The neoliberal assault on Saskatchewan

Divided: Populism, Polarization and Power in the New Saskatchewan
Fernwood Publishing
October 2021

Divided, an essay collection edited by JoAnn Jaffe, Patricia Elliot, and Cora Sellers, promises to be a significant conversation starter in a province buckling under the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic. Divided tracks political and social polarization in Saskatchewan – where the pandemic has become just the latest fault line – over the past 15 years. From yellow vest rallies and a resurgent western separatist movement to widespread anti-Indigenous racism, Divided gives context to this polarization and explores what it has meant for people living in the province. It makes a vital contribution to understanding how the province has changed since the Sask Party took power in 2007 – though it ultimately leaves discussion of ways forward up to readers.

Divided is edited by a trio of women with decades of experience studying Saskatchewan. Jaffe is a professor of sociology and social studies at the University of Regina (U of R); Elliott is an associate professor of journalism at the U of R; and Sellers is the senior director of housing for Regina’s YWCA. The anthology includes 25 chapters from 31 contributors who range from academics to community organizers. There are essentially two types of chapters that make up the collection: research papers and personal reflections. While the transitions between the two can be jarring, the mix of policy analysis and personal experience paint a nuanced picture of the last decade and a half of neoliberal governance.

Looking at the last 30 years of provincial political trends, he points out that the Sask Party entrenched its power over the province by expanding its base firmly into suburban areas, overcoming the urban-rural split that defined provincial politics at the turn of the 20th century.

People living in Saskatchewan have never exactly been unified, beginning with the settlement process that relied on the forced removal of Indigenous populations to reserves. But Ken Rasmussen, a director and professor at the U of R’s Johnson Shoyama School of Public Policy, argues in his chapter that today, there is actually more of a political consensus in Saskatchewan than at any other time in recent history. Looking at the last 30 years of provincial political trends, he points out that the Sask Party entrenched its power over the province by expanding its base firmly into suburban areas, overcoming the urban-rural split that defined provincial politics at the turn of the 20th century. So while the editors invite debate on the book’s premise that the province is more divided than ever, the essays inside make a convincing case that the Sask Party’s neoliberalism – its obsession with low taxes, service cuts, deregulation, privatization, and attacking workers’ rights – has exacerbated social divisions that further marginalize those living in poverty, people with disabilities, people living with intergenerational trauma, Indigenous people, and low-wage and migrant workers. The book also highlights how the government uses divisive rhetoric – stoking “culture wars” or us-versus-them conflicts that often revolve around personal identity and perceived political affiliation – to help it achieve its policy goals.

The emotional strength of the collection comes from the personal reflections, in which Saskatchewan residents detail some of the catastrophic consequences that the province’s culture wars and service cuts have had on their lives. Disability rights activist Terri Sleeva writes about equitable access to health care and transportation, revealing how much harder it has become for many Saskatchewan residents to participate in society . After the province shuttered the public Saskatchewan Transportation Company (STC) in 2017, Sleeva won a human rights complaint against the private Rider Express transit company, which replaced the STC, over its lack of wheelchair accessibility. She writes that everyone “need[s] to be given the option to choose the course and quality of our lives.”

Children’s advocate and former assistant deputy minister of social services Tim Korol writes about his investigation of the ministry – a chapter full of tragic stories of children being “treated as a commodity, shuffled from place to place” and ultimately “damaged for life” by a system ostensibly meant to protect them. Korol gives an insider perspective to systemic issues that were brought forcefully to the public’s attention in 2018 by the Justice for Our Stolen Children camp, when activists maintained a tipi camp near the legislature for over six months seeking reforms to the justice and child-welfare systems, which disproportionately apprehend Indigenous youth.

The book also highlights how the government uses divisive rhetoric – stoking “culture wars” or us-versus-them conflicts that often revolve around personal identity and perceived political affiliation – to help it achieve its policy goals.

Evie Johnny Ruddy reflects on the misogynist harassment they endured after being denied service based on their gender at a Regina barber shop in 2014. After Ruddy filed a human rights complaint against the shop, right-wing commentators seized upon the story to caricature feminism and harass Ruddy. In their chapter, Ruddy highlights the tactics used to isolate and silence those who challenge the status quo in the “New Saskatchewan.”

These and other personal accounts reveal not just the challenges of living under the status quo, but also a clear willingness to push back against this marginalization.

The book’s research-focused chapters delve into a similarly wide range of topics, piecing together the ideology behind Sask Party initiatives like expanding resource extraction, further corporatizing agriculture and education, and undermining treaties through mass sell-offs of Crown land. While the Sask Party often claims to operate simply on cost-benefit analyses – such as in its relentless pursuit of questionable public-private partnerships for new infrastructure – these essays highlight how the government has stacked the deck against non-corporate interests, including workers’ abilities to organize, and how it has advanced a model of market-based services and solutions that fail to serve those most in need of support. A chapter on the energy industry by Emily Eaton, associate professor of geography and environmental studies at the U of R, and Simon Enoch, director of the Saskatchewan office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, argues that even the interests of workers in that sector are ultimately undermined by a government that capitalizes on their anxieties about the future to avoid meaningful climate action, instead of planning a just transition.

While the book is focused on the Sask Party’s time in power, contributors make clear that this neoliberal consensus was presaged by the centrist NDP of the 1990s and early-2000s, and continues to be enabled by the lack of an effective Opposition. Labour experts Andrew Stevens and Charles Smith examine how Roy Romanow’s NDP failed to re-establish worker’s rights undermined by a decade of Progressive Conservative rule, writing that it signaled that the “NDP had exhausted its interest in forging landmark legislation for workers in the province.”

Even the interests of workers in that sector are ultimately undermined by a government that capitalizes on their anxieties about the future to avoid meaningful climate action, instead of planning a just transition.

Altogether, Divided expertly highlights the logic behind and impacts of more than a decade of neoliberal policy and austerity. While the collection covers a wide range of topics, there are a couple of surprising omissions. It doesn’t cover drug toxicity deaths, which have risen sharply in Saskatchewan over the past two years: 283 confirmed deaths in 2020 compared to 177 in 2019, and it’s feared deaths could exceed 400 in 2021. Meanwhile, the province has refused to fund harm reduction sites, forcing agencies like Prairie Harm Reduction to crowd-source funds in order to offer desperately needed services. It also does not tackle the Sask Party’s commitment to expanding a prison system that incarcerates Indigenous people at some of the highest rates in the country, continuing a colonial legacy of breaking up Indigenous families and communities. These are issues where the government has stoked division to further its agenda – like in 2016 when then-Premier Brad Wall responded to a prisoners’ hunger strike over the privatization of prison food services with the quip that “If you really don't like prison food, there's one way to avoid it: don't go to prison.” These topics would only help highlight the cruelty of a government that focuses its austerity largely on oppressed populations with the lowest capacity to fight back.

If there was anything that the book left me wanting more of, it’s solutions, or pointing the way toward building a more inclusive Saskatchewan around a robust public realm. There are no easy answers here, particularly when communities are still reeling from the attacks outlined above, but several essays do offer critical insight and hint at solutions. A common theme is the dire need for more open and honest conversations throughout the province to help bridge the divisions we’re seeing. Playwrights Joel Bernbaum and Yvette Nolan describe how interviews steered the production of their verbatim play Reasonable Doubt, which centres on the trial of white farmer Gerald Stanley after he shot and killed Colten Boushie, a 22-year old Cree man, in 2016. During the play’s two-week run in Saskatoon, Bernbaum and Nolan prioritized audience engagement, facilitating post-show conversations and hearing audience members open to grappling with the racism gripping their communities. Another chapter authored by the Islamic Circle of North America Sisters Regina highlights the group’s work hosting conversations with locals about Islam and Islamophobia. As Muslim community members continue to experience hate crimes each year, the authors are certain that such crimes are rooted in an ignorance that is exacerbated by a polarized political atmosphere.

As this book demonstrates, the current political consensus wasn’t established merely through changing minds but through major policy interventions that materially impacted the ability of communities to organize.

This is an approach that I feel strongly about, too. In 2018 and 2019 I was part of a small group of self-described “urban environmentalists” that travelled to coal-producing communities in the south of the province. There, we engaged locals in conversations about climate change and phasing out coal-fired electricity generation. I came away from that experience convinced that many feel unheard within our current political discourse and are eager to have discussions that can help foster mutual understanding and combat polarization. That said, given the scale and urgency of the crises we face, encouraging open dialogue feels like an important but insufficient step. As this book demonstrates, the current political consensus wasn’t established merely through changing minds but through major policy interventions that materially impacted the ability of communities to organize. It will no doubt take significant policy changes, buoyed by determined social movements, to change course. This doesn’t have to be decided only at government tables, either. An intriguing example of a shift driven from the grassroots is the recently launched Treaty Land Sharing Network, through which landowners across the province sign up to invite Indigenous people to access their land in order to hunt and gather medicines.

Whatever organizing we pursue, the book reminds us that our advocacy must center those living with the impacts of the policies and conditions we seek to address. In a powerful reflection on her decades of advocacy work while dealing with the legacies of intergenerational trauma, editor Cora Sellers writes that we must learn to “trust the voice of those who [are] being oppressed” and understand that these are “voices we are advocating with, and not just for.”

In order to drive the kinds of change needed to build a vibrant public sphere, we need to understand how we got to where we are and what stands in the way. For that reason, even if it does not pave the way forward, Divided is a critical and timely addition to that project.

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