Saskatchewan’s proud history of political activism is on the verge of dying
By Stephen LaRose
Tuesday April 26
Big time negotiators, false healers and women haters,
Masters of the bluff and masters of the proposition
But the enemy I see wears a cloak of decency,
All non-believers and men stealers talkin' in the name of religion
And there's a slow, slow train comin' up around the bend.
- Bob Dylan, “Slow Train Comin’”
For the first 100 years of its democratic existence — first as part of the North-West Territories, and after 1905 as a confederated province in Canada — Saskatchewan produced a number of industrious, larger-than-life political leaders whose impact on the national stage was far greater than the prairie political base from whence they emerged.
Regardless of their political stripe, men like Frederick Haultain, Nicholas Flood Davin, Walter Scott, Jimmy Gardiner, Tommy Douglas and John Diefenbaker, were blessed with the ability to unite reason and passion and earn the respect of the public, not just in their home province, but across large portions of the country.
That was then.
Now, with Canada on the cusp of its fourth election in seven years, 13 of Saskatchewan’s 14 federal ridings are held, for the most part, by interchangeable, anonymous Conservative gorms who are useless except as props for Stephen Harper in Parliament. Sorry, I mis-spoke. They exhale carbon dioxide, which the tulips on Parliament Hill need for photosynthesis.
But while those MPs, as a whole, are remarkable only for their unremarkability, there are two who do admittedly stand out — unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons. If you examine their parliamentary record, Maurice Vellacott (Saskatoon Wanuskewin) and Brad Trost (Saskatoon Humboldt) are known more for their hostility to gay rights, abortion and the Canadian Human Rights Commission than they are for any actual positive contribution to Parliament or their constituents’ well-being.
Which begs the question — where do political hacks like Trost and Vellacott come from, and who votes for them?
First of all, Saskatchewan has a long history of politicians taking strong, even intrusive, stands on social issues. If the state was permitted to play a large role in the economy — as the CCF was by the people of Saskatchewan following the Great Depression — then it’s not too much of a stretch to accept that the state also has a role to play in protecting the “greater good” of society.
At the time, many of the communities that are at the forefront of hotbutton debates in our society today like women, aboriginal people, queers, visible minorities and the disabled were largely invisible. Progressive social measures that were advanced by the CCF were largely seen as being in the common good and thus were widely supported.
In the counterculture revolution of the 1960s, that monolithic social identity began to fragment as marginalized communities began to advocate for their interests and demand equality. Suddenly, achieving consensus on complex social issues was no longer simple, or even possible.
The difficulty this caused the CCF/NDP is well-documented. In the late ‘60s, the party was sharply divided between radical Waffle and more moderate factions. A decade later, in the constitutional wrangling that led up the signing of the Constitution Act in 1982, the Saskatchewan government under the late Allan Blakeney joined with the Alberta Tories under Peter Lougheed to press for the inclusion of a “notwithstanding clause” to ensure the Charter of Rights being advanced by Prime Minister Trudeau wouldn’t infringe unduly on the right of provinces to maintain “community standards”.
At the same time, the Saskatchewan government, through SaskTel, was embroiled in a fight with the Canadian Radio and Television Telecommunications Commission over the installation of cable TV in the province. The hold-up was that the government wanted to be able to enforce “community standards” – such as blocking beer commercials (illegal on Saskatchewan television until 1984) and sexually explicit movies. Social conservatives had a home in that NDP.
But in the ’90s, the NDP lost much of its religion — or, at least, its fundamentalist side. Both federally and provincially, the party saw “the good fight” as protecting the rights of people on the margins as much as defending the rights of Canadians in general. There were a lot of people within the NDP and Liberal parties, and even Red Tories in the Progressive Conservative Party, who became very uncomfortable with the activism that was challenging the WASPish society they’d cocooned in. They sought a different political home, which more fundamentalist political parties — hello there, Reform Party of Canada — were only too happy to provide.
So, ranting about the evils of abortion, gay rights, and other things is a good way to ramp up the 35 per cent of the population you rely on as your support base. And unless you face a massive catastrophe — like the economic and environmental meltdown that was the Dirty Thirties — your base will stick with you, no matter what. But you also have to know when and where to dial it down. If Vellacott and Trost employed the same inflammatory rhetoric that they have on abortion and gay rights with, say aboriginal people, they`d end up in the same place as Jim Pankiw.
But in the end, politicians like Vellacott and Trost set up strawman arguments against groups that are really easy to pick on because when a real debate comes, they’re pretty much in over their head. Take what happened last year when one of the world’s largest mining companies, BHP Billiton, sought to buy the Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan, one of Saskatchewan’s largest mining companies.
For the first time, Saskatchewan’s business community, and the political representatives that they sent to Ottawa (and Regina), had to confront a side of capitalism that only their enemies said existed — a predatory company that didn’t have the best interest of their community at heart. Had BHP Billiton been permitted to go ahead with its hostile takeover, Saskatchewan would become little more than customers in the company store. So it was no wonder that opposition NDP on the provincial level, and federally, Regina Wascana Liberal MP Ralph Goodale, led the charge against the proposed deal.
Even the Sask Party government led by Premier Brad Wall undertook a campaign against the takeover. The loss of $2 billion a year in tax revenue for the Saskatchewan government, not to mention a whole host of other ways that BHP Billiton could bend the Saskatchewan economy to its will, as it has done elsewhere in the world, would have crippled the province.
And where were the 13 Conservative MPs from Saskatchewan? They said nothing until Stephen Harper decided the issue for them. It didn’t matter what would happen to Saskatchewan — it was as if the welfare of the people they were elected to represent was of no consequence to them.
And that`s just it. Vellacott and Trost in particular, and the Saskatchewan federal Conservative caucus in general, don`t care about the community of peoples they represent. A “community” is comprised of different people, from different backgrounds, working to achieve a common goal for the betterment for all. That definition goes against the way the Conservative Party of Canada in general — and Saskatoon`s non-dynamic duo in particular — conduct themselves: all potential enemies must be neutralized and eliminated, first electorally, and then from society for the creation of a monochromatic world which they are destined to rule.
The slow train is whistling, as Vellacott and Trost pack the Pullmans full of the bigots, the misinformed, and the fearful, forcing Saskatchewan to ride the rails towards electoral irrelevance.