A surprising change

For many years the economies of Saskatchewan and Newfoundland lagged badly behind the other regions of Canada. Newfoundland heretofore was dependent almost entirely on the fishing industry. Now it has gained significantly from the development of its offshore oil resources, so it has become a “have” province. What is particularly surprising is the change in Saskatchewan.

Historically, before the First World War, that province was settled by European farmers. They were lured by free land and by the mistaken belief that the temperature generally was mild. In 1931, Saskatchewan was the third most populous province, ranking only after Quebec and Ontario.

Throughout most of the post-1945 years Saskatchewan’s economy was depressed and, consequently, the population declined. The more ambitious people moved to Alberta or British Columbia in search of better opportunities.

Then in the early 1960s Saskatchewan experienced a revival based primarily on the huge wheat sales negotiated by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. To some extent that was helped by his Road to Resources program, part of his Vision of the North. That plan was much maligned, although it had its successes. Subsequently, Saskatchewan again experienced hard times as grain prices fell; then the province was almost the forgotten orphan of the nation.

Now things have improved as the resource sector experienced a tremendous revival. Saskatchewan overall has the highest growth rate of any Canadian province, 11.4 per cent over the past year. Newfoundland’s expansion of 13.4 per cent slightly exceeded that, but there the rate of growth has slowed from 19.1 per cent, while Saskatchewan’s advance is accelerating. It is noteworthy that Alberta’s economy expanded by a relatively slower pace, 8.3 per cent.

Unlike Alberta or Newfoundland, Saskatchewan’s economy is diversified, and not vulnerable to the likely possibility of significant oil price declines. Saskatchewan can boast, not just of wheat crops, but also a rich mixture of other farm crops as well as potash, uranium, oil, and natural gas, all of which are enjoying record prices. Potash Corp., a fertilizer company based in Saskatchewan, has become one of the biggest companies on the Toronto Stock Exchange by market capitalization.

The dimensions of the Saskatchewan boom are mind-boggling. For instance, according to the latest data the price of an average two-storey house increased by about 50 per cent last year, while the nurses’ union recently rejected a 35 per cent raise over four years. Farmers continue to struggle to keep up with the world-wide demand for grains, even though wheat prices have doubled over the past year. Potash production cannot meet current demand; that is likely to expand enormously over the coming decade as less-developed lands lift agricultural acreage.

In its efforts to diversify Saskatchewan is building more infrastructure and funding additional research and development activities. The government is planning a clean-coal power plant in the southern part of the province, while oil exploration is continuing. Biofuels now link grain and energy prices.

The broad spread of Saskatchewan’s boom appears to be solidly based and long-lasting. “Go west, young man” was the recommendation of the 19th century newspaper editor, Horace Greeley. Nowadays enterprising youngsters very well could follow that advice and move to Saskatchewan.


Bruce Whitestone