Regina, Treaty 4
(Photo by Eagleclaw Thom, Intro by Leah Spafford)
The myth and legend of a tattooed, rum-swilling, hula-hooping, vegetarian cowboy is alive and well in the heart of Regina.
For years, my favourite part of everyday involved magically waking up at a usual table with a half-finished coffee and crossword in front of me and Neil McDonald behind the counter of the sadly now defunct Roca Jacks, entertaining the masses with his tip jar (and ensuing debates) and tales of all of the sorted happenings of the previous day.
If you have ever spent a summer in Regina, you have no doubt bumped into the character, lo, personality grandiose of Mr. McDonald. He is unofficially king of the Folk Festival, ruler of Ness Creek, chef to musicians, entertainer and professor to children (and those who need moments of childhood joy), walking events calendar, tandem bicycle wrangler and hero/defender of the low and down trodden.
His absence from many social circles through this last winter while he has been preparing to wow us with his new concept diner, has left a sizable hole in the tale of one city, so come and visit Hunter Gatherer in Regina’s Heritage District and meet the lore which is Neil McDonald.
I will be the gal at the end of the bar with a content smile on my face.
KC: What kinds of projects are you involved in right now?
I am known for being the person who constantly has all of their irons in the fire but right now I have put everything on the back burner so that I can focus all of my energy on opening a vegetarian diner named Hunter Gatherer here in Regina’s Heritage Neighbourhood. My pops, and I have been working on the renovations (with the help of countless friends, and well wishers) since late October, and it is currently in it’s final stages. I do not have a firm open date just yet as a lot of the work is now in the hands of professional plumbers, electricians, and HVAC contractors but, provided there are no more major surprises, we should be open in the later half of April. Today I will be juggling the roles of carpenter as I work on our 13 foot communal table, project manager as I coordinate tradespeople and work on the business end of things, and chef as I am constantly tweaking our menu.
While Hunter Gatherer will be sourcing the majority of it’s produce from local farmers, it is not going to be your typical health food vegetarian joint. I want to combine the comforts of a small town ma & pa diner with some big city ideas that I think Regina is more than ready for. Our menu will include vegetarian/vegan versions of standard diner fare (burgers, fries, poutines, milkshakes, cinnamon buns, pies, eggs, pancakes, hash browns, etc.) all made with fun twists, and quality seasonal ingredients.
One of the big ways that Hunter Gatherer will be rocking the boat is by not having any dedicated front-of-house staff. I will be employing folks who have back of house skills, and front of house personalities as we have an open kitchen, and all of your food will be prepared right where you can see it. The person who just took your order most likely came up with our burger and/or soup of the day, and will be eager to tell you all about it. Whoever comes by to refill your coffee probably just spent their morning baking those fresh pies that you will hopefully be ordering for dessert. My plan is to create an experience, and a menu that will appeal to our entire community, and not exclusively to vegetarians.
KC: What’s your day job? What do you like about it? What’s challenging?
I have never done very well with day jobs. I have had a few stints in my past where I inadvertently wound up managing a coffee shop, or lounge for a few years but those never quite felt right. I have always had several side projects that I am in full control of, and when I do take on a day job to help make ends meet I find that I can’t help but voice my opinions on things that are admittedly above my pay grade. This tends to play out in one of two ways: either I step on the toes of the person who’s job it is to make those decisions and get run out of dodge, or folks start picking up what I am putting down, and three years later I am somehow a full-time manager at what was always supposed to be a part-time button pushing job.
For the last several years I have made ends meet through what I consider to be hobbies. I am a hula hoop performer/instructor, vegetarian caterer, vintage clothing/housewares/bicycles hunter, and general Jack of alternative trades. It is pretty liberating to be able to work for yourself, and the rewards are countless but it does have it’s drawbacks. I am definitely looking forward to having a stable career through my diner so that I never have to panic about whether I will sell enough vintage dresses to cover rent, or awkwardly bumping into one to the little old ladies who was at the previous night’s live drawing session where I posed in my underwear to make the $40 that I desperately needed to buy some groceries.
KC: What’s important to you?
My community, without a doubt. My parents live in town, and have always been incredibly supportive of me (even if they don’t fully understand my lifestyle) but the rest of my family lives far enough away that I don’t get to see them very regularly, and Regina has really stepped up to fill that void in my life. I have so many friends who work tirelessly to make Regina the kind of city that I want to live in, and I can’t express how much that means to me. Whether you are starting up your own micro-brewery/restaurant/bakery/arts venue, organizing festivals, holding city office, managing community associations, reporting on everything that is going on around us, hosting potlucks/art jams, making music, making art, making families of your own that you let me hang out with, or just letting me crash on your couch, you are the reason that I am still in Regina.
Last fall I was actually at a crossroads. I love to cook, and needed to level up from catering out of random church kitchens. My options were to move to another city, and take on a job as a line cook in someone else’s meat-free restaurant, or to go all in and open one of my own in my home city. It made me pretty anxious to think about leaving the incredibly supportive community that we have in Regina and, as stressful as it is to take on a project like this, I can’t even imagine trying to take on a project like this without the constant support that I receive from this city.
KC: What do you like most/least about Regina?
I think that I have gushed enough about the sizeable crush that I have on Regina but I also have to acknowledge that I very much live my life in a wonderfully supportive bubble, and venturing outside of that bubble can be a harsh reality check. Like any city, Regina has it’s share of intolerance, and it is rare that a week will go by that I am not embarrassed by something that happens in the city that I love.
During our last municipal election we had the choice of whether we wanted to live in a city that was run like a corporation, or a city that was run like a community, and I feel adamantly that Regina made the wrong choice. As a result we have to fight for modest amounts to keep outdoor pools open so that children have a place to play in the summer while outrageous amounts are being spent on a shiny new arena that won’t be accessible to the majority of our citizens. We have a police force that denies that it uses racial profiling when there are too many blatant examples to prove that isn’t true. We have affordable housing projects where the developers are the ones receiving the assistance, and the homes that they are producing do little to address our housing crisis. We have folks who hurl beer bottles, and insults at cyclists as they drive by in their trucks.
On the other hand we have citizens, and private businesses going well above and beyond to provide what they can for those in need. We have musicians hosting benefits to pick up some of the slack from those who are supposed to be making sure that no one falls through the cracks. We have muscle bound tattoo artists offering to see people safely home after their late shifts at the hospital. The people are really what makes Regina so wonderful, even if it is a constant uphill battle.
KC: What is your impression of Saskatoon?
My relationship with Saskatoon has always been a little mission based. I visit there a lot but aside from a casual stroll along Broadway, I tend to always have a specific reason to go there, be it a band that is playing, or some thrift shops that need raiding, or to get under-age drunk at my brother’s dorm when he was attending U of S. I have met several wonderful people from Saskatoon but the majority of those friendships seem to have begun outside of either city at music festivals, or other events. It’s pretty easy to meet like-minded folks when you are all barefoot together in the Boreal Forest.
It wasn’t until the later half of 2015 when I got to know Saskatoon a little more casually during a brief love affair that I had with a lady from up there. She gave me an excellent reason to visit every couple of weeks, and through her I got to know some of the parts of town that I hadn’t been familiar with before. It was nice to have a local guide, even if they failed to explain the random ways your streets branch off from each other until it was too late.
I feel like our two cities have a lot in common, and I love the friendly rivalries that exist between us. They help keep us on our toes, and Saskatoon does an excellent job of providing examples of the kind of community-based initiatives that I would love to see become a reality in Regina.
KC: How do you survive the winters?
Coconut oil. All of the coconut oil. Nearly everything that i love (bike rides, picnics, casually running into friends on the street, festivals, camping, bare feet, bare thighs, plants, animals, etc.) revolves around summer, and I have never done too well at winter. If I could hibernate in a pool of coconut oil, and save all of my energy for the warmer months, I absolutely would but I’ve seen Neo waking up from that pod of goo in The Matrix, and I don’t think that is a viable option. So instead I choose to lather myself in coconut oil, and commit myself to my projects. The diner has done a very good job of monopolizing all of my time, and energy this winter.
From the Proust Questionnaire: What is your favourite possession?
That would be my 1963 CCM Hercules tandem bicycle. I purchased it from the local antique mall, and it immediately became my favourite ride. After being my main mode of transportation for five summers, someone decided that they deserved it more than I did, and stole it from me. I beat the bushes for almost three years trying to find it, and purchased 12 other tandems (including a triple that I actually bought in Saskatoon) in an attempt to fill the tandem shaped hole in my heart but nothing ever worked. Then Regina stepped up, and the name of the person who stole it (and had hidden it in his grandma’s garage for years) trickled down to me through the grapevine. My biggest fear was that he would panic when I confronted him, and ditch it out in the countryside so I did what any reasonable adult would do. I tracked down his mommy’s phone number, and I tattled on him. We managed to keep the police out of it, and I got my beloved pony back. In retrospect that was a way better option than Plan B which was to roll up to his doorstep with a dozen tandems full of the biggest dudes that I could rally, and ask that he kindly hand my bike over.
There is a huge misconception that one person on a bicycle built for two is somehow the loneliest situation ever but I couldn’t disagree more. If you bump into a friend, or meet someone new, and only one of you has a single bike then someone has to compromise but that isn’t an issue if you are rolling on a tandem. I have made countless friends just by offering someone a lift on my bike. Feel free to ask for a ride, if you ever see me rolling around.