Saskatchewan is covering cancer-care costs for an ailing refugee, as Canada’s prairie province offers a distinctly different vision for how the country should treat those who come here from afar, many of them needed to buttress the West’s rapidly expanding economy.
For Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, it is the latest move in a years-long effort to shape his province into a sort of alternate model of North American conservatism, one that has sought to maintain a broad public appeal through an unusual confluence of strippers and chemotherapy.
“This is the kind of country we are. You cover it,” Mr. Wall explained to reporters last week after his government opted to provide treatment to a man seeking refugee status from religious persecution in Pakistan. The man had been denied coverage by the federal government, which under new rules unveiled this spring, substantially trimmed drug, dental and vision coverage for refugee claimants.
Mr. Wall’s comments came as part of a lengthening spat with the federal government over immigration policy, one that has seen Saskatchewan increasingly at odds with Ottawa.
But the immigration debate comes amid broader shifts in Saskatchewan, where a right-leaning Premier in a province long governed by the NDP has maintained significant public support, even as other conservative groups – the Republicans in the U.S., the opposition Wildrose Party in Alberta, as just two examples – are engaged in soul-searching after high-profile losses.
With his chemotherapy stand, Mr. Wall “sent out a loud message … that you don’t have to be a jerk to be a conservative. You can be compassionate,” said Murray Mandryk, a long-time Saskatchewan journalist who is now a columnist with the Regina Leader-Post.
“You don’t have to naturally oppose a refugee because it’s simple and easy in an elderly and white-dominated population.”
As Saskatchewan’s demographics change, so too does its politics. In 2007, it had the highest percentage of people 65 and over of any Canadian province. Last year, its average age dipped to 2.6 years below the national average. The wheat-farmer province is becoming increasingly urban. And it’s desperate for more people, with labour shortages a critical issue for Mr. Wall’s government, which has pressed forward a series of changes – some traditionally conservative, some decidedly not – that are, in some measure, designed to change how people think about Saskatchewan.
“They’re trying to attract people from all over by basically having a place that’s not like the traditional image of Saskatchewan as a backwater,” Mr. Mandryk said.
In the past year, the province has launched the sale of a Crown corporation, Information Services Corp. It is liberalizing liquor laws, clearing the way for booze sales at movie theatres and corkage-fee options at restaurants. And it has made public plans to allow stripteases – including wet T-shirt contests, although no full-frontal nudity – after gaining notoriety for investigating a spring performance by Chippendales exotic male dancers.
In those moves – and the reasons behind them – lie principles that may be as applicable to U.S. Republicans dealing with shifting demographics as they are to a population building new potash mines and trucking away new supplies of oil.
“To the people of Saskatchewan, [Mr. Wall’s government] is trying to show them that it is not hard and cold conservative-style,” said Joseph Garcia, head of the department of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan. “That it is a government with a heart and a mind.”
Take Mr. Wall’s explanation to the CBC of the refugee chemotherapy funding: “In this country and in this province we are, compared to other places in the world, rich beyond measure. So I think we can afford it. We can find the dollars,” he said.
Still, there is more than a hint of self-interest in Mr. Wall’s comments, which come as Saskatchewan seeks to attract more immigrants to power its economy.