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provincial politics

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall is seen in Regina on March 23, 2016.Mark Taylor/The Canadian Press

Saskatchewan's Brad Wall will leave office by early next year after a decade-long career as Premier that saw him lead his once-have-not province into an era of economic prominence and political influence, even as he battled Ottawa over the push for a countrywide climate plan.

His departure will likely allow him to retain his status as one of the country's most popular conservative and provincial leaders. During his tenure, he leveraged a wave of global demand for Saskatchewan's resources to focus on job growth and the retention of young graduates. His provincial boosterism captured the desire of many in the province to step out of what had become a decades-long role as a poor cousin of Confederation.

Mr. Wall surprised many Thursday when he announced via Facebook and YouTube he will retire as soon as his right-leaning Saskatchewan Party can hold a leadership race and elect a successor. There was little expectation that Mr. Wall would run again in 2020, but his retirement announcement comes just 16 months after winning a third majority.

Gary Mason: Saskatchewan's popular Premier Brad Wall picked as good a time as any to go

While his government introduced an austerity budget in March that dented his long-standing popularity, Mr. Wall still goes out on a high note. He said he chose this moment to give the next party leader time to prepare for the next election, and the party, government and province need "renewal."

"I've always thought that the 10-year mark – should I be so fortunate to serve that long – might be the right time to re-evaluate," he said.

Mr. Wall, 51, has led his party for 13 years and won the premier's job in 2007 as the province was stepping into a new economic age anchored by commodity exports. Oil and potash prices were strong through many of his years in office. Saskatchewan has diversified its agricultural offerings, and now ships $1-billion worth of lentils to India each year. Programs to attract international migrants have helped boost the provincial population to near 1.2 million.

"It's easy to forget how things were in the province just 10 years ago. Remember the questions we used to ask?" he said. "Could our population get over and stay over a million people? Could we put an end to the near certainty that young people would look first to someplace outside of Saskatchewan for their future?"

More recently, he has railed against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's climate plan and carbon tax, which has put him out of step with other provinces and many Canadian business leaders – and has cut his province out of Ottawa's $1.4-billion low-carbon economy program. That unflinching support for the country's oil and gas industry has also made him a political hero among conservatives, especially in Western Canada.

In a pretaped video and a news conference on Thursday, Mr. Wall – who will also resign as MLA for Swift Current – insisted he has no current job prospects. But those close to him say he speaks passable French. He has never completely quashed the talk about his entering federal politics, and has mused that being Canada's ambassador to the United States would be an "interesting position."

But on Thursday, Mr. Wall acknowledged he has made mistakes during his time in office. He told reporters the decision to slash library funding in the March budget, which the government restored under public pressure one month later, was a misstep. The Premier also said despite some improvements in Indigenous employment and education prospects, "there has not been enough progress that I would point to with satisfaction."

The official Opposition NDP have also taken his government to task this year for raising the PST to 6 per cent from 5 per cent, talk of privatizing key Crown corporations and for shutting down the provincially owned bus company that had provided subsidized service to rural and Indigenous communities for more than seven decades.

Other critics point to a series of deficit budgets, which includes years when oil prices were near double the current $50 (U.S.).

Like neighbouring Alberta, Saskatchewan has been hit hard by oil-price weakness since 2014, as well as a drop in revenue from potash and uranium. But Saskatchewan's economy is set to start growing again after two years of contraction. That optimism, along with the job as Saskatchewan premier as the final prize, means the contest to replace Mr. Wall is likely to be heated.

Filling the Premier's shoes will be a difficult task. As Regina Leader-Post columnist Murray Mandryk said: "He is the Sask. Party brand."

But University of Saskatchewan political scientist Greg Poelzer said the Premier leaves his successor in good stead, as he will wear this year's unpopular budget. "The timing makes a lot of sense."

There is no clear heir apparent for leadership of the party, Prof. Poelzer said – although there is often talk of cabinet ministers such as Kevin Doherty, Gordon Wyant or Jim Reiter running.

Mr. Wall's influence also extends beyond his province's borders. Federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said Mr. Wall is "a leader on the national stage, and a champion of Canada's conservative movement." In Alberta, where voters elected the province's first NDP government in 2015, many conservatives look to Saskatchewan with envious eyes. Mr. Wall's stand on climate issues has clashed with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley's position, especially in regards to her government's new carbon tax, and her political alliance with Mr. Trudeau. For his continued role as agitator-in-chief, the oil patch community in Calgary have held him up as a political hero.