Dale Eisler, From Left to Right: Saskatchewan’s Political and Economic Transformation. Regina, SK: University of Regina Press, 2022. 392 pages.
The peak number of farms in Saskatchewan was 127,000, in 1941. At the 2016 census, the total had declined to 35,000. Corresponding to the decline in number of farms is an increase in farm size, from an average of three quarters of a square mile in 1941 to three square miles in 2016. You write, “There can be no denying the importance of productivity growth.” You qualify the value of productivity (per farmer) with a discussion of dying rural towns and lost sense of community among those who remain. We have more or less accepted this loss of rural community life in the Prairies. In continental Europe, policy has been protectionist; the decline in farm numbers is much slower than in the Prairies. Should we have copied Europe? Should we have treated Prairie grain farmers as we have treated dairy farmers?
For several reasons I don’t believe that a small Canadian province like Saskatchewan, even though it is a major grain producer and exporter, could have resisted the forces of the market-based policies emerging globally. You might recall the Uruguay Round of GATT negotiations in the 1980s, which focused heavily on reducing trade-distorting agricultural subsidies. So for a trading nation like Canada, which sought to expand export access to global markets, it didn’t make sense, for economic, political and social reasons, to resist the forces of change.
The comparison with the European Union and its approach to the agriculture sector is really apples and oranges. In the case of Europe, agriculture and the social pattern of rural life were deeply embedded in its culture and economy over many centuries. Such was not the case on the Canadian Prairies. The Saskatchewan farm economy was fundamentally different, economically and socially.
It was a recent immigrant settler society and a largely one-crop grain economy. Consider the simple fact that in the 1980s much of the Saskatchewan farm economy was only in its second, or early stages of its third, generation of farmers. It was an economy where scale was critical to viability, land for expansion was plentiful, and post–Second World War mechanization had transformed agriculture.
Productivity grew rapidly as equipment replaced labour, making larger farm units inevitable. When you couple that with the rise of globalization, the opening of world markets, and the fact that farmers by their nature are private landowners, entrepreneurs and risk takers, the constraints of orderly marketing were doomed.
The proof is in the outcome we see today. For governments to resist those facts was not politically sustainable, which explains in large measure why the NDP lost power in 1982 and has never been able to regain its foothold in rural Saskatchewan.
While it might be nice to romanticize family farms and the pattern of rural life that made small rural communities viable, to believe that that society was economically and socially sustainable is misguided. The mechanization of farming that greatly increased productivity while dramatically reducing the number of people needed to work on farms, coupled with the global inertia to expand trade, meant rural Saskatchewan had little choice other than to adapt if it was to be a modern farm economy and society.
One important theme of your book is Saskatchewan as a small place, subject to international market realities that have condemned to death most mid-20th-century rural communities. A second theme is your portrayals of Saskatchewan premiers – from Allan Blakeney in the 1970s and early 1980s to Scott Moe, the current Premier. If any of the premiers tried to be Canute and preserve farmers from drowning with the rising tide of farm technology, it was Blakeney. He hoped that the “family of crown corporations” would create new jobs for displaced farmers. His successors, including the two NDP premiers after him, were not interested in this strategy. Now, the sombre reality facing Saskatchewan arises from climate change: phasing out of oil and gas, rising summer temperatures and drought. Am I right about Blakeney? How successful are more recent premiers in addressing climate change?
I must say that “condemned to death” strikes me as an excessively subjective term to describe the evolution of a modern 21st-century agricultural economy. We’re producing more from Saskatchewan farms than ever and doing it with fewer people. Granted, it inevitably led to larger farms and rural depopulation, which some might characterize as the inescapable byproducts of economic progress.
But leaving that aside, I agree with your point that, as Premier, Allan Blakeney sought to preserve the rural society and economy of the 1970s as much as possible. The core to achieving that was saving the “family farm,” which was the foundation of the rural society and economy built in Saskatchewan in the early decades of the 20th century. It is why Blakeney’s government staked so much of its agriculture policy on “orderly marketing.” The most critical dimension was “saving the Crow,” the statutory grain freight rate that set in law the amount railway companies could charge Prairie farmers to ship their grain. By 1980, the rate was about 20 per cent of the cost of grain transport, and it hadn’t changed for much of the 20th century.
While nostalgia and the desire to prevent economic disruption can be a powerful urge, especially for a politician in power, the question is whether that’s sound, visionary policy. One effect of the Crow was to stunt diversification in the farm economy. Keeping grain freight rates artificially low ensured producers did not diversify into other crops and impeded investment into food processing. Admittedly, economic progress in the form of higher productivity, which drives higher standards of living, inevitably brings winners and losers. The role of government is not to prevent progress, but to help smooth economic transition by assisting those negatively affected by it.
You mention Blakeney’s family of crown corporations as instruments to provide gainful employment for displaced farmers. I don’t recall that being cited as a key justification for the public investment in crowns, although I would grant it could be a result. What I would say is that private sector investment in the resource sector in the province since the 1970s has been massive.
Potash is a prime example. There has been huge expansion of existing mines, and creation of new ones. A current example is the Jansen mine under construction. A $7.5 billion investment by Australia-based BHP Billiton, it will be the largest potash mine in the world and is expected to employ 600 people. In many ways, the growth of the potash mining sector throughout central Saskatchewan, which now totals 11 mines and ranks Saskatchewan as the largest potash producer in the world, is another example of the modernization of the rural Saskatchewan economy. One can argue whether today Saskatchewan gets the royalties it should from potash production, but there is no questioning the employment gains for rural Saskatchewan that have resulted.
As for climate change, it really wasn’t a significant issue on the provincial policy agenda until Justin Trudeau became Prime Minister and made it one of his government’s key priorities. So, judging premiers on climate change really didn’t become an important factor until the latter years of the Brad Wall government, followed now by Scott Moe. Like so much in current Saskatchewan politics, climate change is put into the context of federal-provincial relations and seen as a point of division.
The Saskatchewan Party government, under both Wall and Moe, has characterized Trudeau as someone whose priorities, particularly as related to climate change and Saskatchewan’s energy and agriculture economy, are aligned against the best interests of the province. The prime example has been opposition to the federal price on carbon emissions. Underlying that stance is that many in the Saskatchewan Party government border on being climate deniers and are only willing to do the least possible in terms of policy to address climate change.
Recently, an angry middle-aged man in Grande Prairie harassed Chrystia Freeland as she entered an elevator in the city. “What the f—k are you doing in Alberta?” he asked. “You f—in’ traitor! You f—in’ b—ch! Get the f—k out of this province!”
Here is a passage from Freeland’s Wikipedia biography:
Born in Peace River, Alberta, Freeland completed a bachelor’s degree at Harvard University, studying Russian history and literature before earning a master’s degree in Slavonic studies from Oxford University. She began her career in journalism in editorial positions at the Financial Times, The Globe and Mail and Reuters, becoming managing director of the latter. Freeland is the author of Sale of the Century, a 2000 book about Russia’s journey from communist state rule to capitalism, and Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else in 2012.
Freeland is a very smart cosmopolitan woman. Currently Minister of Finance and Deputy Prime Minister, she is MP for Rosedale, probably the most prosperous Toronto riding. The verbal attack on her has prompted considerable media attention, most of it referring to male sexism and pathological violence. Is that an adequate analysis? Her attacker emphasized the idea that she has abandoned her Prairie identity and allied herself with the cosmopolitan woke government of Justin Trudeau, a government that has ignored Prairie interests. What do you think of all this? Had she been visiting, say, Prince Albert, might she have received a similar verbal denunciation
The verbal abuse and threatening behaviour that Chrystia Freeland faced must be condemned and never accepted. But when it comes to the current state of politics – in Canada, the United States and many other countries – it can be understood. I’ve long believed that views which many see as abhorrent are now being expressed, whereas before they were not. Many Canadians, many more than we’d like to think, have harboured them for years. They were simply suppressed by the public agenda and the parameters established by those seen as opinion leaders and the traditional media. The rise of the “political correctness” ethic also inhibited people from speaking their true thoughts. All that changed with the emergence of social media and the likes of Donald Trump. Suddenly, people were liberated to express their true feelings and beliefs.
Underlying this development has been resentment of the “educated elites” who were seen as controlling the agenda and setting the terms of acceptable speech. These days it’s popularized as the woke agenda, which many believe characterizes the Trudeau government. As you note, Freeland fits the elite cosmopolitan description. The fact that she’s originally from Alberta, went to the finest international universities, worked in the media and now represents an affluent downtown Toronto riding makes her a prime target in the minds of the angry mob.
Is the treatment Freeland faced somehow unique to Alberta? I suggest it is not. It’s obvious that Alberta is ground zero for the venting of anti–Trudeau government hatred, but I have no doubt that the same sentiment exists in Saskatchewan, particularly but not exclusively in rural areas. It’s important to recognize that grievance culture has long been at the root of Prairie politics. The sense of alienation from the centres of power – whether political or economic – runs deep and has often been expressed by populist parties. The most obvious examples are the CCF-NDP and Social Credit. More recently it was expressed in the rise of the Reform Party.
As you suggest, there is a widespread perception in Saskatchewan and Alberta that Prairie interests are not reflected in the Trudeau government, a sentiment consistent with Prairie populism. I personally believe it is rooted more in emotion than reality, but you need to ask why that perception exists. The Trudeau government, and especially Trudeau himself, have done an extremely poor job communicating that they have the region’s best interests in mind.
Trudeau’s climate change agenda is seen as a direct challenge to the Alberta-Saskatchewan economies built on oil and gas and agriculture. On one of his first visits as PM to Alberta, Trudeau talked about the need to “phase out” the oil sands. While that might some day happen, to deliver that message instead of saying he would have Alberta’s back and defend its economic interests, including the energy sector, was a recipe for ill-will. Add that to the history of his father Pierre’s National Energy Program and the economic misfortune it created for Alberta, and it’s not hard to understand how we got to Chrystia Freeland, the Deputy Prime Minister, being verbally assaulted in her home province.
I agree with most of your discussion on the Grande Prairie incident, but not all. Surely, over the next generation, Canada should “phase out” its entire oil and gas sector, not only the oil sands. My critique of Trudeau’s statements on the century’s most urgent policy problem is that they come off as vague woke aspirations. Nearly seven years after his having rushed to Paris (in December 2015), his government has never frankly discussed the scale of economic disruption implied by the Paris Accord commitments – particularly in the Prairies.
His Natural Resources Minister, Jonathan Wilkinson, is another very smart politician. He grew up in Saskatchewan, but has a Vancouver riding. Wilkinson knows a great deal about renewable energy, and has implemented a small carbon tax. There are no prominent Prairie-based politicians in the federal government publicly discussing the economic future of the oil and gas sector. The closest we have is Jason Kenney – now replaced by a more conservative Alberta Premier – generously funding carbon capture and storage so that oil and gas can be a “low GHG” technology for power generation. (At present, this is by far the most costly “green” technology.) I compare Trudeau with Mulroney in the 1980s on fishing out the Grand Banks, admittedly a much less important issue. He let John Crosbie design fantasy fisheries policy – until we fished out the last cod.
On climate, my view has long been that we’ve never had anything approaching an honest and realistic debate about what addressing climate change means in practical economic and social terms. What we’re talking about is a fundamental retooling of the global economy in less than 30 years. It is mind-boggling. Nothing of that sort or scale has ever been done in human history. You acknowledge (sort of) that rather large fact with your reference to the cod fishery. But if that’s the best example – which by the way was designed to save the cod fishery, not eliminate it – to argue for an end to oil and gas, I think we need a better case study.
Phasing out our entire oil and gas sector – never mind just the oil sands – over the next generation, I would say, is fantasy. The International Energy Agency, which is easily the most authoritative global voice on the energy issue, says that fossil fuels will still represent a majority source of energy in 2040. The IEA’s sustainable development scenario predicts daily oil consumption will be about 65 million barrels a day in 20 years. That’s down from current levels – which by the way are growing – of slightly more than 100 million barrels a day. I would add that fossil fuels today represent about 80 per cent of global primary energy demand. This is not to say we shouldn’t be getting off fossil fuels. We must. But can we at least be honest about what it means and the effects it is going to have on economies, societies and people, especially those in the Third World who live in conditions of energy poverty? As someone who spends time each year teaching in Bangladesh, I’m sure you know this better than anyone.
I tend to be of the view expressed by Vaclav Smil, the University of Manitoba emeritus professor who has studied energy transitions through history and what energy means to society. Smil delves into the thermal dynamics of energy. He says if we’re serious about climate change, and he believes we need to be (as do I), then we must accept an end to economic growth as we have seen it for the past century. Smil talks of the intractable challenges that come with decarbonization of industries that produce what he calls “the four pillars of modern civilization: ammonia, cement, steels, plastics.”¹
Among Smil’s many books, his most recent is Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities,² which The Guardian calls “an epic multidisciplinary analysis of growth, and why humanity’s endless expansion must stop.” In an interview with the Guardian, Smil says bluntly, “Growth must end. Our economist friends don’t seem to realize that.”³ He goes on to say, “Economists will tell you we can decouple growth from material consumption, but that is total nonsense.” It’s worth noting that Bill Gates, who is deeply committed to climate issues and whose foundation has invested heavily into climate change solutions, calls Smil his favourite author.
Like it or not, cheap, abundant, portable fossil fuels, which are the most energy-dense next to nuclear, have been the foundation for our high standards of living and quality of life. Yet we have this fanciful notion that we can reach net zero emissions in less than 30 years and there will be no massive economic disruptions with social consequences. Much of that belief is based on the idea that new technology, not yet discovered or applied, will make it all possible.
The truth is, reaching our climate goals means lower standards of living. But no government dares speak the words. The reason is obvious. Politicians know that being truthful about what it’s going to take and the impact it’s going to have will lead to a public backlash and electoral defeat. So instead, we’re presented with this fanciful notion that we can “phase out” fossil fuels and reach net zero with “green” sources of energy such as solar and wind, or other sources like hydrogen that are nowhere close to being a practical alternative.
Of course, another factor that makes the politics of climate change such a challenge is what Mark Carney calls the “tragedy of the horizon.” We’re talking about action now and its negative impact on living standards to achieve a goal 30 years or more hence. What’s required is to dramatically change people’s energy consumption behaviour. The carbon price is but a small and insignificant example of that. The carbon price is nowhere near the level it needs to be, and the embedded costs of energy in everything from the food we eat to the clothes we wear to the houses we live in (to name only a few) must be taken into account. So, by all means, let’s pursue policies that will aggressively deal with the climate issue. But can we at least be honest about what is achievable, and the sacrifices it will take to get there?
A final point. My book discusses the Saskatchewan Party’s aggressive opposition to federal climate change policy, and the federal carbon price in particular. The party’s stance against the carbon tax unambiguously reflects the popular will in the province.
Inroads co-publisher John Richards, recently retired from the School of Public Policy at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, was a member of the Saskatchewan legislature in the 1970s. Dale Eisler has been a journalist, novelist, senior federal civil servant and Senior Policy Fellow at the Johnson Shoyama School of Public Policy in Regina; his latest book is on Saskatchewan’s political and economic evolution.
¹ Vaclav Smil, What We Need to Know About the Pace of Decarbonization, JSGS Policy Briefs, April 1, 2020.
² Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020.
³ Jonathan Watts, Vaclav Smil: ‘Growth Must End. Our Economist Friends Don’t Seem to Realise That,’” Guardian, September 21, 2019.