Rebuilding progressive politics in Saskatchewan: Facing the realities

A black and white photograph from the 1940s. Three men stand in front of a billboard. The billboard says

Tommy Douglas stands under a billboard for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation shortly after winning the 1944 provincial election. Saskatchewan Archives Board/Wikimedia Commons

The Saskatchewan NDP has replaced its leader four times, once after each election defeat, since it last held power in 2007. These changes in leadership have not and will not make much difference. The party’s base and membership numbers have continued to diminish, and party insiders, including those in the shrinking caucus, seem distant from grassroots issues and emerging progressive networks. Clearly, hanging on to a parochial, partisan view isn’t helpful. 

Analysis through a critical historical lens is long overdue and the trend line is clear. The NDP barely held power in 2003 under former Premier Lorne Calvert, even with 45 per cent of the popular vote. Policy-wise, the government was all over the map: supporting “clean coal,” oil pipelines, a uranium refinery, and a wind farm. The strategic effectiveness of defending Crown corporations was inevitably waning, and the NDP lost to Brad Wall’s revamped Sask Party in 2007. Its vote share dropped to 37 per cent. 

Things went from bad to worse. Dwain Lingenfelter, previous deputy premier under Roy Romanow, was brought back from his Alberta oil executive job to lead the NDP’s charge to regain government. Lingenfelter eventually won a by-election in 2009. During the 2011 election, the NDP vote went down again, to 32 per cent. Lingenfelter, the party’s supposed “white knight,” couldn’t even win his own seat and soon resigned from his leadership role. 

A cautious party insider, Cam Broten, then became leader in 2013. By this time, Saskatchewan’s per capita carbon footprint had surpassed that of Alberta, which was among the highest on the planet. Despite this, NDP candidates were told not to talk about carbon. Supposedly opportunistic politics didn’t work; the NDP vote slid further to 30 per cent in the 2016 provincial election and Broten failed to win another term in the legislature.

In 2018 medical doctor Ryan Meili finally won his ongoing bid for leadership. In 2020, the NDP vote share went up slightly to 31.5 per cent. This time, the new leader actually won a seat – but just barely. However, with a caucus of only 13 (now 11), the stressful politics of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the loss of its only northern seat in a by-election, Meili resigned in February 2022.

Is yet another leader – the recently-elected Carla Beck, a veteran Regina MLA – going to make any difference?

Polarizing Elections

Is yet another leader – the recently-elected Carla Beck, a veteran Regina MLA – going to make any difference? Certainly, the election of a female party leader is a watershed event. But, regardless of leader, the NDP has to squarely admit that everything changed in 1997 when the Sask Party united the right and ended the three-party vote split. 

While there was a three-party vote split, in the first past the post system, the NDP and its precursor, the CCF, had a much greater chance of forming majority government. Emerging from the Dirty Thirties, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) had to work for years to build progressive coalitions across strong settler ethnic blocs. Finally, in 1944, the CCF won 53 per cent of the vote and elected 90 per cent (47 of 52) of the MLAs. The Liberals got 35 per cent of the vote and only 5 seats, while the Conservatives got 11 per cent support with no seats.

Farmer-labour-teacher institutes, grassroots adult education projects, and community arts played a significant role in building the CCF electoral coalition. Farm organizations, co-ops, and credit unions strengthened the communitarian spirit. Support for public hospitals and Crown infrastructure sustained electoral support until finally, in 1962, the foundations of Medicare were won.

However, first past the post works both ways. In 1964, after near violent polarization over Medicare, the Ross Thatcher-led Liberals defeated the NDP despite receiving the same share – 40 per cent – of the vote. After two terms, the NDP came back into power in 1971, under Allan Blakeney, again with 55 per cent of the vote and 45 of 60 seats. Unfortunately, after advancing an aggressive, expansive pro-non-renewable resource policy, Blakeney’s government came to a crashing end in 1982 when the Grant Devine Progressive Conservative (PC) party got 54 per cent of the vote and won 55 of 64 seats. The NDP vote dropped to 38 per cent, winning only nine seats.

Regardless of leader, the NDP has to squarely admit that everything changed in 1997 when the Sask Party united the right and ended the three-party vote split. 

The political pendulum continued swinging when Romanow’s NDP gained power in 1991, winning 55 of 64 seats with 51 per cent of the vote. Support for his fiscal approach, including hospital closures, and his resource industry expansion steadily eroded. His government not only approved more uranium mines against the recommendation of the Environmental Review, but also launched the Saskatchewan Trade & Export Partnership (STEP), which jump-started a massive increase in mineral and agricultural exports. Meanwhile, Romanow did absolutely nothing to enhance sustainable energy or agriculture. 

In 1999, with NDP support down to 39 per cent and only 29 seats, Romanow had to form a coalition government with support from three Liberal MLAs. The writing was on the Wall!

In the aftermath of the corruption and massive debt of Grant Devine’s PC government, the “unite the right” Sask Party was formed. Their share of the vote in the two-party competitions rose steadily: 25 per cent in 1999, 40 per cent in 2003, 51 per cent in 2007, and a record-breaking 64 per cent in 2011, when Wall captured 85 per cent (49 of 58) of the seats. The oil price crash came in 2015, and in part by hiding its huge debt until after the 2016 election, the Sask Party gained 62 per cent of the vote. It was time for Wall to go, but in 2020 the Sask Party, under new leader Scott Moe, gathered 61 per cent of the vote for his party. Though slightly challenged by far-right separatist-libertarian formations, the Sask Party maintains a firm grip on the province.

Neoliberal resource expansion

It is vital to grasp the historical context of this entrenchment of right-wing politics. 

The “unite the right” electoral strategy has clearly undermined progressive representation. The count of 11 (soon to be 12) MLAs presently in the NDP caucus is far below the 20 seats that the NDP would win under proportional representation. Also, with steady urbanization, rural areas receive disproportionately high representation. These rural areas are where the Sask Party remains strongest.

Furthermore, the Saskatchewan Party has cleverly made itself into the voice of Saskatchewan, a supposedly “have” province. You have to ask: where else could a political party successfully appropriate the name of the province itself? Premier Moe even flirts with dangerous, American-style rhetoric about Saskatchewan being a “nation in a nation.”

It is also no accident that this right-wing entrenchment occurred hand-in-hand with the shift to neoliberal globalization. Deregulation, privatization, free trade, and resulting austerity measures have been aggressively advanced since the 1970s. Certainly, with its free-market form of populism, the Sask Party became the political vehicle of unfettered neoliberal resource capitalism. However, the more difficult fact for some progressives to swallow is that the NDP, starting with Blakeney and continuing with Romanow, also played a significant role in this shift.

The Blakeney NDP embraced a flawed policy when it created joint ventures to expand non-renewable resource extraction. It was erroneously defended as a fiscal strategy to fund the expansion of the welfare state. Not only did it expand oil and gas extraction and potash exports, but by heavily investing in uranium mining, it tied our future wellbeing to the heavily state-subsidized, never-to-be, “nuclear renaissance.” 

The more difficult fact for some progressives to swallow is that the NDP, starting with Blakeney and continuing with Romanow, also played a significant role in this shift.

Ideology blurred vision. Some on the left, including the labour left, embraced the policy because it involved public enterprise. There was little or no regard for the emerging climate crisis, nuclear wastes, nuclear proliferation, Indigenous rights, or the long-term instability of commodity-dependent jobs and revenues.

Revenue from non-renewable resources, which could have been used to transition toward lower-carbon renewable energy, was wasted on uranium infrastructure. Rather than generating revenue to build up the welfare state, there was a pronounced shift to privatization of services.  Further, with larger, plantation-style farms spreading, agribusiness became more toxic and carbon-intensive. 

The Devine PCs were predictably quick to privatize the publicly-subsidized Crown corporations (the Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan, Saskatchewan Mining Development Corporation, and SaskOil) into global players like Potash Corp and Cameco. The Romanow NDP completed the process by selling off the remains of SaskOil to Nexen Oil. By the time the Sask Party was able to keep power in the polarized two-party system, the infrastructure for multinational resource investment was firmly in place. 

It was not long before the dark side of neoliberal, trickle-down economics reared its ugly head. Capital-intensive, boom-bust economics, though highly profitable, left more people indebted, poor, and homeless. The resource boom left northern Saskatchewan with toxic uranium tailings, not more sustainable communities. The heartless elimination of the Saskatchewan Transportation Corporation (STC) in 2019 signified the end of the Cooperative Commonwealth that past generations had built. The dysfunctional health-care system, mismanaged and in shock after the deadly mishandling of the pandemic, could be the next casualty of the Sask Party.  

Transformational politics  

In the systemically-biased electoral system, defending the “good works” of past progressive governments was always doomed. Thinking that the Sask Party would defeat itself, and the NDP would slip back into power as it had after Thatcher or Devine, was, perhaps, even slightly delusional. 

By avoiding or downplaying hard policy issues regarding the climate crisis and appeasing supporters, including in the labour movement, who depended on the short-term “prosperity” of the carbon-intensive economy that the NDP helped build, the party was starting to sound more and more like a junior partner, a marginalized “conscience,” in neoliberal politics. As its message shrunk, so did its electoral base. The NDP was becoming an urban-focused party.

As in the 1930s, today’s global crises – now ecological as well as economic – will require building progressive coalitions. These must embrace decolonization and sustainability. 

There is no political magical bullet. However, continuing to squander the important opposition role of stimulating public understanding of the need for transformational change is simply irresponsible. The hard work has to be done to articulate a coherent, alternative policy vision – from energy to food security, from democratic renewal to inclusivity – that is fully rooted in emerging knowledge about sustainability. Along with vigorously promoting measures to better cope with increasing extreme weather, which will severely test our long-neglected infrastructure, the NDP has to start to champion all measures required to lower Saskatchewan’s extremely high emissions. 

Sask Power should be promoted as a vehicle for the transition to a renewable energy system. The NDP has to stop waffling on oil and gas pipelines and modular nuclear reactors, which are just more ploys to allow the Sask Party to keep putting off the urgently needed energy transition.

As in the 1930s, today’s global crises – now ecological as well as economic – will require building progressive coalitions. These must embrace decolonization and sustainability. 

The NDP opposition must expose the pro-corporate resource system and how public services will continue to erode under Sask Party’s “open for business” neoliberal rule. It has to propose radical reforms that both protect vulnerable people and show the way to a sustainable society. 

Isn’t it time to pursue reforms to the systemically unrepresentative electoral system? Isn’t it time to advance a guaranteed livable income, that would help put Saskatchewan back on the progressive map?

To break the present stifling political mold and credibly advance such reforms, the NDP has to fully distance itself from the inherited neoliberal narrative. It needs to seek out knowledge-based policy and help build new transformational networks.  

The NDP needs to commit itself to doing the hard work required to bring Saskatchewan in line with natural systems, to make a just transition to sustainable local economies, and to honour the pioneers of past progressive victories by nurturing the needed bottom-up coalition-building all over again.

It can be done!

Jim Harding, lifelong activist and retired professor of environmental and justice studies, has written and edited several books. He is presently editing a book by Canada-wide activists entitled The Long Sixties: Critically Exploring the Roots of Transformational Politics in Canada. His small book, Moving Beyond Neoliberalism in Saskatchewan, which contains major sources for this article, is available as a PDF at Harding remains active as a founding director of the Qu’Appelle Valley Environmental Association.

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