Conservatism has changed Saskatchewan

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New left analysis needed in wake of election results

Monday’s provincial election saw the Sask Party secure their fourth straight mandate, and the first under party leader Scott Moe. For NDP supporters, leftists, and people against austerity, the win was a blow although not unexpected. How can a government whose policies have contributed to some of the highest rates of suicide, child poverty, domestic violence and domestic murder, and incarceration in the country have won another majority?

The answer is complicated, and it’s rooted in a mixture of social, economic, and historical concerns. As a born-and-bred Saskatchewanian, I have a few thoughts on what brought us to where we are today.

Some people will point to racism as the single biggest factor in Saskatchewan residents choosing the Sask Party (the province is 81 per cent white). They aren’t wrong in noting racism as a factor. Saskatchewan is a settler state/resource extraction colony. The province was built on the exclusion and oppression of Indigenous Plains people, and up until the Second World War, there was a strict racial hierarchy even among people we now define as “white.” So racism is neither minor nor new. The Sask Party’s approach to criminal justice, and in particular their support of “rural crime laws” (laws that disproportionately target Indigenous people for “trespassing”), puts them in alignment with bigots, not to mention their approach to Indigenous activism initiatives like the Justice for Stolen Children camp and Tristen Durocher’s fast.

However, racism isn’t the only factor. Reducing Saskatchewan residents to two-dimensional caricatures who blindly make electoral decisions based solely on racial prejudice is not only incorrect, but it isn’t useful. If we want to understand why the people of this province vote the way they do, and why Saskatchewan has become so conservative – analysis that will be necessary if things are ever to actually change – then we need to dig a little deeper.

Saskatchewan is, and always has been, the heart and soul of Canada’s working class. It is the cradle of leftism in the country. In the early years of the province, support for unions and unionism was high, and workers here made gains that simply weren’t seen elsewhere in Canada. Support and solidarity with the poor and working classes existed not just in the union halls, but at city hall and in the Legislature. At other times in the province, working class people have literally been shot to death in the streets by RCMP as they fought for their rights in clashes between labour and capital. For all of the very real criticisms of Saskatchewan and its culture – it was a KKK stronghold for years and racism is deeply embedded in the politics of both the right and the left – it has also long been home to a vibrant and class-conscious community of working people. People with cooperative, pro-social values that don’t always seem to be reflected in the Saskatchewan of today.

This province was home to the first democratic socialist government in North America, Tommy Douglas’ CCF, first elected in 1944. Douglas is often called “the father of Medicare.” But Douglas wasn’t Moses (or Lenin) urging the people of Saskatchewan, and eventually Canada, into a cooperative future that they could not have envisioned for themselves. Medicare came from below. It came from the ideas and ideals of working class people who understood that if they were going to survive and thrive on the Prairies, they had to do it together. There’s a reason that this rural, sparsely populated province became the home of the first elected socialist party in North America, and it was because of the people, who had a well-developed class consciousness and a deep and profound respect for, and understanding of, community. 

So what happened? Many things. The racism that is embedded in Saskatchewan’s culture means that white working class people have often acted against the interests of the working class as a whole in favour of marginalizing and oppressing Black, Brown, and Indigenous people. For a robust and competitive left to re-emerge as real contenders for power in the province, white leftists will need to reckon with the anti-Indigenous, anti-Black, and anti-immigrant sentiments that exist in their movement. They will need to address their white supremacist roots. They must express genuine remorse for the way the left has participated in upholding settler colonialism and take concrete and enduring steps to eliminate it.

There are also economic issues at play. In the 1980s, Grant Devine introduced neoliberalism and social conservatism to the province after he took over from Allan Blakeney’s NDP. Blakeney was arguably the last socialist leader of the NDP. He was followed by Roy Romanow and Lorne Calvert, who embraced austerity, and in doing so, undermined the NDP’s working class politics. A combination of Devine-era social conservatism and the increasing urbanization of Saskatchewan shifted the cooperative, community-centred make-up of Saskatchewan to a different model, one that emphasized individualism and the nuclear family. This broke down many of the social bonds that had been present for the greater part of Saskatchewan’s history, the bonds of community that allowed this province to become home to some of the most progressive, leftist politics and policies in North America. 

The shift towards neoliberalism and austerity broke down the social safety net that so many Saskatchewan residents had fought and worked for. People generally don’t accept the erosion (or annihilation) of the social safety net without a fight, and governments use rhetoric in order to make the losses go down easier. Saskatchewan residents have been listening to austerity rhetoric for nearly forty years. For many of us, it’s the only policy we’ve ever known. Any party trying to win over the Sask Party needs to take these four decades of conditioning into account. It can’t be assumed that people understand why a robust social safety net – even when it comes with a hefty price tag – is good for the economy. Governments have invested heavily in convincing people that deficits are monstrous threats to the existence of the province and must be avoided, even if that means slashing social programs. It needs to be explained how and why that isn’t so. Social infrastructure must be rebuilt. The corporatization of Saskatchewan’s co-ops must be challenged. None of this can be done if people on the left assume that Sask Party voters are all stupid and greedy and cruel. The left faces the dual challenge of confronting who we are as a province while believing that we can be better.

People on the left should look at Western alienation movements like the Buffalo Party as a warped response to the loss of social bonds that once helped Saskatchewan people thrive in spite of a lack of attention from Ottawa. While these movements have many abhorrent stances that can be given no quarter, it should be recognized that they are tapping into a real sense of alienation and fear. There’s no reason that that sense needs to be met by pro-pipeline xenophobes. The left can and should be looking to address the real concerns of the group’s supporters while also condemning the racist, climate-denying rhetoric that also accompanies it. What can be done to make Saskatchewan more resistant to economic downturns? How can people who have made their living off oil and gas transition to other fulfilling, well-paying work? These are questions that will need to be addressed satisfactorily by the left while still confronting the racism that is often concealed behind the guise of “economic anxiety.”

Everything good that has ever come to this province has come from the grassroots. It has come from people in the community who looked at the way things were being done and said, “we can do better, together.” That cooperative spirit still exists. We need to look at each other with generosity, not mistrust and loathing. There is much work to be done, but it can be done.  

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