The Saskatchewan Election:
A 2020 Perspective
Federal-Provincial Issues: The Politics of Discontent
In a province such as Saskatchewan, with its politics deeply rooted in the sentiment of alienation, running a provincial election campaign against the federal government has been a longstanding tradition. It has to do with feeling economically and politically vulnerable, which always lurks below the surface of Saskatchewan politics.
It makes perfect sense in a federation such as Canada, where divisions are drawn on regional, economic, and political lines. With a small population, Saskatchewan often feels it lacks clout with the federal government in far-off Ottawa. So blaming the federal government for at least some of your troubles is considered good politics. It becomes especially enticing during a provincial election campaign when you rally voters to a common distant foe that, conveniently, is neither part of the election, nor likely to engage in debate during the campaign.
One of the most significant eras pitting the interests of Saskatchewan against the federal government was the 1970s. It was a time when the Allan Blakeney NDP government spent much of the decade battling Ottawa over control of natural resources. The Blakeney government used the battle with Ottawa to advance its own ideological agenda. It was evident in the creation of provincial resource Crown corporations to fend off intrusions by Ottawa.
In this election, the Ottawa factor was again evident. Days before the campaign began, Premier Scott Moe sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau noting the fact that Saskatchewan has no elected members in the federal Liberal caucus. The Premier took it upon himself to outline what he wanted the upcoming federal Speech from the Throne to address. It was a long list. He said Saskatchewan continues to be “inequitably impacted by hundreds of millions of dollars in added costs from the federal carbon tax.” He said the federal government “must take action to address the inequities that exist with federal transfers,” that the Fiscal Stabilization Program is “broken,” and that western Canadians have “legitimate, long-standing” issues regarding the federal equalization formula. The Premier concluded by saying “it is irresponsible for the federal government to continue to ignore these long-standing concerns.”[i]
Needless to say, when the throne speech failed to specifically mention his list of grievances, Moe went to the media to express his dissatisfaction. “The only time in this speech from the throne that Saskatchewan was essentially mentioned was in the phase-out of our energy industry workers,” Moe said. “That’s not something I could support. That’s not something I would expect that any Canadian MP could support.”
Then, using guilt by association, he took it once step further to heighten the provincial political stakes. With a confidence vote on the throne speech looming for the minority Liberal government, Moe said the provincial NDP and its leader Ryan Meili can’t be separated from the federal party if the NDP in Ottawa votes to support the government. “I would be laying the blame where it squarely should lie and that is within the NDP party in Canada, which includes the NDP party in our provinces,” he said.[ii]
There was good reason for Moe and the Sask Party to drag Trudeau’s federal Liberal government into the provincial campaign. It’s smart politics.
Public opinion research has consistently shown weak support for the Trudeau Liberals in Saskatchewan. In September, according to the Angus Reid Institute, Trudeau had a 25 per cent approval rating in Saskatchewan, tied with Alberta as the lowest rating for Trudeau among the provinces.[iii] In case anyone doubts that polling, there is the hard evidence of the October 2019 federal election when all 14 seats were won by the Conservative Party. Among the casualties was Liberal Ralph Goodale, the lone Liberal MP who was an MP for more than 25 consecutive years.
Then there is the federal price on carbon, which is a key part of the Trudeau government’s national climate change policy. Or, as the Moe government prefers to call it, “a job-killing carbon tax.” For the better part of two years, the Moe government has been fighting the federal government’s imposition of a carbon tax. By coincidence, a week before the campaign started on Sept. 29, two days of legal arguments began in the Supreme Court of Canada over the constitutionality of the Trudeau government’s carbon price. The decision is likely to take several months.
The timing could hardly have been better for the Sask Party. Opposing a tax is usually a good thing in a campaign and even better when it’s being forced on the province by a federal government that is widely disapproved of in the province. It’s better still when that same minority government depends on the support of the federal NDP caucus in Ottawa to survive non-confidence votes, and the Saskatchewan New Democrats can be lumped in with their federal brethren as supporters of Trudeau.
The Saskatchewan government’s argument before the court is that the imposition of a federal carbon price is “overreach” by Ottawa and unconstitutional. It maintains that it is an intrusion on the autonomy of the province. The Saskatchewan Court of Appeal ruled that the federal action is constitutional, as did the Ontario Court of Appeal. The Alberta Court of Appeal ruled against Ottawa. The Sask Party campaign tried to use the carbon tax issue to associate NDP leader Meili with the federal Trudeau Liberals, noting “the NDP leader supports a carbon tax.”[iv]
For his part, Meili did not engage in any significant way on federal-provincial issues. His critique was consistently aimed at the Saskatchewan Party and its record in government, seeking to make the focus on the different priorities separating the NDP and the Sask Party.
Lurking on the margins of the campaign was the newly created Buffalo Party. Seeking to tap into the anti-Ottawa mood, the party espoused a platform that called for greater independence for the province. Its platform included calls for Saskatchewan “to manage all tax structure including national tax,” create a provincial police force to replace the RCMP, “control its own immigration,” create its own pension plan to replace the Canada Pension Plan, and take control of international trade of Saskatchewan resources. While the Buffalo Party does not explicitly advocate provincial succession from Canada, it harbours many of the sentiments of those who advocate western separation.
In a very real, albeit marginal way, the Buffalo Party reflected a longstanding current of dissatisfaction in Saskatchewan politics with the federal government. For a brief period in the early 1980s, there was even the Unionest Party in the Saskatchewan legislature, founded by Dick Collver after he resigned as leader of the provincial Progressive Conservatives. For a fleeting moment, the Unionest Party advocated that western Canada join the United States. Although it proved to be more of a bizarre aberration, it reflected a very real current of disaffection with Ottawa that exists in Saskatchewan to this day.
[i] Premier Sends Letter to Prime Minister Trudeau Ahead of Throne Speech, Sask. Government news release, Sept. 15, 2020