By: Dan de Vlieger
Observers of political events generally agree that societies where populations periodically determine, by way of a free vote, which political parties get to form their governments usually exhibit political practices and ideas that are not far removed from the daily preoccupations and concerns of these populations. Saskatchewan’s political history over the past 100 years appears to provide ample illustration of such an observation: some people indeed seem convinced that there is something different about the political sentiment of Saskatchewan’s population as compared to that of its neighbours, because for 45 out of the 100 years of the province’s existence the population voted for ostensibly social democratic administrations. One such observer, Seymour Martin Lipset,1 writing in the 1950s, was evidently struck by the fact that in terms of such demographic dimensions as ethnicity, economic activities, social behaviour, religious sentiments, legal environment, and time of settlement, there was no significant difference between the populations of the three prairie provinces that explain the fact that Saskatchewan’s political behaviour appeared, at least at first glance, to be divergent—especially when such a different voting pattern occurred in a place and at a time (North America in mid-20th century) that was generally antagonistic toward “socialist” or “leftist” politics. Other observers of this presumed radicalism of Saskatchewan voters have seen it very differently: Evelyn Eager, for instance, concluded that Saskatchewan “electors have not tended to radical behaviour in the sense either of favouring extreme change or of casting their votes mainly for basic principle.”2
Saskatchewan politics during the past century has evidently not been quite in the same groove as that taking place in surrounding jurisdictions; it has at times taken directions that were both innovative and easily categorized as extremely radical by those opposing such measures. The introduction of medicare in the early 1960s and the dramatic events following its implementation may be taken as the most obvious of such directions. While some observers may judge this innovative measure as purely inspired by ideological fervour, it can equally be viewed as a measure motivated by a concern for access to affordable healthcare by a population thinly spread out over a large geographic area and whose relatively low average income was subject to major fluctuations from one year to the next. The fact that the Saskatchewan government’s initial introduction of this kind of public policy measure was shortly followed by the introduction of medicare as a countrywide program would indicate that the major intent behind the measure was less ideological than its original detractors believed.
In giving an overview of the politics of Saskatchewan during the 100 years since its inception, several important background elements must be kept in mind. Created as a province in 1905 by federal legislation (the Saskatchewan Act), carved out of a huge territory at the same time that the current boundaries of its two neighbouring provinces were settled, it was inhabited by a population overwhelmingly consisting of newcomers, the greater part of whom were engaged in agricultural pursuits. The 1901 census data of what was to become Saskatchewan give a population total of 91,279 (90.8% rural), while the 1906 census returns provide a figure of 257,763 (86.8% rural)—an increase of 182% in only five years.3 This remarkable phenomenon of a rapidly increasing population, mostly originating from elsewhere, continued apace from 1905 until about the beginning of the great Depression. By 1931, only a quarter of a century since its creation as a new political entity, Saskatchewan had a population of 921,785. Since then, for about the next 75 years, the province’s population figures have been remarkably stable, fluctuating modestly between around 920,000 and 990,000. This pattern of population dynamics—an initial rapid expansion, mostly resulting from immigration, followed by a long period of practically zero growth—has had major implications for successive governments and makes it possible to divide the political history of the province into three time periods.
In the first period, from 1905 to 1929, provincial governments were preoccupied with building an infrastructure which, however modest in scope, attempted to provide to a widely dispersed population some minimal services such as roads, schools and health facilities, where none had existed before. These matters were all constitutionally regarded as being of a merely local or private nature, and thus exclusively under provincial jurisdiction. The province’s financial resources were extremely limited and originated mostly from the federal government; there was no practical possibility, even if the province had desired to do so, of extracting a steady source of revenue from a newly settled population that had come in without wealth. In addition the one potential source of revenue for the province, control over Crown lands, had by the terms of the deed creating the province remained under federal jurisdiction: this created a degree of financial dependency on the federal government that was deeply resented by the population as a whole and remained a source of considerable friction between the provincial and federal levels of government. This situation, coupled with the federal government’s long-standing policy of maintaining high tariffs on American manufactured goods, forced the population to pay higher prices for much-needed agricultural machinery and other implements: as a result there was a widespread feeling that the population in the western provinces was deliberately, unfairly, and unjustifiably kept in a state of colonial dependency by a federal government that was constituted on the basis of a party system dominated by central Canadian interests. From the very beginning of Saskatchewan’s existence as a province there was thus a climate of resentment directed both against the federal government, whether Liberal or Conservative, and against the traditional party system that formed its base. This climate of distrust and resentment also meant that Saskatchewan voters very early on began to differentiate between provincial and federal politics, and became quite accustomed to supporting different political groupings in federal elections and in provincial elections.
From 1905 until the devastation visited upon the province’s population in the late 1920s and early 1930s by the twin scourges of the Depression and successive years of severe drought, the general political situation in the province can best be described as one of gradual consolidation of provincial governmental institutions and of slow growth in governmental services under a succession of Liberal Party administrations. This long period of Liberal Party dominance came to an end in 1929; this end symbolizes the conclusion of the province’s initial period of rapid demographic and economic expansion that had mainly been fuelled by the pioneering efforts and optimism of a newly arrived population.
Supported by electoral victories in six consecutive elections, Liberal administrations dominated the provincial political scene under the leadership of premiers Walter Scott (1905–16), William Martin (1916–22), Charles A. Dunning (1922–26) and James G. Gardiner (1926–29). This remarkable string of electoral successes was largely based on the close ties that existed then with the dominant organizational institution of the mainly agrarian electorate: the Saskatchewan Grain Growers’ Association (SGGA). The closeness of these ties is evident in the ready exchange of personnel between the leading figures in the Association and the provincial Liberal Cabinet: for example the province’s first Minister of Agriculture, W.R. Motherwell, who held this portfolio from 1905 to 1918, was one of the founders of the Association and its first president, while Charles Dunning, before he became Premier, had been a very influential member in the Association as a regional director and vice-president.4
While provincially the electorate repeatedly returned the Liberal Party to government in the period from 1905 to 1929, the same level of support for Liberal politicians contesting seats in federal general elections was not quite as evident: in the sixteen federal constituencies contested in the federal election of 1921, for instance, the province’s voters elected fifteen Progressives and only one Liberal. This is significant for at least two reasons. In the first place, the candidates operating under the Progressive banner were supported and sponsored by a political association which, while officially separate from the SGGA, had been created by it and was widely recognized by the voters as being the arm of the Association for federal electoral purposes. Secondly, the results of this election provided clear evidence that Saskatchewan voters were already quite at ease with the practice of supporting and voting for a particular political party at the provincial level while supporting a different political party in federal elections. This characteristic has been an enduring feature of the Saskatchewan voting public until the present; it underscores the fact that the Saskatchewan electorate is not tied firmly to any particular partisan or ideological perspective. The existence and importance of this pattern have not been lost on politically active people, and provincial political organizations have been disposed to differentiate themselves from federal political parties with which they share much of the same outlook, ideas, and members by adopting a different name. This phenomenon was already present at the very start of the province’s existence when conservatives in the 1905 and 1908 Saskatchewan elections operated under the name of the Provincial Rights Party. This same kind of superficial distinctiveness can also be observed where separate legal entities are created, sporting different names and operating at the different levels of federal and provincial politics, but whose links with one another in terms of leadership and membership are much in evidence. Such a situation may be seen in the case of the Saskatchewan Party, a provincial party that contested its first election in 1999 after the demise of the provincial Progressive Conservative Party, and whose ties to the federal Conservative Party are clearly observable.
The rise of the Progressive Party on the Saskatchewan political landscape in the 1920s was indicative of a growing restiveness in the population with respect to a number of social and economic issues. Many returning World War I veterans were disillusioned with federal government actions, and their return into the social fabric was not made any easier by the economic downturn of the early 1920s. Issues of long-standing irritation with federal policies, such as the continued federal control over public lands, the lack of action in eliminating protective tariff barriers, and evident reluctance on the part of the federal government to establish a wheat marketing board, contributed to a growing consensus that the existing traditional avenues of political action were not working in the interest of the Saskatchewan population. This evident dissatisfaction with federal policies and political parties in the aftermath of World War I prompted Premier Martin to distance his Liberal administration from the federal Liberal Party. The postwar restiveness was exacerbated by increasingly prominent differences related to ethnic and religious concerns, especially regarding school policies. This ethnic and religious unrest grew more pronounced in the 1920s: it was the source of the sudden appearance of the Ku Klux Klan on the provincial scene and contributed to the channeling of organized support to candidates in the 1929 election who, although campaigning under different labels, were seen as being in a likely position to defeat provincial Liberal candidates. The result was the defeat of the Liberal government.
The individual who became the new Premier, J.T.M. Anderson, was the leader of the provincial Conservative Party and formed a government with the support of MLAs who had been elected either as Independents or as Progressives. To underline the fact that his administration was buttressed by the support of legislative members of diverse political leanings, he dubbed his government the “Co-operative Government.” The period from 1929 to 1944, inaugurated with the election of Premier Anderson’s Co-operative Government and ending with the election of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) under the leadership of Premier T.C. Douglas, may be seen as the second period or phase in the evolution of Saskatchewan’s politics. It was a period of transition between a long line of successive Liberal administrations and a situation of enduring division, involving governments popularly understood to be to the “left” alternating in office with administrations generally viewed as being to the “right.”
Premier Anderson’s government was beset by major problems right from the start. While the province in 1930 finally received jurisdiction over public lands, this long-awaited goal was initially of little benefit: with the Depression taking an increasingly heavy toll on the economic health of the province’s population, there was no demand on the part of individuals to buy land or to pay for licenses to explore for natural resources. Additionally, severe drought conditions contributed to deepening the economic malaise, and the Premier had to face criticism from factions within his own party who felt that their leader had abandoned true conservative principles by forming an alliance with Progressives and Independents. At the same time, the bitterness that was engendered during and after the 1931 estevan coal strike in southeastern Saskatchewan, which resulted in the death of three strikers at the hands of the police, also helped to undermine the support Anderson had originally received in the 1929 election.5 In the election of 1934 the Anderson administration was therefore soundly defeated and replaced by a Liberal party administration still operating under the leadership of James G. Gardiner. The Conservative defeat was so devastating that between the elections of 1934 and 1975 the party only managed to elect one member, and that only for one term, to the provincial legislature. Premier Gardiner left office in 1935 in order to take up the position of Minister of Agriculture in the federal Liberal government formed by W.L. Mackenzie King after the defeat of the Conservatives under R.B. Bennett. The successor to Gardiner as Premier of the province and leader of the provincial Liberal Party was William J. Patterson, who led his party to a repeat victory in 1938.
Judging only from the perspective of the legislative seats won by the Liberal Party in the 1934 and 1938 elections (in 1934 it won 50 of the 55 seats available, and in 1938 it won 38 out of 52), the government led by Premier Anderson may be seen as a mere hiatus in the normal pattern of Liberal administrations—perhaps due to a temporary disaffection with the provincial Liberal Party on the part of voters who were quite willing to return things to “normal” after a less than satisfying experience with a non-Liberal government. Such a conclusion does not, however, take into account the evident political volatility of a significant portion of the electorate. In both the elections of 1934 and 1938, large numbers of voters supported party organizations that were relatively new on the provincial scene, instead of distributing their votes between the two main traditional parties. In the 1934 election 24% of the votes went to a newly formed coalition grouping, the Farmer-Labour Party; in the 1938 election the successor to that party, the CCF, received 19% of the votes while another 16 % voted for the Social Credit Party. Both of these new political creations were seen by their supporters as more inclined to address the difficulties experienced by “ordinary” individuals than were the two traditional parties, which were seen as subordinate to the federal Liberal and Conservative parties. The same kind of disaffection for the two traditional parties during this period can be seen in the results of the 1940 federal election, when both the CCF and Social Credit parties succeeded in sending several of their members to the House of Commons.
This inclination on the part of a good portion of the Saskatchewan electorate to throw its support behind political movements, both provincially and federally, in opposition to the two traditionally dominant parties did not arrive unheralded. In a number of ways it was foreshadowed by fissures that had opened up in the agrarian population and by the rise within the urban population of organizations championing the particular concerns and interests of labour groups. In the agrarian sector the SGGA, which had for a very long time enjoyed a near-monopoly as the voice representing farming interests, experienced a dwindling of support and a decline in its membership. In part it was supplanted by a more vocal and impatient farmers’ organization, organized in 1921 and styling itself the Farmers’ Union of Canada, while in the same general period (1925) in the urban sector the Independent Labour Party was formed. The Liberal Party in the arena of politics and the SGGA in the arena of agrarian interests had jointly been the two preeminent organizations in the province from 1905 until the early 1920s, but both had seen their preeminence increasingly challenged during the decade of the 1920s. The election of 1929, when the Liberal Party’s long period of political success ended, can therefore be regarded as constituting an obvious ending to the first period of the province’s political story. The next period, stretching for about 15 years between the elections of 1929 and those of 1944, can then be seen as an interlude during which major changes in the province’s social and economic arenas contributed greatly to a realignment of political forces which concluded with a new provincial administration being formed by the CCF under the leadership of Premier T.C. Douglas.
The election of 1944 initiated another long period, of about sixty years’ duration, during which a stable pattern of political activity has become manifest. Political dominance now alternates between two political tendencies: the one side of this recurring contest is formed around the CCF and its successor, the New Democratic Party (NDP), while the other side can be viewed as coalescing behind the leader of whatever political organization seems at any particular time to have the best chance of defeating the CCF/NDP. Recurring contests between these political tendencies have led to an alternation in the holding of the political reins of governmental power. In the first twenty years of this period, from 1944 to 1964, the provincial government was formed by the CCF, first led by T.C. Douglas (1944–61) and then by Premier Woodrow S. Lloyd (1961–64). This long hold on power by the CCF ended with the 1964 election, in which the overriding issue of importance was the controversy surrounding the province’s introduction of medicare. The Liberal party was successfully able to capitalize on this issue and won the election, forming a new government under the leadership of Premier W. Ross Thatcher; this administration remained in office until the election of 1971, when it was defeated by a resurgent NDP under the leadership of Allan E. Blakeney. The government that was formed by Premier Blakeney remained in power for eleven years, being re-elected in 1975 and 1978. By the time that the next provincial election was scheduled to take place, in 1982, it was evident that the major organized political force opposing the Blakeney government was the Progressive Conservative Party. Led by D. Grant Devine, the Progressive Conservatives won an overwhelming victory, capturing 55 of the 64 available seats and reducing the New Democrats to a rump group of only nine members, who were largely centred in the province’s two major cities.
Premier Devine’s administration was re-elected in 1986, but was confronted with increasing difficulties and scandals in the following years. In his last year in office, Devine failed to bring a provincial budget to a vote in the province’s Legislature and resorted to financing the government’s expenditures by the use of special warrants instead of a legislatively supported budget. This unusual and constitutionally questionable practice ended when the government’s constitutionally mandated five-year time limit to hold office without an election began to run out and the Premier was forced to call an election. The 1991 election, which took place exactly five years plus one day after the 1986 election, resulted in an outcome that was almost the reverse of the election of 1982: the New Democrats, under the leadership of Roy J. Romanow, elected members to 55 out of the 66 available seats, and the Progressive Conservatives only ten. One of the dubious distinctions that can be attached to Saskatchewan’s political history during this period came in the aftermath of the defeat of Premier Devine’s government, when convictions for fraud were obtained against the majority of the members of his Cabinet—a feat unmatched in any other political jurisdiction in the Commonwealth.
Premier Romanow returned his party to power in the elections of 1995 and 1999. In 2001 he resigned as leader of the NDP and was succeeded as leader of that party and Premier of the province by Lorne A. Calvert, who in turn succeeded in winning the 2003 general provincial election. This sixty-year period exhibits a pattern of fluctuation in holding political power between a political party, the NDP, popularly seen as being “to the left” of the political spectrum, and a variety of political parties generally viewed as being “to the right” of that spectrum. This pattern does not by itself reveal anything about the political concerns and actions of the various governments that have held office between 1944 and the present; those concerns and actions, however, are discernable in the social and economic framework that developed over that period.
The significant reality of Saskatchewan politics is that it is played out against the backdrop of an economy that mostly delivers meager returns on investments. The agricultural sector, which was for a long time the dominant engine of the provincial economy, has been notoriously subject to fluctuations in price for its products on the world’s markets; moreover, it is frequently at risk from the vagaries of the climate. In addition, even though a growing proportion of the province’s gross domestic product derives from such resources as potash, oil and gas, uranium, and forestry products, these products do not, taken together, provide financial returns on a scale that can compare with the level of abundance available in many other provinces. Saskatchewan’s geographical location, coupled with a small domestic population, lies at too large a distance from major markets to make manufacturing on any large scale a likely profitable undertaking. Consequently provincial governments, faced with a narrow taxation base, have primarily relied on two sources for the financing of public programs: transfers from the federal government, and careful management of activities under immediate government control.
In societies whose governments are faced by periodic elections, demands for government services, as well as the actual needs of various population segments, do not readily permit governments the luxury of prudently “managing” programs and services under their jurisdiction within the available financial means. Opposing groups that aspire to power are apt to claim that those in power could do a lot more, and a lot better, with a lot less. This dilemma, which faces democratically elected governments in many jurisdictions, is not infrequently at play in Saskatchewan precisely because (a) it is difficult for governments to increase revenue and thus promise to expand services by taxing previously untapped areas of largesse, and (b) the population is so widely dispersed over a large area that the delivery of government services is often more expensive on a per capita basis than in other jurisdictions.
Demands for telephone services, for adequate road networks, for electricity, and for accessible and not financially ruinous hospital and medical services provided the challenge to the government elected in 1944 and to those subsequently elected under the same partisan banner. The avenue chosen by the Douglas administration and its successors was to try to deliver such an expansion of services through direct government involvement in providing them, thereby keeping control both over the services themselves and over their costs. The preferred administrative mechanism used for many of these innovations was to create Crown corporations. Major Crown corporations, such as SaskTel, SaskPower, and SaskEnergy, came to be familiar features of Saskatchewan’s economic and political landscape. Other areas, such as automobile and hospital insurance, were also brought under governmental control, and in the early 1960s this extension of government programs through the creation of Crown corporations or by way of setting up provincial controls over the delivery of a variety of services culminated in the creation of the province’s medicare program. The introduction of this program proved to be highly divisive, although it provided a model for what within a few years would come to be a nationwide set of programs. The crisis that was engendered by the introduction of this program led in the election of 1964 to the defeat of the CCF administration, which was by then headed by Premier Lloyd.
Over the last sixty years the main contention in the province’s politics has largely been over the manner and extent to which the provincial government should be involved in delivering or controlling services and programs. In the electorate’s view, the political party identified as being willing to initiate and execute the delivery of public programs is the CCF/NDP, while its opponents—whether in the form of the Liberal Party, the Progressive Conservative Party or, more recently, the Saskatchewan Party—have generally been seen as displaying a willingness to reduce, curtail, or eliminate what some voters and interested parties perceive as unnecessary or mismanaged public programs and services. The rhetoric that accompanies this long-standing contest between these two tendencies in Saskatchewan’s politics is often couched in ideological language, especially among individuals who are deeply involved in partisan activities. The manner in which the support in voting swings between these two sides without any evidence of it being primarily motivated by such starkly opposite ideological perspectives points to a motivation that stems from concerns of a perhaps more mundane or practical, but perhaps not any less important, nature.
While this fluctuation in electoral support has been a constant pattern in provincial elections over a long period, important changes have taken place within the population over the course of the last sixty years that have had an impact on where the two parties involved draw their major electoral strength. Until about 1980 the New Democratic Party generally drew electoral support from voters in both urban and rural areas of the province. In the 1982 election it became evident that the major degree of support that it retained in that election was much more concentrated in urban than in rural areas. In the following elections this picture has remained similar, and in the elections of 1999 and 2003 the electoral outcomes clearly support this general observation: it is from the rural areas that the party—regardless of the name it employs—which represents the tendency opposed to the position generally identified with the NDP consistently receives its heaviest electoral support; and it is from the major urban areas that the NDP draws its heaviest electoral support. The political profile of the province’s population has largely become a rural/urban divide, with the two main opposing political tendencies reflecting the social and political outlooks of those two publics. The demographic profile of the provincial population has undergone major changes in the last half century. Until the 1950s it was not only predominantly rural, but most of that rural population lived and worked on farms, while many urban dwellers tended to be aware of and sensitive to the needs and concerns of the agricultural population. This has changed: in 2001 approximately 65% of the province’s inhabitants lived in urban centres, and the close family or economic ties that many urban dwellers at one time had with their rural counterparts have lessened. Increasingly, it is possible to speak of two solitudes in Saskatchewan—one urban and one rural. It is also possible to conclude that this division is clearly projected on the political scene.
1. Seymour Lipset. Agrarian Socialism (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1959).
2. Evelyn Eager. The Conservatism of the Saskatchewan Electorate: Politics in Saskatchewan (Don Mills, ON: Longmans Canada, 1968).
3. Census figures are quoted from John A. Archer, Saskatchewan: A History (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1980), 355.
4. Evelyn Eager. Saskatchewan Government (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1980).
5. Archer, Saskatchewan, 220.
Dan de Vlieger