Flat Earth Society

Saskatchewan’s Political and Economic Transformation
by Dale Eisler
University of Regina Press, 381 pp.

The howl of extremism intensifies, rattling windowpanes from the Privy Council Office to Bay Street, and the elites who occupy these high offices don’t know what to make of it, much less what to do about it. They are as surprised as anyone.

As recently as the 2021 federal election — last summer — the political consensus was that Maxime Bernier was a not-quite-on-the-beam zealot and his supporters were a small, over-heated minority of cranks. This summer, no one cares about Bernier. Anger has a new standard bearer.

Pierre Poilievre is not your grandad’s Conservative. He is at the head of a movement whose adherents are mad as hell. Even if he loses his bid for the leadership of the Conservative Party, the movement will not be extinguished. These people are not going to get any less angry, or any less unhinged. If he wins, he will thank Maxime Bernier for his service and the CPC will feed on the life force of the People’s Party of Canada.

How are we to understand the uncompromising shift to the right that Mr. Poilievre represents? If only there were a clean political laboratory that would allow us to trace the origins, the impulses, and the factors that can propel a populist groundswell right into high office. Someplace like Saskatchewan.

A perfect rectangle the size of Afghanistan smack dab in the middle of the country, Saskatchewan is a political jurisdiction that has moved in my lifetime from the birthplace of Medicare to one-party rule by the right. How did that happen?

Saskatchewan has a tiny population for such a vast geographical expanse — today, just over a million people — but more than half that number live in less than a handful of cities, while the rural population is spread across scores of small towns. It hungers for light manufacturing businesses to take root there but in truth its major industries remain renewable resource extraction (farming) and non-renewable resource extraction (potash mining, oil and gas fields). Its population is changing, because of immigration and a sizeable older generation retiring and expiring. It has a history of racial prejudice, violence, and ill treatment toward its founding peoples that it knows is unforgiveable, and for which it hopes to make amends. It is trying to be better.

Saskatchewan is, in so many ways, the very image of Canada. With one glaring difference. It is a version of Canada without the Liberal Party.

Number of Liberal members of the provincial legislature? Zero. Number of federal Liberal MPs elected from Saskatchewan? Zero. Whatever they stand for, the Liberals barely exist in Saskatchewan.

Although, as Dale Eisler demonstrates in this deft and informative study, Saskatchewan has never really been a one-party province. There has always been an opposition to get angry with, and it has always been the federal government. For the past 60 years or so, more often than not, the federal government has meant the Liberal Party. The one-party province has a dance partner.

Saskatchewan, Eisler makes clear, is not some miniature model of Canada. Its politics and economics are particular to its geography and geology. It is a place with a sense of place, an awareness of its difference. We can certainly learn from the political history of Saskatchewan, but we can’t extrapolate from it.

Take the Wheat Pool and the Wheat Board. At one time these were massively important to the wellbeing of Saskatchewan and its neighbour prairie provinces. (And if you can tell me the difference between the two, without Googling, you are either the deputy minister of Agriculture or you grew up in Saskatchewan.) Both the Wheat Pool and the Wheat Board were products of a time when collectivism held sway. Individually, family farms had no bargaining power in the international grain markets or with the railway companies or the banks. Together, they did.

So, a longstanding feature of Saskatchewan political culture has been the recognition of the need to cooperate to advance a common good. The CCF (the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation — all three words in its name mean the same thing) may have been founded in Calgary, but its manifesto was written in Regina in 1933, and it was in Saskatchewan that the party came to form the government in 1944 under Tommy Douglas, and to win five elections in a row.

It was a government that used the instruments of the state to cushion what otherwise would have been socially devastating cycles of boom-and-bust in unregulated industries, and that forthrightly ran businesses pertaining to the common good as public corporations, owned by the people — electric power and natural gas, intra-provincial bus transportation. As the CCF evolved into the NDP, that tradition extended into the 1980s. By the end of Alan Blakeney’s time as premier, in 1982, the NDP government was extolling its “family of Crown corporations,” including SaskOil, SaskTel, the Saskatchewan Mining Development Corporation, the Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan and others, that together delivered budget surpluses year after year and fed a Heritage Fund of $1 billion as a hedge against hard times.

Blakeney’s reward for 11 years of sound economic stewardship was electoral annihilation. The NDP were reduced from 44 seats to a rump of nine, while Grant Devine’s Conservatives won power with 55.

Devine’s Conservatives were free market zealots, bent on privatizing what they saw as the NDP’s Bolshevik economic apparatus, but they bore little resemblance to the incoherent extremists rallying today to Poilievre. Still, that 1982 election in Saskatchewan bears certain resemblances to the here and now. At the time, inflation was running at a terrifying 12.78 percent; the five-year mortgage interest rate was more than 18 percent. People didn’t care that the government was balancing its books. They were watching their own household incomes being devoured.

Devine, Eisler points out, argued that “the NDP measured success by the government’s achievements.” The Conservatives, by contrast, promised to put money back in the wallets of citizens, principally by prying the government’s sticky fingers out of those wallets. Devine promised to cancel the provincial gas tax, roll back sales taxes, freeze utility rates.

Quite apart from the relief this offered to households in financial straits, it drew on a strain of Saskatchewan political culture that existed in opposition to, and right alongside, the values of cooperative commonwealth — often in the very same people. Yes, farmers were the original Saskatchewan collectivists. But as Eisler reminds us, they are also capitalists to their core. They are private landowners, entrepreneurs, investors in agricultural machinery and technologies.

And while the Wheat Board and the Wheat Pool might have been devices to leverage the best prices collectively, they also prohibited farmers from taking their own crops to market on their own initiative. In the name of the common good, they stripped this class of fierce individualists of the freedom to look after their own interests as they saw fit.

Today, among the “Freedom convoy” cultists, this perfectly legitimate stand on individual agency within the necessary constraints of a political collective has metastasized into venomous, hysterical opposition to anything that elevates the common good over pure selfishness, whether that be mask mandates in the face of a global pandemic or taxation in support of public works.

Dale Eisler is a wise mind. In the first part of his career, he was an influential and widely respected journalist on the Prairies. In the second, he was an influential and widely respected public servant in the nation’s capital. Perceptive, persuasive and eminently readable, this book shows why. We would do well to listen to him. Because one of his central points is that the Saskatchewan of Allan Blakeney was also the Saskatchewan of Grant Devine; the Saskatchewan of Roy Romanow was also the Saskatchewan of Brad Wall. Their politics may have differed, but the province prospered in different ways under their various administrations.

Because none of them was so foolish, or so evil, as to elevate pure selfishness over the common good.eg

  • Hill Times¬†September 7, 2022