Legend Has It: Who Owns a Small Town's History?


By Jessica Wynne Lockhart

In April 2015, the little Prairie town of Tisdale, Sask., made headlines. After nearly six decades, it was considering changing its slogan from “Land of Rape and Honey” to something a little more politically correct—and probably less memorable.

I grew up in Cold Lake in northern Alberta, and Tisdale’s dilemma feels close to home. Our small city’s unusual brand was also rooted in our heritage. However, instead of boasting about canola fields, we promoted something much larger: a giant mythological man-eating fish that lived in our lake’s waters.  

The Chipewyan legend about the Kinosoo, or the Big Fish, goes something like this: Boy falls in love with girl, but girl lives across the lake. Boy paddles over to see his betrothed, but meets the Kinosoo instead. All that’s left in the morning are bits of his birchbark canoe, swirling in the water.  

The story was ingrained in all of us who lived in the “Land of the Big Fish.” Cold Lake was known for its fishing, and the iconic image of a giant trout attacking a canoe appeared everywhere. It graced the town logo and the cover of our history book; it appeared on commemorative pins, hats, t-shirts and coins. There was a parade every year on the August long weekend, and the highlight was always the Kinosoo float. On it, a Dene boy would sit in a canoe surrounded by blue cardboard waves. He paddled furiously (in between throwing candy to the crowd, of course), forever keeping just out of reach of the Kinosoo’s gaping mouth.

Less than 20 years later, the Kinosoo has all but disappeared. In 2000, Cold Lake’s logo was altered to feature a fish—a disappointingly normal-sized fish, at that—jumping out of the water. Today, the fish-free logo features only stylized trees and a wave. It’s less noteworthy than a monster, but arguably more palatable to a newly diverse population.

Yet somehow, in an effort to appeal to a newly ethnically diverse population, the logo became more whitewashed and generic. The connection to the community’s Dene history was also pushed aside.

“The world is increasingly getting smaller; people are accessing these smaller communities,” says Rod Roodenburg, partner at Ion Brand Design, a Vancouver company that specializes in place branding.

Heraldry that might have been appropriate 50 years ago is increasingly being called into question as communities compete in a global economy, he says. While place branding once focused on appealing to the existing members of a community, it’s now meant to attract investors, companies and tourism.

“Place branding—particularly for small towns—sets your angle. It helps drive the economy by communicating what the assets are within that region,” Roodenburg says.

As Canadians migrate westward—Stats Can says 43,000 people moved to Alberta from other provinces in 2013, the biggest inter-provincial migration in 23 years—I understand why determining your “brand” is no longer an insular affair. But as small towns across the Prairies follow suit, adopting bland logos and vague slogans (Grand Prairie, Alta.: “Resourceful Spirit, Growing Opportunity”; Ponoka, Alta.: “Keep It Real”; Portage La Prairie, Man.: “City of Possibilities”), it’s hard not to wonder if part of Canada’s history is being lost.


For the most part, living in 1980s and ’90s Cold Lake meant growing up with kids who were white or Dene. Even as late as 2001, only two per cent of Cold Lake’s population was a visible minority, compared to about 43 per cent in Toronto or 20 per cent in Edmonton. With few other cultural cues (especially for white families whose settler heritage went too far back for European lineages to mean much as a cultural identity), we latched on to the stories of our only homeland. 

The Kinosoo was more than just a logo. It was a reminder that the land we lived on once belonged to First Nations people. It was a unifying symbol of our heritage as Cold Lakers whether our families were aboriginal, descended from pioneers or recent arrivals.

But in the early 2000s, oil production reached an all-time high. Cold Lake’s population jumped to over 12,000 people. In addition to the requisite Newfoundlanders, large numbers of migrant workers and immigrants moved in to build a life here. Suddenly, there was a Filipino grocery store, Sudanese cab drivers and a crew of Jamaicans manning the counter at Tim Hortons.

Around this time, the Kinosoo began to fade into obscurity. In 2005, Cold Lake’s “strength in unity” brand, the last logo to feature a fish, was abandoned in favour of a fresh image.

“It was felt by some that the fish might be a little bit dated and they wanted something flashier,” says local graphic designer Jim Belliveau, who created the current logo. “Cold Lake is trying to send out a definite message about diversity. There’s a need to project itself as a more progressive city, which it never had to before.”

When communities rebrand with a focus on financial gain, they risk losing the traditions and stories that can tie diverse communities together, regardless of their cultural makeup. And let’s face it: some waves and trees just aren’t as interesting as a crypto-zoological wonder.

On seeing Cold Lake’s former logo, Roodenburg agrees. “The old fish logo is way more interesting and memorable than the new one, which is vague,” he says. “There is a story there I expect, and though I don’t know it, it is a compelling image that a brand might be built upon.”

Catchy slogans aside, perhaps it is time for change in the case of Tisdale. Today, rapeseed (less weird-sounding name: canola) accounts for less than one per cent of area crops.

But as the town tabulates the final results of its rebranding survey, hopefully the new slogan—if there is one—won’t read like it came from an Internet random word generator.  Sean Wallace, Tisdale’s director of economic development, says multiple respondents want to focus on another attribute—one that’s decidedly Saskatchewanian in nature.

“Tisdale is one of the few communities in Canada with such a high concentration of grain elevators,” Wallace says. “Many commented that it’s time to come up with a slogan in a positive light and be reflective of Tisdale today.”

“Tisdale: Land of the Rising Grain.” It has a nice ring to it, no?