The "Alberta Road"

Next door offers a cautionary lesson for Saskatchewan
June 1, 2011

In his 2010 Throne Speech, Premier Brad Wall talked of the “new road” Saskatchewan has taken -- a road that, in his opinion, would delivered unmatched prosperity. This “new road,” however, marked as it is by the signposts of neoliberal ideology, is perhaps better described as the “Alberta road,” as the province wrestles with many of the same contradictions that have plagued Alberta’s resource-driven boom of the past decade.

Saskatchewan has weathered the global recession rather well, due to rising commodity prices and its vast resource wealth in oil, potash and uranium. Indeed, most mainstream forecasters see Saskatchewan leading the way in economic growth for the country over the next year. Commodity prices appear to be on the rise, particularly oil, food, and potash, so the province’s resource boom can be expected to continue.

Saskatchewan’s main challenge in the coming years is presumed to be its ability to manage economic growth so as to ensure that the more vulnerable segments of society do not get left behind. But the province’s prosperity has not been universally shared. Despite posting record economic growth and higher employment numbers than the rest of the country, Saskatchewan is the home of some rather dismal social indicators:

• The richest in the province are getting richer while the rest of its people are either stagnating or falling further behind. Saskatchewan currently has the third greatest after-tax income inequality in the country.

• According to the University of Regina’s Social Policy Research Unit, there are currently 115,000 people living below the poverty line in Saskatchewan – about 12% of the population. Aboriginal people fare far worse, with 37% living in poverty.

• Saskatchewan also shares the dubious distinction with British Columbia of having the worst early childhood poverty rate in the country, with close to 20% of children under six years of age living in poverty.

• It’s also no secret that the province has an acute affordable housing crisis, with low vacancy rates and lack of regulation allowing rents to skyrocket by as much as 75% percent in some regions.

Add to this the rising cost of basic necessities such as food, gasoline, heating, and other utilities, and the fact that wage increases have not kept up with costs, and it becomes apparent that the most vulnerable in the province are feeling the effects of a tightening economic noose.

It is therefore important that future economic growth and expansion be managed in a sustainable and equitable fashion. Fortunately, there is a vivid example of the dire consequences of uncontrolled and unplanned growth right next door in Alberta. Unfortunately, Saskatchewan seems to be following the “Alberta road” all too closely.

Some of the problems that have plagued Alberta as the result of its economic boom include a large infrastructure deficit as growth has outpaced the ability or willingness of the Alberta government to make the necessary investments in public transportation, hospitals, schools, and water and sewage systems. All of these are currently under tremendous strain in Alberta due to the reluctance of its Conservative government to control and plan for economic expansion.

Alberta’s environmental deficit is perhaps the best-known consequence of the rapid and practically unregulated expansion of the oil and gas industry in the province – particularly the tar sands. Government appetite for resource revenues has rendered Alberta’s environmental laws all but toothless as project after project gets approved with little if any regard for the environmental impact. Indeed, the government relies so much on resource royalties that it is extremely reluctant to regulate industry for fear the oil companies will stop investing.

Early signs of this trend are already evident in Saskatchewan, whose current government is loath even to consider a royalty hike on potash for fear it will impede the expansion of that industry.

With Saskatchewan’s own tar sands slated for development in the near future, the Wall government should be careful not to take the “Alberta road, but instead put the public interest ahead of the interests of the oil industry. It should also take care to avoid the “civil society” deficit that has been incurred in Alberta as a result of its economic boom.

The non-profit sector in Alberta has been required to plug enormous gaps in public programs and services that have been gutted by the Alberta Conservatives. Add to this the increasing need for these programs and services due to the massive influx of new immigrants and workers to the province, coupled with unstable and inadequate funding to deliver these services, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Many of the stresses that Alberta’s non-profit community feels are also evident in Saskatchewan, where civil society groups are already having difficulty attracting and keeping talented leaders. Given that Saskatchewan has one of the highest citizen-to-NPO densities in the country, it would be tragic to allow its non-profit sector to deteriorate to the extent that has occurred in Alberta.

In short, the people of Saskatchewan should look next door to see what the future might hold if their province continues to believe that the “Alberta road” of unregulated economic growth is the sole pathway to prosperity. With such a compelling example of what not to do, they cannot plead ignorance of the economic, social, and environmental consequences should they choose to take the same road.


(Simon Enoch is Director of the CCPA’s Saskatchewan Office.)