The Saskatchewan Election:

A 2020 Perspective

Environment: The Issue that Failed to Bark in the Night

By Dr. JEREMY RAYNER (PhD), Professor and Director, Centre for the Study of Science and Innovation Policy, Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Saskatchewan
@JeremyRayner |

Larissa Shasko, PhD student, Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Saskatchewan
 @Larissa_Shasko | Larissa Shasko | 

In the Sherlock Holmes story about the disappearance of race horse “Silver Blaze”, the great detective concludes that he is dealing with an inside job by observing that, while he was greeted by a furiously barking dog on his own visit to the horse’s stable no one heard anything on the night in question although the dog was at his usual post. What Holmes called “the curious incident of the dog in the night” serves as a metaphor for the role of the environment as an issue in the 2020 Saskatchewan election. While the CBC reported that the environment came second only to the economy as top of mind for those who completed its Vote Compass survey[i], the two main contenders had clearly decided there was nothing in this issue for them and largely ignored it during the campaign. How can we explain this apparent disconnect between voters and parties?

First, of course, visitors to the Vote Compass page are a self-selected group for whom the CBC is an authoritative source of news or at least a website worth visiting. The fact that they are concerned about the environment as an issue tells us more about them than it does about the broader electorate. The Angus Reid survey of public opinion in Saskatchewan, released on October 15, paints a different picture.[ii] While this poll reported that respondents were overwhelmingly making their voting decisions based on the policy choices of the parties, “climate change/environment” (an unfortunate description of the issue area) barely scraped into the top ten, tying for ninth spot with “unemployment/jobs” as the top-of-mind issue for just 17 per cent of those polled. This was an election about health care and the economy, and how other issues played out during the campaign tended to reflect the connection that voters made between them and their two top concerns. Thus, to the extent that there was any mention of environmental issues in party platforms or the debate, it concerned climate change and energy, the topic of a separate chapter in this collection. Broader questions of sustainability, environmental justice, land use, and even pollution were edited out of the campaign by mutual consent of the two major parties. It was an inside job.

It need not have been this way. While health was certainly a key issue in this election, the close connection between environmental health and human health was certainly not. It is especially surprising that NDP Leader Ryan Meili did not make the environment a key focus of his campaign considering that the link between human health and the health of the environment inspired his 2018 book A Healthy Society. Meili writes, “No serious discussion about how we view our society can ignore the growing concerns about human damage to the ecosystems that support all life.” Nor is broader interest in these issues lacking. For example, the non-governmental organization (NGO) Public Pastures - Public Interest (PPPI) works to raise awareness that less than 10 per cent of Saskatchewan’s native grasslands remain. In this election, PPPI called on candidates to keep Crown grasslands publicly owned and to conduct an inventory of the province’s remaining native prairie—a call that went unheard.

And what of the Green Party? While the Green Party included in their campaign a focus on protecting wetlands and grasslands along with forests, water, land, clean air, and waste reduction, it was unable to draw the attention of either the two main parties or, more importantly, the electorate itself, to environmental issues beyond climate change and the federal carbon tax. The Leader of the Green Party of Saskatchewan, Naomi Hunter, was excluded from the televised leaders’ debate, which left Hunter unable to directly question either Moe or Meili on the environment.

Provincial Green Parties have elected representatives in British Columbia (where they substantially improved their vote share in a provincial election held just two days ahead of this Saskatchewan vote), Ontario, New Brunswick, and P.E.I., where the Green Party formed the province’s Official Opposition in 2019. The Saskatchewan Green Party placed their focus in this election on reaching the entire province by running a full slate of candidates, but they failed to make a significant breakthrough. The newly formed Buffalo Party received more total preliminary votes in this election (2.9 per cent) than the Green Party (2.4 per cent) even though the Buffalo Party only ran 17 candidates compared with the Green Party’s near full slate.

What of the future? The Green Party’s electoral irrelevance combined with the first-past-the-post electoral system seems to rule out co-operative efforts between the Green Party and the NDP, despite the fact that members of Saskatchewan’s tight-knit environmental community include supporters of both parties. The Green Party performed so poorly that it is hard to see how their intervention affected even the closest of races between the Saskatchewan Party and the NDP, creating little incentive for an electoral pact, even assuming that the Green Party could deliver its voters to the NDP on the day. Barring a catastrophic focusing event that draws attention to the environment, environmental politics in Saskatchewan will continue to take place mostly outside of electoral politics. The newly formed non-profit EnviroCollective aims to unite and co-ordinate efforts among those who want to see environmental issues taken more seriously in the province, with partisan politics not being the focus. EnviroCollective has been offering lawn signs to the public during the election that do not align with any party but rather are black and white. The signs represent the sentiment of the group that the issue of the environment is not ‘left’ or ‘right’ but is black or white. Either we act to protect the environment on behalf of all species, or we all face the consequences.