. Returning to the love of science journalism I discovered during my University of Regina journalism degree, I became the science and technology editor at The Conversation Canada, a news source that publishes timely articles on research being conducted by Canadian academics.

Since moving away from Saskatchewan, I now carry with me a nostalgia for the sky.

About the Author

Nehal El-Hadi is Visiting Scholar at the City Institute at York University and sessional faculty at the Department of Human Geography, at the University of Toronto Scarborough. She lives in Toronto with her husband, composer Bruce Russell and their two children.