Why Manitoba still likes the NDP, and Saskatchewan doesn’t

In 2007, New Democratic Party governments in both Manitoba and Saskatchewan faced their electorates, and the two elections produced different outcomes. The results in the party’s historical heartland have much to say about where the NDP has come from, and where it might be going.

Electoral successes for social democrats have occurred chiefly at the provincial level and in western Canada. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the precursor to the NDP, achieved its first major electoral breakthrough in the 1944 Saskatchewan provincial election by winning 53 per cent of the vote and 47 of 52 seats.1 In his groundbreaking study Agrarian Socialism, Seymour Martin Lipset demonstrated that the party was a direct outgrowth of wheat-growing agrarianism and the cooperative movement. Its supporters believed that progress, whether it consists of building local schools or gaining marketing control over farm products, is best achieved when individuals work together as a community rather than in competition.2

With support from farm communities across the province, the CCF held power in Saskatchewan until 1964 when it was defeated by Ross Thatcher’s Liberals. In contrast, a much more urban-oriented CCF-NDP in Manitoba had to wait until 1969 and the advent of its new leader Edward Schreyer to make an electoral breakthrough. It did so by winning support among working-class voters in Winnipeg and reaching into comparatively less prosperous rural regions and the province’s northern hinterland.

In both Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the NDP has achieved a record of success in recent decades that is unmatched by any other party. By 2007, the Manitoba NDP had held power in 23 out of 38 years since it first took power in 1969: the Schreyer years of 1969–77, the Howard Pawley years of 1981–88 and Gary Doer’s administration since 1999. Similarly, in Saskatchewan since 1971, when Allan Blakeney and the NDP took back power from the Liberals, the NDP governed for 27 out of 36 years: the Blakeney government of 1971–82, the Roy Romanow years of 1991–2001 (Romanow retired while holding office) and the Lorne Calvert administration of 2001–7.

With its shift to relying on votes in Regina and Saskatoon, the Saskatchewan NDP has come to resemble the Manitoba NDP more closely by becoming a much more urban party. And as in Manitoba’s rural farmland regions where voters support the Progressive Conservatives en masse, Saskatchewan’s rural voters now chiefly elect right-of-centre Saskatchewan Party candidates to the legislature.3 Since the early 1990s, rural electors in both provinces (except those in the northern hinterlands) have also been sending Reform Party and Conservative Party candidates to the House of Commons in Ottawa. An examination of recent polling data casts light on who supports the NDP in both provinces and the shifting nature of young voters and women within the two provincial electorates.

Boom Times

It is common wisdom that governing parties are reelected when times are good and lose power when times are tough. Manitoba, with positive economic numbers in 2007, appeared to follow this rule. The province’s mining, agriculture and energy sectors were generally doing well, as were both the service and manufacturing sectors. During the month prior to the May election, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for Manitoba was at 4.8 per cent compared to the national figure of 6.1 per cent, while residential building permits for the months of January to March (based on year-over-year numbers), had increased by 20 per cent compared to the national growth rate of 7 per cent.4 According to a 2007 Probe Research/Myers Norris Penny/Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce poll conducted a few months after the election, even the business community was upbeat. The results revealed that 57 per cent of senior business leaders in the province believed that their companies would be performing better in the coming year, while 35 per cent said things would remain the same and only 7 per cent reported that their business would get worse.5 Therefore, few were surprised when on May 22, 2007, Manitoba’s governing NDP, led by Gary Doer, trounced both the Progressive Conservatives under their first-time leader Hugh McFadyen and Jon Gerrard’s Liberals, taking 36 seats to the PCs’ 19 and the Liberals’ two.

In large part the NDP’s fortunes have been tied to Doer’s personal popularity, which has been linked to his commitment to fiscal prudence and willingness to promote private sector investment, expenditures in the fields of health care and education and the good fortune of presiding over a healthy economy. In a pre-election poll conducted by Probe Research for the Winnipeg Free Press and Global TV, 43 per cent of PC supporters and 53 per cent of Liberal supporters said that they thought that Doer had been performing well in the campaign.6

Farther west in Saskatchewan, the economy exhibited even stronger signs of growth as the governing NDP moved toward a November provincial election. The unemployment rate was at 4.3 per cent and average weekly earnings were at $719.44, exceeding Manitoba’s $707.85. Most startling, however, was an increase of 84 per cent in the number of residential building permits based on year-over-year numbers for the period of January to September. Compared to building permit growth rates of 19 per cent in Manitoba, 16 per cent in Alberta and 15 per cent across Canada, the Saskatchewan figure is astounding.7 Yet less than six months later, on November 7, Lorne Calvert’s governing NDP was resoundingly defeated by Brad Wall’s Saskatchewan Party, which took 38 seats to the NDP’s 20.

Yet if a healthy provincial economy helped get Gary Doer and his NDP reelected, what happened in Saskatchewan? On the basis of the good/bad economy thesis, one would have expected the NDP to solidify its hold on power in both provinces. Could it be that the forces of booming times were also pushing many voters in a new direction? In contrast to a tired and older-looking Lorne Calvert, the Saskatchewan Party put forward a new face in the relatively young Brad Wall. From a brand analysis perspective, Wall appeared better suited to the new economic mood. Furthermore, after 16 years in power – making the Manitoba NDP’s eight years in government appear brief – many Saskatchewan voters simply wanted change, as was demonstrated by a pre-election Probe Research poll showing that 54 per cent held that it was time to change the governing party regardless of whether or not the NDP had governed well. Even among urban voters, 46 per cent held this view.8

The shifting nature of NDP support

For the Saskatchewan Party, a critical breakthrough in 2007 was the support it found among portions of a previously elusive urban electorate. The party was able to pick up new seats in Regina and the east side of Saskatoon, as well as seats in smaller urban centres such as Prince Albert Carlton, Moose Jaw North and Yorkton. In Manitoba, however, urban voters were moving in a different direction. The PCs attracted only 29 per cent of the popular vote in Winnipeg; two suburban seats that the PCs had previously considered safe were lost to the NDP.

In addition to emerging urban-rural patterns that are distinctive to the two provinces, there are also a few sociodemographic elements worth examining. A large part of the NDP’s success in Manitoba has been built on an ability to attract women voters. Based on a Probe Research poll of 800 Manitobans conducted for the Winnipeg Free Press and Global TV just prior to the 2007 election, 48 per cent of women reported a preference for the NDP, compared to 41 per cent of men. In contrast, 40 per cent of men and 34 per cent of women preferred the PCs. Since 1999, this has been part of a pattern appearing in most of Probe Research’s quarterly polls.

However, NDP strategists should be concerned with what appears to be a shift in age among party supporters. Table 1 shows that since the NDP took power in 1999, NDP support has increased among those aged 55 or over by 19 percentage points while dropping by 7 points among young adults (aged 18 to 34) and 4 points among middle-aged voters.9 Of course, the impact of this shift may be tempered by the lower turnout rates that younger voters exhibit compared to older voters.

Support for the Saskatchewan NDP has shifted in a different way. Table 2, based on survey data from two pre-election polls that accurately predicted the vote for the 2003 and 2007 Saskatchewan elections, shows this difference.10 NDP support dropped from 43 to 32 per cent among middle-aged voters and from 46 to 38 per cent among older voters. At the same time, Saskatchewan Party support grew in all age groups, while the generally high percentage of young adults who supported the Liberals in 2003 – 22 per cent – dropped to 12 per cent in 2007.


Men formed another group in which NDP support in Saskatchewan dropped significantly (Table 3). In 2003, the NDP enjoyed equal support from men and women, with 42 per cent in both groups supporting the party. This changed in 2007, with 42 per cent of women reporting support for the party, compared to only 32 per cent of men. At the same time, the Saskatchewan Party made huge gains among both men (from 40 to 57 per cent) and women (from 38 to 47 per cent). At least on the surface, it appears that women drifted from the Liberals to the Saskatchewan Party, while men switched from both the Liberals and the NDP to the Saskatchewan Party.

Aboriginal voters’ growing importance

A third and important demographic segment should also be watched closely in coming years. According to recently released 2006 census data, 15 per cent of those residing in Saskatchewan and 16 per cent of the Manitoba population now identify themselves as Aboriginal (Figure 1). Furthermore, many of these people are urban dwellers, with Aboriginal people making up between 10 and 11 per cent of the population in Regina, Saskatoon and Winnipeg. Unfortunately this segment of the electorate is not identified in any published large-scale pre-election polls, in part because sample sizes are too small when broken out from the full results. (With that being said, I am currently working on party support survey data accumulated from interviews with Aboriginal people in Manitoba from 2005 to 2008. These results will provide reliable insights on partisanship among Métis and on- and off-reserve First Nations people.)

Aboriginal voters in the north have contributed to the NDP’s success in both provinces. For Saskatchewan, this encompasses the sprawling NDP ridings of Athabasca and Cumberland, which are largely composed of First Nations communities and resource development workers. In Manitoba, the NDP has won successive victories in northern Manitoba on the basis of similar sources of support. This includes the sparsely populated ridings of Rupertsland, Flin Flon, Thompson, The Pas and Swan River. With 29 seats needed to win a majority in the Manitoba legislature, winning five northern seats with support from First Nations is significant. However, the party should not take the north and First Nations support for granted. All three major federal parties now recognize the importance of the Aboriginal vote and the need to have First Nations individuals representing the party.

Although the northern Manitoba federal riding of Churchill usually elects NDP candidates, high-profile Aboriginal actress Tina Keeper took it for the Liberals in 2006 on the basis of support from many First Nations communities. Next door, Gary Merasty, a former Grand Chief of the Prince Albert Grand Council, took the northern Saskatchewan federal riding of Desnethé–Missinippi–Churchill River for the Liberals. Conservative candidate Robert Clarke, an RCMP officer and member of the Muskeg Lake First Nation, won the riding in a 2008 byelection after Merasty departed to the private sector. Clarke defeated Liberal candidate Joan Beatty, the first Aboriginal woman ever elected to the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly. She had served in the NDP cabinet and had survived the NDP defeat in the 2007 provincial election, sitting as an opposition MLA. She jumped to the federal Liberals to run in the byelection.

Meanwhile, within the urban provincial electorate, the NDP has been able to attract support among many Aboriginal voters who have moved off-reserve to Regina, Saskatoon and Winnipeg. Their impact in large urban centres, as well as in such smaller cities as Brandon and Prince Albert, needs further study. Voter turnout, which is much lower among Aboriginal people, is a concern for the party.

The federal NDP and urban support

Over the past three decades, federal NDP support has dropped enormously in Saskatchewan, once considered a bastion for the federal party. In looking at results from three federal elections occurring at nine-year intervals, popular support in Saskatchewan dropped from 44 per cent in 1988, when the NDP took 10 out of 14 seats, to 31 per cent and five seats in 1997 and then to 24 per cent and no seats in 2006 (this was a repeat result of the 2004 election) (Figure 2). In large part the Saskatchewan collapse reflects shifts to the right among rural voters. It also reveals a failure by Jack Layton and the federal party to bring Saskatoon and Regina along with it as it shifts focus further toward urban voters in Ontario and elsewhere.

The federal NDP has fared better among Manitoba’s urban voters. In large part this is due to its deep historical roots in Winnipeg’s working class, reaching as far back as 1900 when Independent Labour Party candidate Arthur Puttee was elected to represent the riding of Winnipeg in Parliament. This tradition carries on in three ridings where NDP candidates are repeatedly elected: Winnipeg North (Judy Wasylycia-Leis), Winnipeg Centre (Pat Martin) and Elmwood–Transcona (Bill Blaikie). However, voters choose parties for reasons that go beyond tradition. These MPs have a strong record of advocating on urban issues, including those affecting lower-income families, women, new Canadians, public health care and Aboriginal people.

The NDP’s challenges

The NDP in both Saskatchewan and Manitoba faces new and different challenges as the decade comes to a close. In Saskatchewan, the provincial party will have to adapt to its new role as the Official Opposition. In Manitoba, party members are preparing for Premier Doer’s retirement, which many expect will occur at the end of the current term. Whoever is chosen will be only the NDP’s fourth leader since 1969. The absence of the charismatic Doer will serve as a new test for the Manitoba NDP.

Shifts have occurred in a number of important demographic segments within the Saskatchewan and Manitoba provincial electorates. In its 2007 defeat, the Saskatchewan NDP held onto support from women but lost support among male voters. In Manitoba, the NDP has for a long time drawn higher levels of support among women voters, which compensates for lower levels of support among men. In the meantime, the Saskatchewan NDP’s support remained unchanged among younger voters in 2007, while it declined among older voters. In Manitoba the opposite trend emerged, with support dropping among younger voters and increasing among older voters.

The NDP’s evolving fortunes in both provinces are now very much tied to urban voters, especially as farmers have increasingly oriented themselves to right-of-centre parties both federally and provincially. As Jack Layton and his federal NDP shift further away from the party’s prairie farm roots, it is doubtful that either the federal or the provincial wing in both provinces will be able to effectively capture (or, in the case of Saskatchewan, recapture) the farm vote. At the same time, the federal and provincial wings share a strong voice on Aboriginal issues, which contributes to their chances for winning seats in the north and urban areas.


1 Ivan Avakumovic, Socialism in Canada: A Study of the CCF-NDP in Federal and Provincial Politics (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1978), p. 170.

2 Seymour Martin Lipset, Agrarian Socialism: The Cooperative Commonwealth Federation in Saskatchewan: A Study in Political Sociology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1950).

3 Regarding the changing nature of the Saskatchewan CCF-NDP in light of Lipset’s original research, see David Smith, ed., Lipset’s Agrarian Socialism: A Re-examination (Regina: Saskatchewan Institute of Public Policy, 2007).

4 Results here were provided to the author by the Canada West Foundation and are based on Statistics Canada data.

5 Probe Research, The 5th Annual Manitoba Business Leaders Index, November, 2007, p. 10.

6 Winnipeg Free Press/Global-TV/Probe Research, “News Release: 2007 Manitoba Election Survey, Assessing the Leaders,” p. 3.

7 Statistics Canada data as reported by the Canada West Foundation, Currents: Western Canada’s Monthly Economic Bulletin, November, 2007, p.1.

8 Saskatchewan Weekly Newspapers Association/Probe Research, “2007 Saskatchewan Election Survey: Leadership and Change,” News Release, October 30, 2007. Retrieved April 22, 2008, from here.

9 Both the 2007 and 1999 polling results were within 3 per cent of the actual election results for each of the three parties and should therefore be considered reliable reflections of the provincial electorate. Figures cited are from two press releases: Winnipeg Free Press/Probe Research Inc., “The Vote,” News Release, September 16, 1999, and Winnipeg Free Press/Global TV/Probe Research Inc., “2007 Manitoba Election Survey,” News Release, May 17, 2007.

10 The 2007 poll was based on 600 interviews and conducted one week prior to the November 7 election by Probe Research for the Saskatchewan Weekly Newspapers Association. Results differed on election night by only 1 to 2 per cent for the two main parties (Saskatchewan Weekly Newspapers/Probe Research, “2007 Saskatchewan Election Survey, the Vote,” News Release, October 30, 2007, retrieved April 22, 2008, from http://www.probe-research.com/071029%20The%20Vote%20(FINAL).pdf). The second poll cited here (2003) was done for the CBC by this author and Western Opinion Research. It is based on 800 interviews with results varying by less than 1 to 3 per cent from the actual results for each of the two main parties (CBC/Western Opinion Research, “The Race for the Premier’s Office is too Close to Call,” Press Release, October 27, 2003). “Other parties” are removed as a category in the 2007 results and the tables recalculated to compare results as reported in the 2003 and 2007 releases.