The agricultural settlement of Saskatchewan occurred in the context of late 19th-century technology. Railroads were the primary means of intercity and interprovincial movement of goods and people: products destined for distant markets departed by train, and products imported for local consumption arrived by rail. The principal export from Saskatchewan was wheat, which was collected in country elevators that were spaced at approximately ten-mile intervals by the end of the settlement era. The origin of most of Saskatchewan's communities can be traced to the elevators and the businesses, schools, churches and offices that clustered around them. By the end of the settlement era, in the early 1930s, there were over 900 communities in Saskatchewan; they ranged in size from Saskatoon and Regina at 43,000 and 53,000 respectively, down to more than 400 villages with an average population of 50.
Even as the agricultural settlement era was nearing completion, however, technological advances were being made in production, transportation, distribution, and communications systems that would render obsolete the occupational and spatial patterns that were being put into place. Only the great Depression of the 1930s and World War II postponed the inevitable structural and spatial adjustments that otherwise would have begun just as the settlement phase ended. With the end of World War II, the adoption and implementation of new technologies accelerated during the 1940s and have continued to the present, with only occasional and temporary interruptions.
In agriculture, the new technologies led to the substitution of machinery for labour and to the consolidation of farms. The farm population has fallen from nearly 600,000 in the mid-1930s, to approximately 125,000 in 2004. At the same time, the number of farms decreased from nearly 150,000 to just over 50,000. The total rural population became smaller as well, falling from approximately 650,000 to 350,000.
As the rural population moved away and primitive roads became all-weather highways, rural communities began a long process of adjustment as well. Rural infrastructure was consolidated into fewer, but larger, facilities in larger communities. Rural businesses either consolidated or closed. Large communities prospered both by capturing virtually all the employment generated in the expanding service-producing industries, as well as through attracting businesses and services which were previously provided from smaller places. As larger communities expanded their offerings of goods and services, rural shopping patterns shifted to focus on these centres, bypassing local rural communities.
By the 1960s, the number of communities with populations of 50 or more numbered approximately 600; over 100 places had expired in the previous 25 years, and 200 had populations of less than 50 in 1961.
The experience of the 598 Saskatchewan communities which had populations of 50 or more in 1961 has been carefully traced over the 40 years from 1961 to 2001. To accomplish this, each community was classified into a functional category based upon the number and type of businesses and public services offered at five different dates. The classifications proceed from the Primary Wholesale-Retail category (PWR), which has included only Saskatoon and Regina, down to the Minimum Convenience Centre (MCC) level, which includes the smallest communities offering a very limited array of commercial and public facilities. Table ESSC-1 provides a summary of the experience of these 598 centres from 1961 through 2001. A process of continuous downward filtering is revealed for communities in the four lower categories between 1961 and 1981. Between 1981 and 2001, communities in the lower three categories have continued to filter downward, while the centres in the upper three classifications have experienced stability in their classifications.
The structure of the trade-centre system as it existed in 2001 is shown in Table ESSC-2, arrayed according to the characteristics that define the functional categories. At the top of the system, the PWR centres of Saskatoon and Regina have five to ten times as many consumer services as the next classification, the Secondary Wholesale-Retail category (SWR), which includes centres such as Yorkton, Prince Albert and Swift Current. The PWR centres have an even greater advantage in producer services, producers and public infrastructure: Saskatoon and Regina are major province-serving communities while those centres in the SWR classification are region-serving communities. The eight centres in the Complete Shopping Centre (CSC) category, exemplified by Meadow Lake, Humboldt, Kindersley and Assiniboia, provide an area-serving function, essentially filling in geographical niches between the PWR and the SWR centres.
At the Partial Shopping Centre level (PSC), communities provide a very local service somewhat like the smallest neighbourhood shopping centres in a major urban area. There were six communities in this group in 2001: Maple Creek, Moosomin, Outlook, Rosetown, Shaunavon, and Unity.
The 72 centres in the next lower classification, the Full Convenience Centre category (FCC) provide a limited array of only the most basic everyday functions - somewhat like those offered by 7-11 stores in an urban setting. Communities in this group include places such as Biggar, Davidson, Leader, Oxbow, and Wynyard.
The MCC category, with 502 places, has, by far, the largest number of communities. As can be seen from Table ESSC-1, the number of centres in this classification has continuously increased as it is the residual category for descending communities. The 502 communities in the MCC category, as a group, no longer perform a coherent role in the trade centre network; there is no single function that is present in all communities. While the average MCC will have approximately six consumer-service outlets, they consist of an eclectic combination of functions left over from a time when they did perform a well-defined role in Saskatchewan's trade-centre network.
M. Rose Olfert, Jack Stabler