Illustration by Don Sparrow
Many a progressive may have breathed a sigh of relief when Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, surely Canada’s most popular (65% support in June) and savvy conservative, put to rest speculation over a rumoured federal leadership bid. If those same people think that makes him merely “Saskatchewan’s problem,” they haven't been paying close enough attention. Since the election of his Saskatchewan Party in 2007, Wall has regularly intervened on national issues in ways that undermine progressive change—from his opposition to pension reform and a carbon tax to stereotyping refugees to misleading Canadians about the federal-provincial equalization program. As introduced here, and described in more detail in this special Monitor feature on Saskatchewan, Premier Wall has also beta-tested a number of conservative policy experiments that may soon launch in other provinces: carbon capture and storage, a largely unregulated fracking industry, a partially privatized social impact bond model for delivering public services, and a war of attrition on labour legislation. Far from being a local issue, Canadian progressives may want to get to know Brad a little better.
Equalization and pipelines
Despite being relatively quiet about equalization reform during most of the Harper years, Wall became a passionate convert once Quebec municipalities voiced their opposition to the proposed Energy East pipeline (which would run through Canada’s second most populous urban area). The premier berated Quebecers for their intransigence: “Maybe we need to have equalization payments start flowing through a pipeline in order to finally get one approved through Central Canada,” he said.
The premier’s dog-whistle to Western alienation and anti-Quebec sentiment had the desired effect—conservative politicians and columnists across the country ridiculed the ungrateful easterners who dared exercise their democratic sovereignty on this controversial pipeline. Wall further derided the federal equalization formula, arguing that “have-not” provinces were receiving “too much money” that could be directed to national infrastructure or tax cuts.
It was all just more ammunition for the already toxic debate on equalization of recent years. Not only were “have-not” provinces accused of sending bills (for their profligate welfare spending) to the wealthy “haves,” but now Wall claimed prioritizing environmental over economic concerns was the “luxury” of other people who are more than happy to live off the resource wealth of other provinces, his in particular.
Such arguments rest on a wilful misrepresentation of how the equalization formula works. No province actually “pays into” the program. Equalization is administered through federal taxes that we all pay equally, and disbursed to provinces that fall below a national per-capita income standard based on revenue from five different tax sources. A smaller province could regularly balance its budget, or even run budgetary surpluses, yet still not be able to generate enough own-source revenue to meet the national standard for a variety of reasons, including a smaller population or tax base (income or corporate), lower average incomes, a downturn in international commodity prices for natural resources, etc. This explains why Prince Edward Island, with a total population of only 146,000, has tended to receive the largest equalization payments (about $1,980 per person per year).
Saskatchewan was once among the “have-nots,” taking equalization payments every year except for 1975-76 and the period 1981-82 to 1985-86. But in 2008-09 the province’s fiscal capacity increased to the point where it no longer qualified. Its transition to “have” status was primarily due to increasing resource (oil and gas) tax and royalty revenues. Should those sources diminish—which they most surely will in the near term given the continued decline in oil prices—Saskatchewan might soon find itself once more a benefactor of equalization.
Wall’s distortion of the equalization formula sets a dangerous precedent for how Canadian federalism should operate. According to his logic, provinces on the receiving end of equalization should effectively cede their sovereignty (on certain decisions at least) to the interests of wealthier provinces or be “cut-off.” As St. Thomas University professor Tony Tremblay explains, such rhetoric amounts to tacit blackmail, as it seeks to popularize “a new landscape of distributive federalism, a landscape that attaches conditions to federal transfers of money.”
Recently, in response to calls from the Ontario government for Saskatchewan to adopt carbon pricing, Premier Wall rejoined, "it's really none of their business in the province of Ontario as to what Saskatchewan does with its policies.” One wonders why Quebec doesn’t merit the same respect for its internal policy decisions as Saskatchewan. Nevertheless, Wall’s foray into the equalization debate has only further muddied the public’s understanding of how federal fiscal transfers work, while conjuring up an ugly anti-Quebec sentiment that ill serves the cause of national unity.
Wall regularly exudes a folksy populist charm, but he is not averse to using divisive wedge politics when it suits his purposes. In the run-up to the 2016 Saskatchewan election he dabbled in the worst kind of fear mongering when he used the Paris terror attacks of November last year as justification to suspend the federal government’s promise to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees.
In a letter to Prime Minister Trudeau, Wall said he was concerned the plan could "undermine the refugee screening process.” While the premier conceded "the overwhelming majority of refugees are fleeing violence and bloodshed and pose no threat to anyone," he cautioned: “If even a small number of individuals who wish to do harm to our country are able to enter Canada as a result of a rushed refugee resettlement process, the results could be devastating.”
In fact, Syrian refugees underwent multiple levels of intense screening—far beyond what any other visitor to Canada would experience. Prospective asylum seekers were registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)—a process that includes biometric identification—and interviewed several times by Canadian visa officers to verify their identity. The names of prospective asylum seekers were also run through various international and Canadian law enforcement databases. Women with children, unaccompanied minors, the elderly, sick and vulnerable were given priority. Young, single men who may have been combatants, or could not account for missing identity documents, did not make the cut.
Despite this unprecedented level of scrutiny, Wall—who either had little knowledge of the actual refugee screening process or feigned ignorance—continued to stoke unsubstantiated fears of ISIS operatives gaining easy access to Canada, an idea deemed fanciful by virtually all security experts and veteran foreign affairs officials.
The sad reality is that Wall’s kneejerk fear mongering not only delayed the settlement process, but also subjected incoming refugees to even more suspicion and mistrust than they might otherwise have experienced. “Our main concern is the unfair association being made between refugees and a security risk—it has a broad impact in terms of how refugees are treated,” lamented Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.
Interprovincial consensus is rare and hard to come by when it happens. But there it was, or so it seemed, at the end of June 2016: the provinces and federal government had agreed to upgrade the Canada Pension Plan so that everyone has adequate savings to ensure a decent retirement. The decision recognized that the preferred retirement solutions to date—voluntary, private savings mechanisms like RRSPs, PRPPs and TFSAs—are wholly inadequate to the task, "a colossal failure,” in the words of former TD chief economist Don Drummond.
Indeed, as CCPA researcher Hugh Mackenzie has explained, these voluntary retirement vehicles are notoriously underutilized, with only one in four eligible tax-filers making contributions and even fewer maxing them out. Moreover, RRSPs are wildly inefficient, being massively subsidized through tax breaks yet charging high management fees and underperforming most public plans.
The failure of voluntary savings plans, coupled with the drastic elimination of employer-supported pension plans, is making more and more Canadians dependent on mandatory public pension programs like the CPP, Old Age Security (OAS) and the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS). Given this reality, voices from all quarters of the economy—and now Canada’s provinces—have called for pension reform as the best means to ensure an adequate level of retirement security for Canadian seniors.
All provinces but one, that is. Premier Wall and his Saskatchewan Party government have opposed modest enhancements to the CPP at each and every turn. They regularly parrot business lobby talking points that misrepresent greater CPP payments as a “job-killing payroll tax” rather than the efficient social safety net they are. Whether in good economic times or bad, the Wall government has argued that businesses are simply too fragile to allow Canadians a modicum of retirement security, repeating the mantra that “the time isn’t right.” Instead, Wall continues to champion the same failed voluntary, pooled savings plans that have only worsened the retirement crisis.
The Saskatchewan government is going ahead with the recently announced CPP reform, but only reluctantly—and with strings attached. Wall said he feared that by sitting it out, “a more aggressive plan like the province of Ontario's would be implemented nationally.” (Ontario dismantled its fledgling ORPP after Prime Minister Trudeau announced the improvements to the CPP.) Faced with inevitability, Wall nonetheless used what power he had to water down the changes, ensuring your enhanced pension will be later in coming and less generous then it might have been.
Clean coal and green oil
Of all the national issues Wall has addressed, he is perhaps most intractable on one of the most important for our collective future: climate change. While not an outright denialist, Wall has flirted with climate change skepticism, famously implying, in the 2016 throne speech, that those who want to reduce Saskatchewan’s reliance on fossil fuels are in thrall to a “misguided dogma that has no basis in reality.”
Wall’s actual position is more considered, aimed at maintaining business as usual. In many ways he exemplifies what Shannon Daub of the CCPA-BC has deemed “the New Denialism,” and what Mike Soron calls “Climate Conservatism.” Wall accepts the climate science; he just doesn’t feel especially burdened by it. As Soron explains, “Unlike those who pretend global warming does not exist, this denial acknowledges the climate emergency as a real problem, yet rejects measures that respond to it in an adequate or timely way.”
Wall’s favourite talking point is that Canada is “only responsible for three per cent of global emissions,” and therefore any attempt to lower them will have much less impact than in more polluting countries. Not only does this position deny our historic responsibility for carbon emissions—we have been spewing carbon a lot longer than less industrialized countries—it also neglects the fact we are one of the largest per capita GHG emitters in the world (the highest, according to the World Resources Institute). Moreover, being a small total emitter relative to the rest of the world does not absolve us. Premier Wall’s logic is akin to the first-grader who, caught red handed doing something they shouldn’t, pleads “the bigger kids are doing it too!”
Saskatchewan has undergone a series of extreme weather events over the past few years, among them record floods, wind, hail and unprecedented wildfires. Despite the increasing intensity and frequency of these events, Wall is loathe to connect them with climate change or admit they are part of a “new normal.” This is despite the revealing fact that annual spending on provincial disaster assistance has jumped from a consistent $3 million and under a dozen years ago to above $100 million in two of the past four years.
As Wall has sought to downplay the effects of climate change and Saskatchewan’s contribution to it, his major role on the issue nationally has again been one of obstruction. Upon taking power in 2007, the Saskatchewan Party government reneged on an electoral commitment to reduce provincial emissions by 32% below 2004 levels by 2020, claiming it would have negative economic impacts. Instead, Wall promised to adopt the diminished federal target of a 20% reduction below 2006 levels by 2020. Even this more modest standard may prove elusive, as the province has seen the greatest rise in GHG emissions since 1990 (66%) and now accounts for 10% of Canada’s total. With just 3% of the population, Saskatchewan is the greatest per capita emitter in the country.
Not content to stymie meaningful emissions reduction targets at home, Wall has been a vociferous opponent of federal attempts to put a national price on carbon, torpedoing the Harper government’s proposed cap-and-trade program and threatening a constitutional challenge to Trudeau’s proposed national carbon tax. The premier’s preferred alternative to pricing carbon is to invest in carbon capture and storage (CCS), a $1.5-billion taxpayer-subsidized fetish of the Saskatchewan government.
The government’s Boundary Dam facility, which captures carbon from coal and then uses it to assist in unconventional oil extraction (what SaskPower, the provincial power utility, calls “clean coal and green oil”), has been plagued by multiple shutdowns, fallen short of its emissions targets, required expensive equipment replacement and repairs, and faces millions of dollars in penalties for failing to deliver the promised amount of carbon to prospective buyers. Despite these challenges it appears the Wall government will double down on carbon capture as a means to continue Saskatchewan’s reliance on coal for the majority of its electricity generation.
SaskPower recently contracted to purchase 118 million tonnes of coal over the next 13 years. This would suggest the government fully intends to convert the province’s other outdated coal-fired generating facilities to CCS, which should worry anyone concerned about reducing GHG emissions. Despite the government’s claims, CCS is not a climate change strategy. As Brian Banks and Mark Bigland-Pritchard explain, the one million tonnes of CO2 captured at the Boundary facility (when it is working) amounts to about 7% of all GHGs created by SaskPower’s coal-fired generation, and less than 2% of the province’s total emissions. Moreover, for each tonne of carbon dioxide used to recover oil, about 2.7 tonnes of carbon dioxide are eventually emitted from combustion of the extra oil recovered.
In reality, Boundary Dam is an exorbitantly expensive oil recovery scheme that will do little to significantly reduce Saskatchewan’s runaway greenhouse gas emissions. Though Wall has announced a SaskPower target of 50% renewable power generation by 2030, there is still no plan to deal with our largest-emitting sector—oil, gas and mining—which is responsible for a third of Saskatchewan’s greenhouse gases.
Finally, beyond Wall’s climate policy failings, we would be remiss not to mention the premier’s public attacks on those who would have the province change course. Wall recently engaged in a Twitter war with author Naomi Klein and Stanford University professor Marc Jacobson over the possibility of decarbonizing Canada’s economy by 2050. After first demonstrating some rather questionable math skills, Wall blithely dismissed the premise of a sustainable economy in 35 years as being “blinded by the pixie dust and gored by the unicorn.”
Similarly, in a recent address to the Calgary Petroleum Club, the premier warned of the “existential threat” facing the oil industry by "an ever-growing matrix of activists," including proponents of the Leap Manifesto and the divestment movement that calls for companies and public institutions to sell off their fossil energy holdings. And in the immediate wake of the recent Husky Oil pipeline spill—250,000 litres of heavy oil and solvent discharged into the North Saskatchewan River, 70,000 Saskatchewan residents left with a compromised water source—Wall’s first instinct was to lament that the disaster might “make it harder to sell new energy infrastructure” in the future.
The crux of the Wall government’s “new denialist” climate strategy is to diminish, deny and demonize: diminish the actual impacts of climate change and Canada’s contribution to it, deny any meaningful climate policy and demonize those that seek to advance an environmentally sustainable future. In this respect, Premier Wall is an industry-sponsored holding action, ensuring the continuation of business as usual at a time when rapid and meaningful change is of the essence.
Here in Saskatchewan, we know the rest of the country rarely pays much attention to us. We hope the contributions to this special issue of the Monitor will convince you there are many good reasons to start. The policy preferences of the Saskatchewan government, and the obstructionism of Premier Wall on the national stage, are clearly not just local issues; they are directly in the way of progressive Canada-wide solutions to climate change, and more effective social programs. Whether it’s regressive right-to-work style labour legislation, environmental regulation by industry self-declaration, or privatizing and profiting from social investment, Saskatchewan has become an incubator for right-wing policies that may well be coming to a province near you in the future.
THE WALL GOVERNMENT: A CHRONOLOGY
November 2007 - Saskatchewan Party wins its first provincial election; Brad Wall becomes premier.
May 2008 - Bill 5, the Public Service Essential Services Act, becomes law, giving employers broad discretion to categorize public sector workers as “essential,” thereby removing their right to strike.
May 2008 - Bill 6, the Trade Union Amendment Act, becomes law. The act ends automatic union certification when more than 50% of workers sign union cards, and relaxes restrictions on employer dissemination of anti-union information during certification drives.
July 2008 - The Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (SFL) launches a constitutional challenge to bills 5 and 6, arguing they violate workers' rights to collective bargaining and to organize new unions
October 2008 - The government institutes its “Saskatchewan First” policy for Crown corporations that forces them to sell out-of-province investments whether these are profitable or not.
April 2009 – The government reneges on its electoral commitment to reduce provincial GHG emissions, opting to adopt the drastically reduced federal government target.
March 2010 - The government sells the province’s 38-year-old educational television channel, the Saskatchewan Communications Network (SCN), for a mere $350,000 to private company Bluepoint. Two years later, Bluepoint sells SCN to Rogers Broadcasting for $3 million, more than 8.5 times what the government received.
August 2010 – The government begins contracting out certain surgeries to privately operated for-profit clinics in Regina and Saskatoon.
March 2011 - The government eliminates the Saskatchewan Film Employment Tax Credit, significantly undermining the provincial industry. A 2012 Saskatchewan Media Production Industry Association (SMPIA) survey found that 40.3% of respondents classify themselves as former SMPIA members who have either found work in another industry or are unemployed and looking for work in other industries.
August 2011 - The government spends $40 million to hire Seattle-based John Black and Associates to institute “lean management” in the province’s health care system. The management theory, based on Toyota’s auto-manufacturing process, is heralded as a means to drastically improve efficiency and cost savings in the health system. A subsequent study by University of Saskatchewan researchers concluded the provincial government has spent $1,511 on lean management for every one dollar saved.
November 2011 – The Saskatchewan Party wins another provincial election.
March 2012 – The government implements its “regulation by declaration” procedures, essentially allowing the petroleum industry to regulate itself.
November 2012 – The Saskatchewan government privatizes Information Services Corporation (ISC), the Crown responsible for registration of land titles, corporate registration and vital statistics.
February 2013 – The government announces that all future liquor stores in the province will be privately owned and operated.
October 2013 – The government announces its intention to use a public-private-partnership (P3) model for the construction of nine new elementary schools in the province.
December 2013 – The government privatizes the majority of the province’s hospital and health centre laundry service to Alberta-based K-Bro Linen Systems.
January 2015 – The Supreme Court of Canada strikes down the Public Service Essential Services Act. In a 5-2 ruling, the Court finds unionized Canadian workers have a constitutionally guaranteed right to strike.
August 2015 – The government privatizes food services at provincial correctional institutions. Initially, food quality is so poor inmates refuse meals in protest.
November 2015 – The government announces plans to privatize 40 publicly owned liquor stores and license 12 new private stores in the province. Premier Wall sends a letter to Prime Minister Trudeau asking the federal government to redouble security checks on incoming Syrian refugees in the wake of the Paris attacks that month.
March 2016 – The government passes legislation allowing patients to pay out of pocket for private, for-profit MRI scans.
April 2016 – The Saskatchewan Party wins its third provincial election. In June, Premier Wall is reported to have the support of 65% of the population.
Simon Enoch is Director of the Saskatchewan Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Follow him on Twitter @Simon_Enoch.
This article was published in the September/October 2016 issue of The Monitor. Click here for more or to download the whole issue.