During the recent occupation of Ottawa by the misnamed Freedom Convoy, Canadians were treated to the spectacle of five Conservative MPs and a Senator posing for photos with the organizers. (These would be the same organizers who called, in writing, for the overthrow of the democratically elected government in Ottawa and its replacement by a bizarre cabal made up of the governor general, unelected senators and, what else, the protesters themselves.) That all six parliamentarians – MPs Warren Steinley, Fraser Tolmie, Rosemarie Falk, Kevin Waugh, Senator Denise Batters and former Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer – hail from Saskatchewan is, sadly, no accident. Nor is it surprising to many observers of the current provincial scene that most of the original protesters also came from that province. But it was undoubtedly a shock to the many Canadians who are more familiar with the progressive legacy of the small province that once punched above its weight in the arena of federal-provincial relations.
For many Canadians, it is Alberta that has long been seen (outside of Quebec) as the difficult actor in the federation, a scenario heightened recently by the election of former Harper minister Jason Kenney as premier. And Kenney has certainly been combative, from his court challenges of federal actions to his divisive referendum on equalization. But lost in the furor over Kenney’s latest hijinks is the increasingly counterproductive behaviour of Saskatchewan, the “other” prairie province. Since 2008 the province has been led by two men, premiers Brad Wall and Scott Moe, who seem intent on viewing Ottawa as the enemy and, since 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a dangerous menace. Under their leadership of the right-wing Saskatchewan Party the province has repeatedly taken contrarian positions that have hindered federal-provincial relations, most notably during the ongoing pandemic.
Indeed, Saskatchewan’s current premier, Scott Moe, was so eager to eliminate virtually all forms of COVID restrictions in response to the demands of the protesters that he even managed to beat Jason Kenney to the punch. This is particularly significant since Saskatchewan has had the worst performance record of all provinces for much of the last two years of the pandemic. It still has the most unvaccinated individuals (20%) and is currently seeing a dramatic surge in hospitalizations due to the Omicron variant. During the fifth wave the province – birthplace of medicare — was even forced to airlift patients from Saskatoon to rural hospitals when urban ICUs were swamped.
Asked why he felt this was a good time to remove all restrictions, the premier indicated his decision was based on a “blend” of science and public opinion. And public opinion is definitely on his side. Despite its poor pandemic record, a recent Angus Reid poll found the province reported the highest proportion of residents who support the immediate removal of all COVID constraints (62%). But the science is another matter. At a press conference announcing the end of restrictions, Moe repeatedly claimed incorrectly that vaccinations had not been effective at stopping the spread of the virus, that more vaccinated individuals had contracted the Omicron variant than unvaccinated, and that the virus is now reduced to the level of an annual flu. As University of Saskatchewan epidemiologist Dr. Cordell Neudorf said in reply, “Misrepresenting the science is not the same thing as making a policy decision.” [i] And yet, with such a poor record of handling the pandemic, Moe and his party – while less popular than in the past — still remain far ahead of the opposition NDP and would handily win a majority if an election were held today. [ii]
Saskatchewan distinguished itself in the fall 2021 federal election as well, becoming the only province in Canada to elect no Liberal MPs, even as Alberta elected two. In fact, this was the second federal election in which the Conservative Party achieved a clean sweep of the 14 federal ridings in the province, having first eliminated any NDP seats in 2019. What’s more, the alt-right People’s Party of Canada increased its share of the popular vote to 5 per cent in Saskatchewan, far ahead of the Green Party (1.5 per cent). At the same time the Liberals received the lowest level of support in Saskatchewan of any province, garnering only 10% compared with 16% in Alberta.
Premier Scott Moe also distinguished himself by refusing to congratulate Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau on his party’s re-election. Instead he issued a communique calling the election “pointless” and declared “Ninety per cent of the people in Saskatchewan do not want Justin Trudeau to be prime minister.” As political scientist Jim Farney of the Johnson Shoyama institute in Regina stated, “We are now probably the most conservative province in the country on a lot of metrics.” [iii]
So why is this noteworthy? After all, the prairies have long been the hotbed of anti-government, anti-Ottawa sentiment. Surely Saskatchewan’s recent behaviour is not out of line with past performance?
Wrong. For many native Saskatchewanians over 40, this right-wing political culture is not just uncharacteristic but unbelievable. It is not the fact that residents of the small prairie province are disaffected, it is how they are choosing to express that unhappiness that is strikingly different from the past. Think about it. This is, after all, the province of Tommy Douglas, Alan Blakeney and Roy Romanow. The province that invented medicare, cooperatives and the CCF, the wheat board and pool elevators. Its response to the Depression was not “funny money” and the Social Credit, as we saw in neighbouring Alberta. Instead, it was community-based resourcefulness and more, not less, government intervention, making common cause and pulling together.[iv]
Between its creation as a province in 1905 and 2007 Saskatchewan elected only two Conservative governments, some fifty years apart, but elected 5 Liberal and 5 CCF/NDP governments during those first hundred years. The province was the first in North America to elect a social democratic government. Tommy Douglas was the CCF premier of Saskatchewan for 17 years before becoming the first leader of the federal NDP in 1961. During his five terms in office he oversaw:
- the creation of the publicly owned Saskatchewan Power Corporation, successor to the Saskatchewan Electrical Power Commission, which began a long program of extending electrical service to isolated farms and villages;
- the creation of Canada’s first publicly owned automotive insurance service, the Saskatchewan Government Insurance Office
- the creation of a number of other crown corporations, many of which competed with existing private sector interests;
- legislation that allowed the unionization of the public service;
- a program to offer taxpayer-funded hospital care to all citizens (the predecessor of medicare)—the first in North America.[v]
It was only with the creation of the Saskatchewan Party in 2007 that the province took a dramatic shift to the far right, accompanied by a strongly populist bent. Since then the province has become a hotbed of libertarian, almost Darwinian thinking in which its prime motivation appears to be every individual for him or herself. As someone who grew up in the province in the 1960’s and 70’s exclaimed the other day, “I don’t recognize the place. This is not the Saskatchewan I knew. It’s some kind of parallel universe.”
Saskatchewan today is not only the province of privatization, deregulation and tax incentives for business, but the province of reduced medical benefits, including measures that contravene the Canada Health Act such as patient charges for MRIs and the increased use of private providers to deal with surgery backlogs. This is the province that turfed any federal MPs who supported gun control measures in the 1997 federal election, heavily influenced by an election campaign sponsored by the National Rifle Association. It is still a province where premier Moe continues to oppose any new federal restrictions on firearms as a violation of basic freedom.[vi]
Despite limited resources this is also the province where the premier spent millions of taxpayers’ dollars in 2021 to join his conservative counterparts in Alberta and Ontario in an unsuccessful court challenge to the federal government’s plan to lower greenhouse gas emissions, with little or no citizen opposition. Reacting to the Supreme Court’s decision in favour of the federal government, Moe ungraciously concluded the decision was “unfortunate” and “Just because you now do have the authority to enact a tax like this, a very divisive policy, it doesn’t mean you always should.”[vii]
Not surprising, then, that Moe is now considering joining premier Kenney in launching a suit against the federal government’s invocation of the Emergencies Act, despite numerous legal opinions that such a suit, which would likely be at least as expensive as the last one, would be based on inaccurate or “shaky” claims and is highly unlikely to succeed. [viii]
In short, the issues on which the current premier is drawing lines in the sand against the federal government are hardly the ones that motivated many of his predecessors, to say the least. But there can be little doubt that he is reflecting the views of the majority of his electors. So what has happened to bring about such a sea change in the political culture?
According to numerous experts, there are three major developments that have been determining factors. First and foremost, the nature of the Saskatchewan economy changed dramatically in the final two decades of the last century as globalization, technological change and free trade re-ordered much of the traditional base. Take agriculture, once the mainstay of that economy. From a total of 138,713 family farms in 1941, statistics show that by 2016, within a single lifetime, those numbers had fallen roughly 82 per cent, to only 24,523. At the same time the size of farms increased dramatically, from 432 acres in 1941 to 1668 acres in 2011.[ix] Put another way, family farms, once the backbone of rural communities, were replaced by agribusiness. That trend was then exacerbated by the Harper Conservative government’s decision to shut down the Wheat Board in 2012, a move which impacted small farmers the most.
In addition, the importance of mining grew exponentially in the province in the last few decades of the previous century, again with significant implications for big business. This was epitomized by the privatization of the Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan in 2016 and its subsequent evolution into a multinational corporation whose CEO was among the highest paid in the country and whose Chair of the Board is a well-known American executive.[x] Even more significant was the massive expansion of the oil industry in southern Saskatchewan in the 1990’s. Previously, the difficulty in accessing the known oil reserves of the province had restricted development in favour of the far easier access to fields in Alberta. But with the development of new technology, notably the widespread use of horizontal well drilling pioneered by the Saskatchewan Research Council, the province saw a doubling of output from 1990 to 2001. Oil revenue is now an increasingly important element of provincial tax revenue. From 1995 to 2000, direct oil and gas revenues ranged from a low of $500 million to over $1 billion, equal to 10-25% of all tax revenue raised in Saskatchewan.[xi] The industry represents 9% of the economic value created in the province and, with gross sales of $5.1 billion, oil revenue is now only slightly less important than agriculture. Small wonder, then, that federal plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are anathema in the province.
Along with the dramatic shift in the economy of the province there has been a concomitant influx of businesses and business people from both Alberta and the United States. This demographic change, too, has had a significant impact on Saskatchewan politics. In his seminal work on the political culture of Alberta, political scientist Nelson Wiseman identified the various traits of American neoliberalism that have long dominated Albertan politics and created what he referred to as its “maverick” status among the provinces of English Canada. From “rugged individualism, market capitalism and equality of opportunity to fierce hostility towards centralized federalism and any form of socialism”, the characteristics identified by Wiseman, when transposed to the situation in Saskatchewan more than seventy years later, ring equally true.[xii] Certainly the tragicomic comments of several of the Convoy protesters at their bail hearings in Ottawa – declaring their arrests were illegal because they were not read their Miranda rights and refusing to answer questions from the judge because their First Amendment rights had been violated – provide first hand evidence of American cultural influence.
At the same time, several observers have noted the striking absence of certain demographic cohorts in the province, the result of significant out-migration during periods of economic downturn. The 1970s, for example, saw a net loss of more than 100,000, reducing the population of the province to less than 1 million inhabitants, a low not seen since 1964. Similarly from 1981 to 2001 there were 357,615 in-migrants but 482,676 out-migrants, for a net loss of roughly 125,000. The average age of those leaving the provinces was 20-29. As one observer noted, the province has two well established universities, and suggested “we are educating our young people so they can leave.” [xiii]
A third and likely even more surprising factor in the tectonic plate shift in Saskatchewan politics has been the growing role of conservative Christians. Here too the comparison with Alberta is inevitable. That province saw initial immigration by a variety of religious communities such as Anabaptists, espousing a right-wing populist and fundamentalist Christian movement that fought to minimize the role of government and led to the creation of Social Credit and its dominance in politics under “Bible Bill” Aberhart and his successor Ernest Manning. (Later this also led to the rise of Manning’s son Preston, the initial leader of the federal Reform Party, and his successor with the Canadian Alliance, Stockwell Day, the lay evangelical minister from Red Deer.)[xiv] In Saskatchewan, by contrast, the left-wing populism of the social gospel saw government as a solution, not a problem, and led to the creation of the CCF/NDP.
But successive waves of immigration to Alberta from the rest of Canada and other parts of the globe have now demonstrably broadened the religious and political perspective, resulting, for example, in the election of Naheed Nenshi as mayor of Calgary, and Randy Boissonnault, an openly gay Liberal MP from Edmonton. Conversely in Saskatchewan the influx of Albertans and Americans has only served to heighten the influence of conservative Christians, to the extent that it is Saskatchewan, not Alberta, that is now routinely referred to as the Bible Belt.[xv] In addition to pre-existing Anabaptists and conservative Catholics, the new influx of religious right proponents includes the uniquely American Christian nationalists, a group much in evidence in Ottawa during the convoy occupation.[xvi]
Of course every citizen is entitled to their opinion, and it seems clear that the majority of Saskatchewan residents simply do not share the progressive values and beliefs of their predecessors. But the populist element of this new right-wing culture is also an absolutist one, similar to those causing upheaval in many formerly progressive European states.[xvii] The danger here, as there, is an inability to compromise because of the polarization of views, a lack of tolerance and an unwillingness to negotiate and consider politics as the art of the possible. In the past it was often the case, for example, that NDP governments in Saskatchewan achieved benefits for the province from a federal government of a different political stripe, primarily through compromise and the finding of common ground. Direct confrontation has rarely if ever achieved such results. In an era of increasingly complex and horizontal policy issues, where many departments and multiple jurisdictions are impacted, federal-provincial cooperation is more important than ever to achieve national objectives, and the presence of yet another rigid provincial “maverick” is an unfortunate development to say the least.
In the end, though, however upsetting the “new” Saskatchewan political culture may be to those who remember the “good old days”, one overriding fact may provide a measure of reassurance for Canadian progressives. Saskatchewan is not Alberta. It has 14 seats, not 34. Its population, at 1.1 million, is one quarter of its provincial neighbour. Even more notably, its population is barely one third of the city of Toronto’s nearly 3 million. In short, Saskatchewan lacks political clout. It is a pin prick, not a thorn, in the side of the federal Liberals and, for that matter, the NDP. If its leaders and politicians are determined to spurn federal programs and cooperation, it will cost the people of the province more than anyone. One would hope the advantages of cooperation over confrontation, as evidenced by the recently signed federal-provincial child care agreement, would become evident. But the current disconnect, starkly demonstrated in a recent poll revealing significant opposition in Alberta and Saskatchewan to the federal invocation of the Emergencies Act, despite its widespread popularity in the rest of the country, may suggest otherwise.
[iv] For a detailed discussion of the origins of the two very different political cultures that emerged in Saskatchewan and Alberta, see Seymour Martin Lipset. Agrarian Socialism: The CCF in Saskatchewan. University of California Press, 1950..
[xii] Nelson Wiseman. “The American Imprint on Alberta Politics.” Great Plains Quarterly. Vol. 31, No. 1, Winter 2011. Pp 39-53.
[xiv] In addition to the work of Seymour Martin Lipset cited above, see also a summary by University of Regina scholar Dale Eisler, “Saskatchewan and Alberta Once Had Opposing Views –How Did They Become So Aligned?” ( October 30, 2019) at https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatoon/saskatchewan-alberta-political-views-aligned-western-alienation-1.5338512
[xv] Wells, Kristopher. “Progressive Albertans are challenging province’s Bible Belt stereotypes”. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved August 22, 2017.