BY Jim Harding, Ph. D.
I’ve heard the premier speak at several Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association (SUMA) conventions. He has always claimed that his open-for-business resource policies are a means, not an end, to improve the quality of life (Q of L) of Saskatchewan people.
It’s a good populist line and Wall is a good salesman. And with him re-elected it is fair game to look closely at Q of L indicators since he took power in 2007. We know that resource companies have had record-breaking profits. But do we really know whether the “boom” has enhanced the Q of L of all our neighbours?
The Sask Party restricts itself to narrow economic indicators, stressing our lower unemployment rate. However, even before the April 4, 2016 election there were warning signs. In February the National Post reported “Saskatchewan unemployment rate skyrocketing as population grows faster than job creation”. Statscan reports that unemployment was up to 5.6% from 4.5% a year ago; this translated into 36,000 people who had lost jobs. If you look at seasonally-adjusted March 2016 figures just before the provincial election, our unemployment was actually 6.2%, not that far behind the national at 7.1%. And this is an underestimation, as those who stopped looking for work aren’t counted.
Q of L must include the total picture. Wall has greatly oversimplified things for political purposes: for example, what do we do with the 2014 Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) finding that temporary foreign workers here increased from 3,690 to 9,995 between 2008 and 2012, the fastest rate in Canada. How did that contribute to overall Q of L?
What about Wall’s claim that our youth are now doing so well? Statscan’s 2013 report “What has changed for young people in Canada” found that “Men age 25 to 34 living in oil-producing province’s had mixed results – in 2012 their full-time employment rates were slightly lower than three decades earlier, but their unemployment rate was similar and their wages were higher.” Some youth get high-paying jobs; most don’t, and the precariat keeps growing. Without pay equity legislation, Saskatchewan women get lower pay across the board.
Our post-secondary students know full well that the resource boom hasn’t trickled down to reduce student debt. According to the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) Saskatchewan has the third highest tuitions in Canada, after Ontario and Alberta.
The Sask Party simply avoids hard indicators of Q of L and perhaps the most important is how wealth is distributed; under Wall’s rule the rich continued to get richer. In 2011 the CCPA reported that “Saskatchewan’s distribution of income remains steady since 2006. In 2009 the richest 20% held 43% of total after-tax income and the poorest 20% held 5%”. And this excluded aboriginal people living on reserves.
In September 2013 Prosperity Saskatchewan reported that the “Rich are getting richer, but income gap growing.” In 2014 the CCPA issued “A Living Wage for Regina”. It calculated that a living wage required a minimum wage of $16.46 an hour. This was needed for a two-earner family to have a decent Q of L, which the premier implies he supports.
Meanwhile, going into the 2016 provincial election the minimum wage here was $10.50 an hour; only B.C. was lower at $10.45. Both our sister province’s, Alberta and Manitoba, were at $11 or higher. Saskatchewan’s low minimum wage provides a hard-working, two-income family with only $34,600 a year, nothing near that required to support children with a decent Q of L.
The CCPA report notes “Those left behind during periods of economic prosperity, such as children, aboriginal peoples, single parents, disabled persons and recent immigrants could all benefit from the adoption of a Living Wage”. Could it be that the low voter turnout of 57% was because our neighbours who have been left behind saw no reason to vote?
There are many indicators that the premier ignores and those about family violence are compelling and heart-wrenching. Statscan reports that between 2000 and 2010 there were 58 domestic homicides here, the highest rate of “homicides by intimate partners” in Canada. This wasn’t a priority after the Sask Party took power; as the CBC reported on May 29, 2015, “This past year has been particularly deadly…with three murder-suicides in the past eight months leaving nine people dead”. More interested in the price of oil, the Sask Party has seemed indifferent to this carnage during stressful boom times. There were no inquests or reviews about domestic homicides from 2007 to 2015, yet reviews have occurred in Ontario since 2003 and in our sister provinces as well as B.C., New Brunswick and Quebec. It appears that in this regard the Sask Party has also been “left behind”.
After the recent rash of killings, Saskatchewan’s coroner said, “We have not seen this level of violence in Saskatchewan – I mean deaths – in my history here. It is certainly a wake-up call”.
So, just what might the premier mean by Q of L?
The rate of aboriginal incarceration has continued to spiral here during the resource boom. The federal Correctional Investigator speaks of aboriginal incarceration as “a critical situation”. While only 4% of Canadians are aboriginal, aboriginal inmates make up 25% of federal inmates. Sixty-four percent (64%) in Prince Albert’s Penitentiary and 56% in Saskatoon’s Regional Psychiatric Centre are of aboriginal background. The prairies lead the country “in double bunking, lockdowns, self-harm, inmate homicides and assaults”. That’s certainly a wake-up call about the lack of Q of L.
Saskatchewan’s jails are even worse. The April 5, 2013 Globe and Mail reported that Saskatchewan “has the highest native incarceration rate in the country”. It continued, “Aboriginal people, who represent 11% of Saskatchewan’s population, have made up as much as 80% of the jail population in recent years.” (I know this research well from when I directed Prairie Justice Research at the University of Regina.) Wall clearly wasn’t thinking of aboriginal residents when he claimed we can’t go back to the dark days of the NDP. Poverty Free Saskatchewan reports that one-half of aboriginal children here live in low-income families. For many aboriginal residents things have become much darker under the Sask Party.
The resource boom has benefited some, especially corporations and the richer groups. But it has excluded others. This is predictable and it’s time we stopped fooling ourselves. Prior to the uranium boom in the 1980s, northern Saskatchewan was the second poorest region in Canada. After exporting this toxic substance around the planet for decades, the north still remains the second poorest region in Canada. Meanwhile the north has accumulated millions more tonnes of radioactive tailings and been targeted for a nuclear waste dump.
Premier Wall is espousing an erroneous and deceptive model of quality of life (Q of L). What is happening to our water, to our air, to our natural systems, all matter. What is happening to our social fabric, the growing inequality and the systemic poverty facing aboriginal residents, matters deeply.
While “quality of life” is part of Sask Party rhetoric, it is not part of the reality of many Saskatchewan residents. Could it be that the low voter turnout on April 4, 2016 was because many of our Saskatchewan residents did not feel that they mattered or had any choice in the matter?