Grant Devine was born July 5, 1944, in Regina, and was raised on a farm that his grandfather had homesteaded near Lake Valley, not far from Moose Jaw. After high school he enrolled at the University of Saskatchewan, where he earned a BSc in Agriculture. He pursued post-graduate studies and completed a PhD in Agricultural Economics at Ohio State University in 1976. He joined the faculty of the University of Saskatchewan, where he taught Agricultural Marketing and Consumer Economics.
Devine was drawn to politics at a time when the fortunes of the Saskatchewan Progressive Conservative Party were rising. Dick Collver, who was elected leader in 1973, argued that the Liberals were a spent force provincially and that the only way to dislodge the NDP government was to build an anti-socialist coalition around the Conservatives. His brand of right-wing populism appealed to voters. In the 1978 election, the PCs displaced the Liberals as the official opposition.
The election marked Grant Devine’s entry into electoral politics. He contested the constituency of Saskatoon Nutana and was soundly defeated. When Collver stepped down as leader, Devine put his name forward and cruised to victory at the November 1979 convention. He led the party into the provincial election called for April 26, 1982. It soon became evident that the NDP was vulnerable. Interest rates were at 18% and there was a feeling that Allan Blakeney’s eleven-year-old government was out of touch with the people. On the first day of the campaign, Devine announced that he would eliminate the provincial tax on gasoline. This was followed by a commitment to guarantee home mortgage rates at 13.25%. The Conservatives rolled to victory, winning 54.1% of the popular vote and 55 out of 64 seats in the Legislature.
One of the first actions of the new administration was to organize an “Open for Business” conference in October 1982 to advertise the fact that the “socialist” era was over, and private investment and free enterprise were welcome in Saskatchewan. As an incentive to the oil industry, the government introduced a three-year royalty holiday for new wells and reduced royalties for existing wells. Drilling increased markedly, but at the sacrifice of a lower royalty revenue share of the value of production. The expansion of Crown corporations was curtailed, but there was no large-scale effort to sell them. A notable exception was the Land Bank, which the NDP had set up to facilitate the inter-generational transfer of land. Devine said the government should not be in the business of owning land, and he dismantled the Land Bank (see Agricultural Policy), replacing it with 8% loans to enable farmers to purchase their own land.
The government ran consecutive deficit budgets, accumulating a debt of over $1.5 billion its first four years in office. Sensing that he might lose the 1986 election, Devine opened the coffers, giving farmers production loans at 6% and homeowners $1,500 home-improvement matching grants. The strategy worked. Although he narrowly lost the popular vote to the NDP, Devine won a second term with 38 seats, against 25 for the NDP and one for the Liberals. In doing so, the PCs ran up a deficit of over $1.2 billion in 1986–87, a far cry from the deficit figure of $389 million that had been presented in the pre-election budget.
The fiscal crisis led to cutbacks in services, cancellation of programs, and firing of employees. The government launched a privatization crusade, disposing of a wide array of Crown corporations from the $15 million SaskMinerals to the Potash Corporation, valued at well over $1 billion. When the government broke its promise not to sell utilities and placed the natural gas division of SaskPower on the block, the NDP brought the Legislature to a halt by letting the bells ring for seventeen days. The public sided with the NDP, and the government backed down from the sale.
Although he pledged to get government out of business, Devine gave loans, subsidies, guarantees and other incentives to private business. The results were impressive: two heavy oil upgraders, a fertilizer plant, a paper mill, a pulp mill, and a bacon-processing plant. The Rafferty-Alameda Dams were built as a public works megaproject. However, the government was never able to control the debt it had incurred in its first term. By the end of the 1980s it was running a surplus on operating expenses excluding debt charges, but interest payments drove the province deeper into debt each year. By 1991–92 the accumulated debt was over $15 billion, and annual interest payments exceeded $500 million, the third-largest item in the budget after health and education.
On the national scene, Devine reversed the old rule of Saskatchewan politics: pick a fight with Ottawa at election time. He was a staunch supporter of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and gave wholehearted support to Mulroney’s two main initiatives, the Meech Lake Accord and the Free Trade Agreement with the United States. Mulroney responded with deficiency payments to Saskatchewan farmers who were suffering drought and record-low grain prices. Farmers were not the only beneficiaries: the billion-dollar assistance package announced days before the 1986 provincial election was a key element in Devine’s victory.
Devine sought to undo the legacy of CCF/NDP socialism in Saskatchewan and build a pro-business, entrepreneurial culture. His government carried out a massive privatization program, reduced social assistance payments, and curbed the power of labour unions, but private enterprise continued to rely heavily on government financial assistance. The greatest failure of the Devine years was the accumulation of an unprecedented debt, much of it attributable to tax cuts and unwise election spending. The government lost power in 1991, winning only 10 seats and 25% of the popular vote. After the election, a scandal came to light, resulting in the conviction of several former Conservative MLAs on fraud charges. Despite setbacks, Devine remained an eternal optimist holding fast to his free enterprise principles and his belief in the potential of Saskatchewan. In 2004, Devine attempted a political comeback, but lost in his effort to win a seat in Parliament in the federal election of that year.
James M. Pitsula