Saskatchewan's great bust-to-boom ride can be charted through its iconic vehicles - starting with the 1930s "Bennett Buggies," stripped-down cars drawn by horses and derisively named after a Depression prime minister.
Fast-forward to the hulking combines of the Big Wheat economy, and the pickup trucks that marked the oil-roughneck phase of the past decade.
So what will be the representative vehicles of the coming years? Very likely, they will be the $120,000 Porsches that will soon adorn Vaughn Wyant's Saskatoon showrooms - the new buggies for professionals and executives who typify a thrusting Saskatchewan.
Mr. Wyant's imminent opening of Saskatchewan's first full-service Porsche dealer signals that the province, and the city of Saskatoon, are emerging from their post-Depression funk - a long period of economic lethargy that wheat markets, even in their best years, were never able to banish.
Saskatoon is engulfed in a paroxysm of conspicuous spending, from the million-dollar-plus houses in the Willows, the golf course development near Mr. Wyant's suburban showroom, to the forest of cranes at University of Saskatchewan, which is in the midst of a billion-dollar building program.
It is a resurgence built on the fact that, at this moment in history, Saskatchewan has what the world wants, whether it's potash, oil and gas, uranium, diamonds, coal, and crops such as canola, lentils and wheat. Saskatoon, as its major business city with 240,000 people, has a swagger, lording it over Regina, the smaller capital city.
"This was a temperance colony and people used to guard their wealth very carefully," says Mr. Wyant, who at 57 sports modish Bono-like glasses and already owns local dealerships, for Audi, Mercedes, Volvo, Jaguar and Ford. "It was important that you weren't seen to be overtly wealthy so houses and cars have always been pretty conservative."
That has all changed. "Now, the younger people are earning lots of money, and they say 'I don't give a damn, I'm driving a Jag or a Volvo or a BMW. I'm driving whatever the hell I want to drive and I really don't care what people think.'"
It is not that Saskatchewan's economy soared during the Great Recession - it just didn't suffer as badly as others. Saskatchewan has a third of the world's potash production, and potash is rebounding from a miserable 2009. The province has 43 per cent of the arable land in Canada, and the world needs food. Saskatchewan will soon pass Alberta in terms of conventional oil production. And the province's population, mired at just under a million people since the 1930s, has edged every so steadily above that mark.
It is a Norway in the making - lots of resources and a sparse scattering of people. "When you think of the natural resource base in Saskatchewan, with its limited population base, you can spread that wealth out over a few people," says Bill Doyle, chief executive officer of fertilizer giant Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan.
And no one has a better front-row seat than Mr. Wyant, whose German-born father came to Saskatoon as a doctor and professor. Young Vaughn didn't care much for school and he loved sales. So he hightailed it to Britain where he got experience selling cars for a London dealer. He returned to Canada to get into the business and in 1983 bought Saskatoon's Jubilee Ford.
Now, his string of dealerships in Saskatchewan and B.C. gross $250-million year. Last year, in one of the worst auto markets in history, Mr. Wyant had a record sales year. Besides the new Porsche store, he has bought a Ford dealership in Prince Albert, the gateway to the North. But the underpinning of his business remains Jubilee, where he still sells plenty of pickups to the farm and oil crowd.
He has his hands everywhere, from a favoured position in the sprawling auto mall on the southern flank of Saskatoon, to local beer-maker Great Western Brewing where is chairman and 25-per-cent owner, to a high-rise office tower he and partners plan to build - the first major tower in 30 years, he says.
The boom is also reflected in housing prices, not just in the Willows but in the old areas of east Saskatoon, where young professionals live cheek-to-jowl with old families. The most conspicuous landmark is the sprawling turreted brick mansion built by Mr. Doyle and eventually selling at a reported $2-million in 2004. The Potash boss, a Chicagoan, now spends only a week a month in Saskatoon, but the business community accepts that he needs to be out selling potash to the world.
Others have done well in a market that has been up and down, but generally higher than historical levels. Brooke Dobni, acting business dean at U of S, has seen his home triple in value in five years. A native of rural Kindersley, he finds a certain irony in owning real estate in an old-money enclave. "The area wasn't built for guys like me, and now, it's guys like me who are living there."
Mr. Wyant foresees even more uncorking of this pent-up desire to show off success. He figures he will sell 50 to 60 Porsches in the first year. "There are people who have been saying for 10 years that 'when you get the Porsche franchise, I'll buy one,'" he says.
It means more chances to indulge his weakness for sports memorabilia, including the green jersey worn by late great Roughrider quarterback Ron Lancaster in the 1966 Grey Cup game. He bought it at a charity auction for $1,000, and in Saskatchewan, Mr. Wyant says, that's like buying the Mona Lisa for $5,000.
Everyone on board
Eric Cline is a mining executive. He has the requisite nice car and a new house on a ravine with a spectacular view of the South Saskatchewan River and downtown Saskatoon. But something is different here, and the tipoff is the photo gallery in his study, showing him with NDP premiers Roy Romanow and Lorne Calvert.
Mr. Cline, vice-president of corporate affairs for Shore Gold Inc., is a former finance minister in the former NDP government of Saskatchewan. His seamless shift from social democratic cabinet minister to mining VP is the kind of transition that perhaps could only happen in Saskatchewan.
"There is a real consensus around Saskatchewan about resource development," he explains. "Oil and mining people get along with the NDP governments. People support the sector and they want to develop it and that crosses party lines."
Indeed, Mr. Cline, and his NDP colleagues, can claim to be the parents of the so-called Saskaboom - a rising economic tide that will only flow higher if projects such as Shore Gold's potential diamond mine are allowed to proceed. As finance minister, Mr. Cline compressed the personal income tax grid into three tiers, not a flat tax but a move revolutionary by provincial standards. He matched the generous energy royalty regime in Alberta - and who knew that Alberta would then hand Saskatchewan a gift by raising royalty rates, thus driving oil and gas activity to the former have-not province?
Alberta has reversed its royalty grab, but the province has had it good for so many years that it is hopelessly divided. It is split to the point of paralysis between urban and rural, Edmonton and Calgary, north and south, and the big issue is who gets the resource money. Not so in Saskatchewan, where everyone has suffered equally and now everyone seems happy to share the spoils.
"Some people in Alberta take development for granted," Mr. Cline says. "In Saskatchewan, no one takes it for granted."
His transition to the mining industry may seem bizarre in provinces that lack deep traditions of NDP governments. But in Saskatchewan people move easily from public to private life, and it tends to nurture more centrist governments. So when the NDP was defeated in 2007 by Brad Wall's Saskatchewan Party, the base for the current economic boom was already laid.
"By the time we left office, people were standing up and saying, 'We're from Saskatchewan and we're not embarrassed by it,'" Mr. Cline said.
A can-do attitude
Saskatoon is all about creative destruction. In the south end of the city, they are tearing down the old Intercontinental pork plant, a Dickensian labyrinth of killing halls and sausage-making rooms that hail back to times when pork king Fred Mendel was the city's arch-tycoon and spearheaded the building of an eponymous art gallery for the city.
Now the changing of the guard is evident in Discovery Plaza, a sleek downtown low-rise with a single tenant, BHP Billiton, an Australian company that is the largest mine proprietor in the world. BHP has signed papers to take over the entire 45,000 square feet , which it hopes to fill with employees to push new potash mine development in the province.
BHP burst into local consciousness last winter when it was the sponsor of the Canadian Junior Hockey Championships in Saskatoon. Its new prominence creates a natural tension with the hometown club, Potash Corp., the biggest potash company in the world. Just adding to the tension is the constant speculation that BHP will acquire Potash at some point.
BHP has 30 people in Saskatoon, and expects to hit 75 next year, but has employed as many as 650 on contract in testing possible mine sites. A final decision on a new mine will be taken by the board in late 2011, the company says.
Meanwhile, Bill Doyle, CEO of Potash, argues that the potash price has not rebounded enough to justify a new green-field mine by BHP or anyone. When it is pointed out that mine developers are flocking to Saskatchewan, Mr. Doyle is dismissive. "I think there are a lot of speculators in our space and most of them don't have a pot to pee in, to tell the truth … You just can't make the numbers work. I don't care if you're the biggest mining company in the world or a speculator."
Big vision, big plans
One glance at Karim Nasser's driveway and you know he is not buying cars from Vaughn Wyant. A 1991 Honda Civic beater is parked along the curb, and a 1997 Mercury Cougar sits in the garage of his modest two-story house in a middle-class neighbourhood.
Mr. Nasser, known locally as Kay, was born in Lebanon but embodies the old prairie tradition of playing down your wealth. He is a millionaire developer but lives like a retired engineering professor which, indeed, he is.
Suddenly, at 83, Kay Nasser has emerged as a partner in the project that could transform the city, jumping in to salvage a proposed $200-million hotel-condo-retail complex along the river, after its Calgary developer ran into financial trouble. 'It's like a dynamo, it will create business all around it" says Mr. Nasser, who sees this as his legacy to the city.
The land is also symbolically significant, a scratchy patch tossed around as a potential development site for over 30 years. It serves as a boundary between the two Saskatoons, the East side, which has the university and fine homes - and the West, with its storefront clinics, thrift shops and home of many of the poorest aboriginal people.
In the great Saskatchewan upswing, there is a danger that this group will be left out - from education, housing and jobs. It's a microcosm of the challenge facing a province where the aboriginal population is 15 per cent and growing fast. Saskatchewan will need this young labour pool if it is to sustain its economic rise - and reputation for social progress.
Engaging the young native population is "the great social imperative of the 20th century," says Peter MacKinnon, president of the University of Saskatchewan. "If we don't succeed in that, we will be compromised in so many ways."
Editor's note: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a quote to Brad Wall. In fact it was Eric Cline who said: "By the time we left office, people were standing up and saying, 'We're from Saskatchewan and we're not embarrassed by it." This online version has been corrected.