North-South Relations, 1905 to the 1980s

For the first twenty-five years after Saskatchewan became a province, Ottawa retained control over many matters in northern Saskatchewan. The federal government retained control over Crown lands and natural resources, and as the years passed, cries for provincial control over lands and resources increased. While Ottawa appeared willing to relinquish that authority, not until 1930 did the Natural Resources Transfer Agreement (NRTA) give Saskatchewan control over many aspects of its northern region. During its extended period of control, Ottawa did little to develop the region’s natural and human resources; while not opposing development, the federal government spent virtually nothing on infrastructure development. Some private industrial development did take place, most notably related to the mining operation of Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting at Flin Flon, Manitoba. In the 1920s, the company obtained permission to construct a hydro-electric dam within Saskatchewan at Island Falls on the Churchill River; and the ore body that supplied the Flin Flon mill lay partially in Saskatchewan. Ottawa did bring long-term change to one area of the near north with the establishment of Prince Albert National Park (PANP) in 1927; while the park provided visible evidence that William Lyon Mackenzie King appreciated area voters electing him to the House of Commons, Cree in the area found themselves relocated outside the park boundaries.

Northern Saskatchewan remained isolated in the 1930s, with no highways or railways penetrating the region beyond the popular tourist destination of Waskesiu in PANP. Waterways and winter roads carried goods and people to and from the north; increasingly, aircraft played a role in opening up the north. As a result of the lack of adequate transportation systems, exploitation of the forests remained confined to the forest fringe area. Non-Aboriginals joined Aboriginals in trapping the fur-bearing animals of the region; and newcomers took the lead in developing a winter commercial fishing industry. During the 1930s, concern increased about depletion of fur, fish, and game stocks. Newcomers to the region received much of the blame for this situation, leading to the federal and provincial governments making plans to protect the resources primarily for the use of the region’s Aboriginal population; those plans were not implemented until the mid-1940s.

During the 1930s, the Box Mine and its community of Goldfields appeared on the north shore of Lake Athabasca. A disappointingly low grade of ore and the onset of World War II brought an end to that mining operation, and during the war years many newcomers left the region. Northern Aboriginals also participated in the war effort at home and abroad. The history of federal government control until 1930, the difficult financial situation faced by Saskatchewan during the 1930s, and the war ensured that the governmental presence in the north remained small until the 1940s. During the two decades following 1944, northern Saskatchewan underwent rapid change under the firm direction of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) provincial government. A desire to reclaim northern resource wealth for the benefit of the entire province, concern for the welfare of northern Aboriginals, and a belief that socialist solutions held the answer to northern problems motivated CCF intervention. Visualizing a new prosperity based on traditional resources, innovative regulations reserved most game and fur resources for Indians and Métis. At the same time, a non-Aboriginal economy developed in the region: mining activity reached new heights with the development of uranium resources in the Uranium City area; driven by sport angling, tourism became an important part of the northern economy; and the forest industry slowly expanded. Aided by the Diefenbaker Conservatives’ Roads to Resources program, the CCF built roads to some remote communities. But in spite of major changes, at the time of the CCF defeat twenty years later, northern economic and social problems appeared overwhelming.

From 1964 to 1971, Ross Thatcher and his Liberal government increased incentives for private enterprise to assume the primary role in developing the northern economy. Considerable success followed in developing the pulp industry; although the new Prince Albert Pulp Company mill sat outside the north, the pulp cutting operations provided some employment for northerners. Thatcher also brought a new approach to governmental relations with Aboriginals: through the newly created Indian and Métis Department, the Liberals sought to train northern Aboriginals and place them in private and public sector jobs. A new vision for the north arrived with the election of Allan Blakeney and his New Democratic Party (NDP) government in 1971, and the role of government in the region expanded greatly. Establishment of the Department of Northern Saskatchewan (DNS) brought a much larger provincial governmental structure to the north. Although DNS was centralized at La Ronge, many other communities received enhanced government services, and newcomers to the region filled many new government positions. The NDP also sought to expand opportunities within the north and to involve northerners in determining the future of their region; but the lack of an adequate number of non-governmental jobs meant that unemployment and poverty continued to plague the region. Controversially, the NDP cancelled plans to build a pulp mill in the northwestern region, and added the Prince Albert pulp mill to the fold of Crown corporations.

Following their election victory in 1982, Grant Devine and his Conservatives moved away from the NDP’s emphasis on government initiatives and towards an expanded role for private enterprise. DNS’s functions reverted to various other departments. Uranium mining remained important to the north, although the closing of Uranium City’s mines meant that most of that community’s population was forced to leave. The development of extremely rich uranium deposits in the region south of Lake Athabasca meant that mining remained one of the primary northern industries. The re-election of the NDP in 1991, this time led by Roy Romanow, brought some changes to the north’s relationship with the south. Creation of a new agency, the Department of Northern Affairs, did suggest an increased role for the provincial government in the north. Both the province and Ottawa, which held responsibility for status Indians, continued to expand services in the region. Government infrastructure programs and various transfer payments did ease the plight of communities plagued by chronically high unemployment rates. Northern Saskatchewan remains a beautiful region blessed with abundant natural resources; but while government and industry continue to remove northern wealth, many northerners participate little in that process.

David Quiring

Further Reading

Barron, F.L. 1997. Walking in Indian Moccasins: The Native Policies of Tommy Douglas and the CCF. Vancouver: University of British Colombia Press; Quiring, D. 2004. CCF Colonialism in Northern Saskatchewan: Battling Parish Priests, Bootleggers, and Fur Sharks. Vancouver: UBC Press.