I come from Medicine Hat.
If you’ve never been to Canada, you might not know of the place and even if you happen to be Canadian, you may never have heard of it. The Canadian band, The Guess Who, did some name-dropping on “Runnin’ Back to Saskatoon,” their song that paid homage to all things homegrown. But of course one doesn’t remember a place by seeing it pinpointed on a map or by hearing it referenced by Burton Cummings.
The knowing is in the being. And if you have ever found yourself trucking across the prairies along the Trans-Canada Highway, that ribbon of pavement uniting the Dominion from east to west, you’ll have passed through my city. Even without stopping, you’ll probably have a vague memory of its intriguing name and the monolithic metal structure that resembles a tepee towering south of the highway.
As the Trans-Canada Highway is some 8,000 kilometres long, I can’t speak for very many stretches of that paved strip, but I do know that when you are west of Swift Current and east of Calgary, there is nary a tree in sight. At the summer’s end, fields of wheat await the harvest. Plain Jane pastureland stretches to the horizon, as cattle graze and laze. Farmers swath the hay in the ditches between the twinned highway, leaving behind neatly piled rows for the baler to coil up. But mostly, all you can see is sky. Then you pass through that jewel on the prairie, as welcome as a sprig of parsley garnishing your baked potato: welcome to Medicine Hat, the Gas City.
Like all Hatters, I was always aware that my city had an unusual moniker. Moving away from home gave me the chance to revel in the name’s rarity and has given me opportunity to tell the story of the place.
Near the end of the 19th century, the tracks of the Canadian Pacific Railway — that romantic prelude to the Trans-Canada — edged ever westward; settlements followed. Cradled in an arm of the South Saskatchewan River, Medicine Hat soon grew from tent town to small city.
The place derived its name from the Blackfoot saamis, meaning “eagle tail headdress.” The most common tale told amongst locals today is that the Blackfoot and the Cree First Nations were at war, with the South Saskatchewan River acting as a territorial boundary. Here, the details get a little fuzzy. As in any battle, somebody won and somebody lost. What is significant is that the medicine man lost his hat. Other variant stories abound, but these relate to geographical features of the area that nobody can quite identify, or are much too full of mysticism and sacrifice, with which nobody is very comfortable.
It turns out that today’s curious motorists on the Trans-Canada are in good company. In 1907, Rudyard Kipling trekked across the country on the Canadian Pacific Railway, spouting witty aphorisms as the train blew steam. Kipling, the poet of the Empire and author of The Jungle Book, taught me the pourquoi of the camel and its hump and the rhinoceros and its skin in his Just So Stories. I was enraptured by the animated version, narrated by Jack Nicholson (and still, it would seem, only available on VHS). In a roundabout way, Kipling also gave the residents of Medicine Hat a pourquoi story of their own. This tiny town had the good fortune of springing up atop oil and natural gas reserves. Kipling wrote, “This part of the country seems to have all hell for a basement, and the only trap door appears to be in Medicine Hat.” And his train rolled on.
Then in 1910, some people on the city council thought about rebranding the city’s title. Something less strange, something more comfortable, and more determinant of enterprise. Something that might attract the attractive. Something like Smithville. Or even better, Leopoldville. A name that would entice land buyers and promote commerce. Concerned citizens had no course of action but to call upon Rudyard Kipling, who had been so friendly to the city during his visit just a few years prior. Even busy with his affairs in Sussex, England, Kipling wasted no time in responding at length:
To my mind, the name of Medicine Hat echoes the old Cree and Blackfoot tradition of red mystery and romance that once filled the prairies. Also it hints at the magic that underlies the city in the shape of your natural gas. Believe me, the very name is an asset, and as years go on will become more and more of an asset. It has no duplicate in the world; it makes men ask questions . . . and draws the feet of the young towards it; it has the qualities of uniqueness, individuality, assertion and power. Above all, it is the lawful, original, sweat-and-dust-won name of the city and to change it would be to risk the luck of the city, to disgust and dishearten old-timers, not in the city alone, but the world over, and to advertise abroad the city’s lack of faith in itself.
A friend in need is a friend indeed. Kipling couldn’t have played better to the marketing minded — that Medicine Hat should remain Medicine Hat became a matter of international importance. And thus it has remained: an exceptionality to those just passing through and a source of pride for those born and raised in Medicine Hat.