The Saskatchewan Election:

A 2020 Perspective

Rural/Urban Dimensions in the 2020 Saskatchewan Election

By KAREN BRIERE, Reporter/Analyst, Western Producer
@kjbriere |

There was no doubt that rural Saskatchewan would deliver for incumbent Premier Scott Moe and his Saskatchewan Party government in the 2020 election.

Although results in some urban ridings were still unclear at the time of this writing, the 29 of 61 seats considered rural—everything outside of Regina, Saskatoon, Moose Jaw, Prince Albert, and the two northern seats—have been the Sask Party’s stronghold since its formation, and they provided that support again Oct. 26.

That the leaders of the two contenders focused their campaigns in the urban centres isn’t unusual for recent elections. Rural support is so strong for the Sask Party that Moe could safely leave campaigning to the local candidates. Voters like that the Sask Party allows them to operate their businesses and farms with little interference. They see a party fighting the hated carbon tax. They see opportunity in the message delivered by Moe and others that the province is strong and that its future lies in its economic engines of mining, energy, and agriculture, which all take place in rural regions. And they may have been placated by numerous infrastructure announcements before the writ was dropped. The Sask Party government had announced a $7.5B two-year infrastructure program in its 2020-21 budget, which included a Municipal Economic Enhancement Program, highway construction and rural highway upgrades, new schools, and health care infrastructure.

Rural Saskatchewan may be solidly Sask Party now but wasn’t always. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, precursor to the New Democratic Party (NDP), had tremendous support from farmers and rural residents in its time. Its message that it would fight for them against big bad Ottawa resonated strongly with what was largely an agriculture-based economy. But as the NDP morphed into a party representing largely the impoverished at one end of the spectrum and the elite at the other it left rural people behind.

Through the last 40 years or so, NDP policies regarding rural life have worked largely against it. From a fuel tax placed on tandem axle farm trucks (which then-premier Allen Blakeney promised to remove in the budget prior to losing office) to its support for the Canadian Wheat Board, the Roy Romanow government’s attempt to amalgamate rural municipalities, hospital closures, and school closures, the list of rural grievances grew. The party that once promised to fight against the federal government became the target instead. The NDP hasn’t won a rural seat since the 1995 election. Some pundits suggest the party has done little to correct that since then.

In 2020, the Sask Party made no specific promises to rural Saskatchewan. It ran largely on its record and pledges for a strong economic recovery from the pandemic-induced downturn. Its platform of home renovation tax credits, a 10-per cent rebate for a year on SaskPower bills, temporary small business tax reduction, and more would appeal provincewide. The NDP included more particular promises, although they failed to resonate with voters. Its platform contained loans for rural small businesses, lower crop insurance rates for new farmers, and a Rural Reconnect program to expand high-speed Internet and cellular service throughout the province.

That last point was what most rural residents wanted to hear about. The lack of adequate, quality broadband was made more evident through this year’s pandemic as farmers tried to run businesses while their kids needed to be online for school. The Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities (SARM) and the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan both identified improved service as a key request to a new government. SARM and others have called for broadband to be declared an essential service.

“(Broadband) is fundamental to the economic and social wellbeing [sic] of our rural municipalities and critical in the delivery of healthcare and education,” the organization representing the 296 RMs said in a news release outlining its election priorities.

While rural voters may have raised this issue with their local candidates, it wasn’t a headline on the leaders’ tours, possibly because Internet service in urban areas is not an issue at all.

Rural crime is another issue that failed to gain much attention, despite it being on SARM’s list of priorities. Statistics indicate that crime is falling in rural Saskatchewan, but farmers and rural residents who have been victimized find little comfort in that and continue to call for better RCMP service and more prevention initiatives.

One rural outcome that bears watching is the showing of the Buffalo Party of Saskatchewan, even in safe Sask Party seats. The party, which grew from the most recent western independence movement, ran 17 candidates, 16 of them in rural constituencies. Candidates finished second in four of those and earned a larger percentage of the popular vote than the more well-established Green Party of Saskatchewan. Separatist sentiments and parties have long been around in rural Saskatchewan, and it will be interesting to see if this movement gains ground over the next four years.

COVID-19 affected the campaign in urban areas more than in rural. Public health orders restricting gathering numbers prohibited the large rallies typically held in Regina and Saskatoon, although the Sask Party held a “Big Honkin’ Rally” in both cities where people remained in their vehicles. Candidates limited public events in most cases, focusing on small groups and knocking on doors. For example, the re-election team for Wood River incumbent MLA and agriculture minister David Marit organized gatherings of less than 30 people in farm shops and small local businesses. All-candidates debates were held online or in physically distanced settings without crowds.

Rural ridings were once critical stops for party leaders during campaigns, but with most seats located in cities and an urban population that continues to increase, it seems likely their efforts will continue to be focused in the cities.