The Saskatchewan Election:

A 2020 Perspective

Northern Saskatchewan and the Provincial Election of 2020

By Dr. Ken Coates (PhD), Professor and Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation, Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Saskatchewan, and founding Director of Policy North
@kenscoates | 

Decades have passed since the last time that northern Saskatchewan figured prominently in political affairs in Saskatchewan. The provincial election of 2020 did not change this pattern. Northern issues did not feature in the political campaigns, and the North felt, understandably, that the province as a whole was not much interested in the region. This reality is rooted in the “internal colonization” that has long seen the North developed primarily in the interests of the South, without firm reference to the needs and interests of the people of the North.

The political landscape of the northern half of Saskatchewan, typically referred to as the Northern Administrative District, has not changed in quite some time. The region has two ridings—Athabasca and Cumberland—both dominated by primarily Indigenous communities, with a robust traditional economy, a strong mining sector, and sharp socio-economic and cultural differences from the rest of the province. The ridings are strongly influenced by the larger centres: Creighton, Cumberland House, and La Ronge in the case of the Cumberland constituency and Green Lake, Beauval, Ille a la Crosse, Buffalo Narrows, and La Loche in the Athabasca riding.

The 2020 election results seemed almost preordained: near unanimous forecasts of a 2020 NDP sweep of the two northern seats held true. Created in 1975, the two northern ridings had not been affected by the 2016 redrafting of electoral boundaries. The New Democratic Party (NDP) won both northern ridings in 1975 and has won almost every election since that time. Buckley Belanger won as a Liberal Party representative in 1995. He shifted to the NDP three years later and held the seat through to the 2020 election, when he defeated Saskatchewan Party candidate Kelly Kwan. Belanger won more than 56 per cent of all the votes, almost 20 per cent more than Kwan and well ahead of the less than seven per cent secured from Green Party candidate Leroy Laliberte. Likewise, the NDP has held the Cumberland seat since 1975. First elected in 2008, MLA Doyle Vermette has held the seat since that time, securing more than 60 per cent of the vote in 2016 and gaining a similar majority (66 per cent versus 31 per cent) over Saskatchewan Party representative Darren Deschambeault in 2020. The Green Party candidate Aaron Oochoo received only three per cent of the votes.

Northern Saskatchewan was not able to project regional concerns onto the provincial scene, although not for a want of effort. The Saskatchewan Party and NDP candidates pushed their provincial agendas in the North but with little northern comment. NDP leader Ryan Meili visited the region and promised, if elected, to reinstate the Northern Teacher Education Program (NORTEP). He also made particular mention of the efforts of La Ronge resident Tristen Durocher to promote suicide prevention strategies. Highlighting the limited attention given to the region by the Saskatchewan Party government, Meili stated, “We have a choice this election between a government that ignores the North and one that will invest in northern people.”

Premier Moe and the Saskatchewan Party kept a low profile in the North, beyond continuing their strong support for mining in the region. Northern leaders had resisted efforts by the government in April 2020 to re-open the provincial economy and were upset about a perceived lack of attention to regional health, education, and economic development issues. The Saskatchewan Party’s dismissal of Tristen Durocher’s suicide prevention campaign did not endear the party to northern residents, nor did the general lack of interest in northern issues. Given that the Saskatchewan Party was running on its track record, it did not have many northern initiatives to highlight. The Premier and the party made a lacklustre effort in the Athabasca and Cumberland constituencies and could hardly be surprised by the results.

It is not as though the North was lacking in political concerns. The region’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, while a source of friction with the Saskatchewan government, had been well-co-ordinated and effective, in the main. The management of the crisis sharpened regional interest in political and administrative autonomy. More broadly, a sharp multi-year decline in the uranium mining sector created a surge in underemployment in the region and real economic distress, without an appropriate provincial response to the economic challenges. Northern Saskatchewan continued to experience persistent difficulties with health care (including the absence of dialysis care in the region), high costs of living, problems with Indigenous housing, and the absence of a strategy for addressing Indigenous political, legal, and cultural aspirations.

The North did not wait for provincial political parties to propose region-specific solutions. New North, an association of northern communities, issued a press release critical of the provincial parties’ approaches to the region; Chair of New North and Creighton Mayor Bruce Filder commented, “While the COVID-19 pandemic brought attention to the poor health outcomes of northern residents and heightened the concern of leaders and authorities in the north, all that seems to have been forgotten come election time as the north appears to be mostly off the radar this election campaign, if the party platforms are anything to go on.”

New North articulated both a list of serious challenges and pragmatic steps to address northern Saskatchewan concerns. The organization emphasized the need for substantial improvements in northern health care, including mental health initiatives and suicide prevention efforts. New local politicians highlighted the need for region-wide economic development and job creation, creating a ministry for northern Saskatchewan, and funding a task force to emphasize northern economic development. The latter called for a co-ordinated pan-northern approach to planning, investment, and business promotion, with the creation of a regional authority with the human and financial resources needed to capitalize on real northern strengths. Perhaps most significantly, the organization criticized all of the provincial parties for failing to reach out to communities on political priorities and program investments.

The northern political situation may be changing. The emergence of the Métis Nation of Saskatchewan as a stronger and larger organization and the possible development of a Métis land claim will reshape northern politics. The province-wide land claim would raise the profile of Métis affairs and change political and administrative issues in the North. It would provide a new and more empowered locus for Métis and northern activism and could reduce interest in provincial politics. But these developments scarcely made a dent in the provincial election, with neither major party advancing a comprehensive strategy for the North, little constructive or original thinking on Indigenous issues generally, and with party leaders paying little attention to the region throughout the campaign.

The 2020 provincial election in northern Saskatchewan unfolded much as it had for almost half a century. On election night, the region voted strongly for incumbents (Belanger and Deschambeault), once again elected NDP candidates, and failed to penetrate the provincial political consciousness. Northern politicians and community leaders had articulated serious issues and fundamental political questions. But the provincial campaigns of the Saskatchewan Party and the NDP did not fully embrace regional concerns. As had been the case for decades, the northern half of Saskatchewan remained well outside the provincial political mainstream, receiving little indication that Saskatchewan as a whole incorporated the North into their understanding of the province’s present or future.