Dale Eisler is author of From Left to Right, Saskatchewan’s Political and Economic Transformation.
It is one of the more interesting questions in Canadian politics: How did Saskatchewan go from being recognized as the birthplace of Canadian socialism to becoming the heartbeat of conservatism? The province that pioneered medicare is now the bastion of the right-leaning Saskatchewan Party, a four-term government with a stranglehold on power since 2007.
The truth is that it’s a long story. One chapter in the transformation occurred 40 years ago this month.
In the provincial election of April 26, 1982, the NDP government of Allan Blakeney was routed in what became known as the “Monday Night Massacre.” This occurred despite 11 years of balanced budgets and provincial control of natural resources against intrusions by the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau. In Saskatchewan, battles with far-off Ottawa have always been a staple of good politics.
The fact that a three-term government was defeated was not in itself all that remarkable. What made it so was the scale of the defeat. The insurgent Progressive Conservative Party, led by political neophyte Grant Devine, won by a landslide that left the NDP buried in the rubble with nine out of 64 seats in the legislature. It amounted to a populist uprising based in the promise of tax cuts and smaller government, in a province where populism is part of its political DNA.
Indeed, the roots of Saskatchewan’s social-democratic identity can be traced to the agrarian populism inspired by the likes of Tommy Douglas, who became, and remains, an NDP icon in Canada. The truth is that prairie populism is not limited to any particular ideology.
In power for two terms, the Devine government had less than a stellar record, leaving a legacy of debt and a scandal over a misuse of legislative funds that landed some members in jail for fraud. But in terms of Saskatchewan’s transformation, it did something far more important. While the public ownership of potash, oil and uranium were the centrepieces of the Blakeney years in power, the Devine government privatized several of the resource-sector Crown corporations established by its predecessor, effectively erasing the NDP’s identity.
To this day, the NDP has never recovered; the party has been lost in the tides of history. The question of government ownership as an instrument of economic development in any significant way is no longer a part of the political dialogue. The issue that defined the Blakeney government and the CCF-NDP era in Saskatchewan has disappeared, and with it any essential attribute for the NDP of today.
Other lost NDP ideas are co-operation and orderly marketing in the agricultural sector. Consider the utter transformation of Saskatchewan’s farm economy: In the early 1970s, there were upwards of 70,000 farms in the province, where small family operations pooled their efforts to gain market power, whether in the former Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, in co-operatives, or through orderly marketing in the former Canadian Wheat Board. Today, the number of farms has dropped to approximately 30,000, as the economy has shifted to large agribusiness operations where computer-savvy independent operators sell directly into a global market. Long gone is the Crow Rate, which kept railway grain freight rates artificially low.
There is enormous wealth in rural Saskatchewan now. One measure is farmland values. They climbed by an accumulated 120 per cent between 2012 and 2021, with an average value per acre in 2021 of approximately $2,600, up from $433 in 2007. The rapidly rising value has been partly driven by the relaxation of ownership restrictions in the early 2000s that allowed all Canadians to invest in farmland. For example, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board owns 115,000 acres, with other non-resident private investors owning larger amounts.
Just as co-operation and orderly marketing espoused by the NDP were in the self-interest of farmers decades ago, today that self-interest is defined by a far more free-market, individualistic ethic that shapes rural Saskatchewan. Unable to adapt its policies to that reality, the NDP has seen its rural base erode. That decline can also be traced to the early 1990s when the Roy Romanow government, facing a huge operating deficit inherited from the Devine government, closed 52 small-town hospitals as part of fiscal consolidation deemed to be part of health care reform.
The final impetus for the political transformation came with the alliance of the PC and Liberal MLAs to create the Saskatchewan Party. In a polarized electoral environment, when Brad Wall took over as leader of the Saskatchewan Party, the NDP’s electoral fate was sealed in 2007. A populist in his own right, Mr. Wall became a figure of generational change who presented a mild, centre-right alternative to the NDP, which had been in power for 16 years. By never straying far from the centre, and as an eloquent defender of Saskatchewan values and Western interests, Mr. Wall became a popular and powerful political figure with a national reputation.
Whether the same can be said of his successor Scott Moe, who lacks Mr. Wall’s charisma, pragmatism and eloquence, is far less certain. But what remains clear today is that Saskatchewan looks more like the NDP’s deathbed than its birthplace.
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