No. 1,000,000 Here & There

Commentary, Immigration, Frontier Centre

The wheat sheaf plaque signifying Saskatchewan’s millionth resident proudly sits on a bookshelf 600 kilometres east of Regina in Stephen and Lori Dennis’s suburban Winnipeg home. It left Saskatchewan two full decades ago. Actually, the plaque resided in this province for less than three years. Stephen Dennis — who received Saskatchewan’s millionth-person distinction with his wife Lori back in 1983 — lives in Winnipeg where he runs a prosperous car dealership and, to add insult to injury, admits to cheering for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. “I knew you were going to ask me that,” the affable Manitoban chuckles, diplomatically adding that there is no more enjoyable venue to watch a football game than Taylor Field. When Stephen and Lori Dennis first moved to Regina 23 years ago so that Stephen could take a sales job with Percival Ford Lincoln, little did they know they would become a rather important Saskatchewan political symbol. Attractive and young, the Dennises — randomly chosen for the distinction — seemed the perfect poster couple for then-Premier Grant Devine’s 1982 election slogans of “there’s so much more we can be” and “bring home the Devine, himself, who presented the plaque to the Dennises on Dec. 15, 1983 — the day Saskatchewan, unofficially, cracked the magic millionpeople barrier.

The years from 1974 to 1987 were Saskatchewan’s longest period of sustained growth in the post-Depression era — a 124,000-person increase that saw the province’s population peak at an alltime high of 1,031,922 people in April 1987. But as so often happens in a province whose economy is susceptible to the whims of resource and agricultural markets, one step forward was followed by one step back. Saskatchewan’s population slid to 1,000,910 people by October 1991.

And as is also inevitable in this province, the ebb and flow of the population was followed by political squabbling over whose philosophy is best suited to sustain and grow the province’s population. In October 1991, a soon-to-be elected New Democratic Party was running morose election ads of a bus pulling up to a farmyard to take away a young daughter to Alberta — presumably, a victim of Progressive Conservative government mismanagement.

By then, the Dennises had already departed the province, returning to Winnipeg in 1986.

Ironic though it may that Saskatchewan’s millionth person moved away 20 years ago, Stephen Dennis cautioned against connecting his decision to Saskatchewan’s political rhetoric of the day. While Saskatchewan governments may have risen and fallen over the political symbols, myths and rhetoric associated with the exodus of the province’s children, the Dennises left for the far more mundane reason of a better job.

“The fact that I moved away from Saskatchewan (in 1986) wasn’t part of any exodus due to economics,” Dennis explained. In fact, Dennis said Regina had every bit as much to offer as Winnipeg and he and Lori might still be living at 835 Worobetz Cres., were it not for family ties in Manitoba, their cottage back in Northern Ontario and a better position at a dealership back home in Winnipeg.

But while Saskatchewan’s millionth residents insist they never got caught up in the never-ending political debate on population, other people admit they have.

One such person is David Robert Loblaw.

You may recognize the name Bob Loblaw from his carefree satirical bid as a university student in 1982 to become Regina’s mayor. By September 1991, however, Bob Loblaw had become frustrated with Saskatchewan’s economic downturn and penned an angry letter to the editor of the Leader-Post from his new home in Edmonton.

“When we told our parents we were moving from Saskatchewan we were expecting the usual parents response: ‘Are you sure this is the right decision?’ ’’ Loblaw wrote in this letter 15 years ago. “But we were surprised by their actual responses: ‘Good idea’; ‘Things can’t be any worst than they are here’, and; ‘This is the time to leave — that’s for sure.’ ”

Loblaw concluded the letter by saying that it was a wonder he never left sooner, given the performance of the Devine government. “The pessimism that he (Devine) created is so deep it will take years to dissolve,” he wrote.

Flash forward to today and Saskatchewan’s population is 985,386 — the fewest people in this province since the Devine government came to power in April 1982. Yet an older, wiser and far more sanguine Bob Loblaw said he and his wife now believe it’s the perfect time to come home.

“I don’t think it’s the current government or anything,” Loblaw said, adding he’s never been partisan and his letter was written out of pure frustration. “It just feels more optimistic.”

Although he said he and his wife have never regretted their decision to “become economic refugees” and move to Edmonton, where he worked as a computer analyst for the federal government until 2000 when he went to work in his wife’s restaurant as a bartender, Loblaw does now wonder about why he became so caught up by his supposed frustration of the day.

“Why did we come here (to Edmonton)?” he rhetorically asked.

“Most of my friends are still in Regina. They are doing very well. Their houses are paid off.”

Frankly, many of the young Albertans working at his wife’s restaurant can’t afford a car because of the province’s high auto insurance and have virtually no hope of one day owning their own house, Loblaw said.

“While Albertans seem overly optimistic, Saskatchewan people remain overly pessimistic,” he said. “It’s just getting rid of the emotions and the stereotypes we have in our own heads … "I don’t know if I have an answer for it, because it’s just an illusion.”

Whether an illusion or not, there’s little doubt that it’s been a feeling Saskatchewan people have held — one that can be traced back to our political roots.

In Dale Eisler’s book False Expectations: Politics and the Pursuit of the Saskatchewan Myth, the former Leader-Post political columnist argued that economic, climatic and geographic realities of Saskatchewan may never have allowed this province to sustain much more than a million people. Nevertheless, that hasn’t stopped politicians from “reconstituting” the myth of Saskatchewan’s promise to best suit their political agendas.

“Saskatchewan’s identity has been, in part, the product of myth,” Eisler wrote.

Perhaps nowhere are these symbols, myths and rhetoric more evident than in the long-standing political debate over whether Tommy Douglas’s Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) government drove out the oil companies and the potential for population growth or whether Saskatchewan has simply been handicapped by sitting next to Alberta’s massive energy wealth.

There is an interesting case for both.

It wasn’t long after Saskatchewan’s first commercial oil field came into production near Lloydminster in 1945 that major players in the industry became “spooked by talk of CCF expropriation and began to shut down their operations and move their rigs across the border,” according to historian Bill Waiser in his book, Saskatchewan: A New History. “The exodus became a stampede in 1947 with news of the Leduc gusher.”

Some insist to this day that this is precisely why the oil towers are in Calgary and not Regina. Others counter that Alberta’s wealth and growth have simply come from its ground. Alberta still has 1.1 billion barrels of light crude compared with 585 million barrels in Saskatchewan, according to the province’s Industry and Resources Department. Alberta has 40 trillion cubic metres of natural gas reserves compared with 2.8 billion cubic metres in Saskatchewan. And while Saskatchewan does have slightly more heavy oil reserves (653 million barrels here compared with 442 million barrels in Alberta), it’s Alberta’s 174 billion barrels of oilsands bitumen around Fort McMurray that’s quickly becoming the newest version of this old political debate. By comparison, Saskatchewan has 250 million barrels of less-accessible reserves, according to the province’s Economic Development Department. The argument is the unexplored oilsands potential is much, much more but that the industry doesn’t even explore here because of the social democratic government.

Dale Botting, director of the Saskatchewan Trade Export Partnership (STEP), said the province’s historical reliance on government programs and agencies like the rail freight subsidies or the Canadian Wheat Board may have made Saskatchewan more susceptible to the political debate and negativity that accompanies it.

But Botting — who noted he also was once a “merchant of angst” during his days as Saskatchewan director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) — said that “culture of negativity” may be changing.

“The quick answer is that we’re a lot less (negative) than we used to be,” said Botting, who cites everything from deregulation to the free trade agreements to the impact of the Internet as to why people in Saskatchewan are increasingly less influenced by the old political debates. “We’re increasingly less politically vulnerable. That’s the interesting transition Saskatchewan is in now.”

If Saskatchewan is to grow well past a million people, many argue the province will have to get past the old symbols, myths and rhetoric of the political debate and focus on a long-term vision that extends beyond the usual four-year election cycle. One of them is former NDP deputy premier Dwain Lingenfelter, who, ironically, contributed more than his share to the rhetorical discourse during his 22-year political career. “If you were building Saskatchewan today, could you think of a better place to put it than next to the world’s hottest economy (Alberta) and the world’s biggest market (the U.S.)?” asked Lingenfelter, now a vice-president of Nexen Inc. in Calgary. Flatten the mountains and take out 85 per cent of the oil and Alberta would be no different than Saskatchewan, Manitoba or North Dakota, Lingenfelter said. “I think we make a wrong assumption when we think Saskatchewan people don’t want this kind of excitement and growth.” But while there’s always an “opportunity to make a fundamental change” in Saskatchewan’s population base, it will “likely require a grand scheme” from the province’s political leadership.

Twice in the past year, Lingenfelter has given major speeches in this province promoting the idea of building nuclear reactors to meet the energy needs of the Fort McMurray oilsands and the American market. The notion has drawn fire from his former NDP colleagues.

However, Lingenfelter said travelling the world on behalf of Nexen to secure oil deals these past six years has taught him that bold initiatives can come from either left-wing or right-wing governments. Saskatchewan people really don’t need to look any further than Saskatchewan’s own history to understand this.

“Really, would Tommy Douglas have been able to bring rural electrification to the province without a vision?” Lingenfelter asked.

Wayne Clifton, president of Clifton Associates Ltd., agreed that it may be as simple as returning to the outlook of the 1950s and 1960s when Saskatchewan politicians emphasized building a physical infrastructure rather than just maintaining a social infrastructure.

One of the few people who has literally stood on all four corners of this province and someone who has had a hand in virtually every major Saskatchewan economic initiative of the last 30 years, Clifton said there still is a prevailing notion that nothing can happen in Saskatchewan unless the government is onside.

But Clifton — who could operate his firm anywhere but chooses to locate it on “the best place on Earth” — argued that politicians will deliver something other than rhetoric if people demand it.

“Douglas had a vision that was appropriate for the times,” Clifton said. “But he also had a receptive population.”

Stressing you can’t drive by looking in the rear-view mirror, Clifton said he believes Saskatchewan is actually well positioned to begin to grow again and welcomes a new millionth resident.

“That’s the amazing thing in Saskatchewan,” Clifton said. “After 100 years, we’re starting with a blank sheet.”