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Extra-parliamentary Politics

Extra-parliamentary politics has fundamentally shaped Saskatchewan. The 19th-century uprising of the Red River Métis and settlers in the west led to the creation of provinces, including Saskatchewan in 1905, out of the North-West Territories. The Saskatchewan Grain Growers, with the slogan “in union is strength,” organized in Sintaluta that year to challenge the CPR's monopoly; they used rallies, the courts, and direct action such as rail blockades. In the 1920s farmer groups went on to build their own economic organizations. Since 1949 the Saskatchewan Farmers Union has used extra-parliamentary actions in support of such things as the Crow rate and the Wheat Board, and to oppose GMO crops.

In 1931 Estevan coal miners worked sixteen hours per day with wage cutbacks and were dependent on company stores. A general strike demanding recognition of the Mine Workers' Union lasted nearly all of September; on September 29, “Black Tuesday,” several strikers were killed by police who tried to stop a parade which had gone ahead without receiving a permit from the town. This extra-parliamentary action helped advance workers' right in Saskatchewan. The drought and low grain prices in the “Dirty Thirties” forced thousands of single, unemployed men into government relief camps; these men built Regina's Albert Street bridge and Wascana Lake. The On-to-Ottawa Trek started in BC as a rebellion against the restrictions of these early “work for welfare” camps, and as a demand for work and wages. Prime Minister R.B. Bennett ordered police to stop the protest en route to the capital, and the Regina Riot resulted on July 1, 1935: this event catalyzed forces supporting Social Policy reforms across Canada.

First Nations and Métis peoples have used extra-parliamentary protest in their continuing struggle for self-determination. Not having a vote until the 1950s, Indian people often had no recourse but passive resistance to their continued colonial status. Reserve Indians sometimes had to choose between starvation and breaching Indian Affairs regulations by killing livestock. Some Indian people rebelled against the “pass laws” which restricted their movement off reserve. Indian children in Residential Schools sometimes risked death from the elements trying to escape to return to their families. As the migration to towns and cities accelerated in the 1960s, protests against racist practices, including police brutality, became more common. The right to engage in First Nations spiritual or healing practices was partly won when First Nations inmates refused to obey rules in provincial jails.

Northern Aboriginal people have resorted to civil disobedience to gain more control of traditional lands. Roads have been blocked to protest everything from corporate clear-cutting to uranium mining. There was a prolonged campaign, including blockade of the road to the Rabbit Lake Uranium mine at Wollaston Lake in 1984-85. Such protests continue: in August 2004 the Clearwater Dene blocked the highway going through their reserve to Cogema's Cluff Lake uranium mine, in protest of exploration on their traditional land. Since the early 1980s there have been regular campaigns by environmental coalitions, including several “Survival Gatherings” in the North, a Greenpeace campaign against the Cigar Lake uranium mine, and picketing of companies shipping uranium yellowcake on Saskatchewan highways. Perhaps the most notable was the province-wide coalition that stopped a uranium refinery at the Mennonite town of Warman.

Saskatchewan people have done solidarity work in support of campaigns elsewhere. Farm and Labour unions supported the sixteen-year boycott of California table grapes waged by the United Farm Workers, which ended in 2001 after farmers won concessions including the banning of toxic chemicals. While civil disobedience has been less common on the Prairies than in some other jurisdictions, broad-based community protest has played an important role in righting wrongs ignored by political elites. Many mainstream institutions resulted from “rebellions” against the marketplace and the politicians who supported it: co-ops, credit unions, marketing boards, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to meet human needs and expand human rights - all have roots in extra-parliamentary politics.

Extra-parliamentary action can, of course, be used for many political purposes. In 2002 a resolution supporting civil disobedience against the Federal Firearms Act on gun control was passed by the Wildlife Federation, but nothing other than refusal to register guns materialized. Some farmers wanting to bypass the Canadian Wheat Board and sell grain directly to US companies have tried to drive across the border in breach of Canadian law. The law criminalizing the use of marijuana for any purpose, including medical, has deliberately been broken as an act of protest, and arrests at “pot rallies” still lead to the jailing of some conscientious objectors. During the medicare crisis in the mid-1960s, the “Keep Our Doctors” group engaged in its own form of civil disruption on behalf of private health-care interests across North America; some hospital boards controlled by anti-Medicare doctors refused hospital privileges to pro-medicare physicians. But that led to another wave of community action, in the spirit of Saskatchewan's progressive extra-parliamentary tradition, and the Community Clinic movement was born.

Jim Harding

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University of Regina Government of Canada Government of Saskatchewan Canadian Plains Research Center
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Diversification de l'économie de l'Ouest Canada et le gouvernement de la Saskatchewan.