Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Saskatchewan, lying between the forty-ninth and sixtieth parallels, is located on the northern edge of the Great Plains. While Saskatchewan extends over 251,700 square miles, only part of this region falls within the Great Plains. Geographically, the province is divided into two equal parts: the southern part belongs to the Great Plains, while the northern part lies in the Canadian Shield. Saskatchewan's southern neighbors are the states of Montana and North Dakota. To its west lies the province of Alberta and to the east, the province of Manitoba. At the sixtieth parallel, Saskatchewan ends and the Northwest Territories begins.

The province of Saskatchewan came into being on September 1, 1905. The province's name, which was originally used as a district of the Northwest Territories, is based on the Cree word for swift-flowing water, or Kis-is-ska-tche-wan. Saskatchewan's agriculture has dominated its economy and defined its political culture. The dry climate provides a challenge to farmers, who mostly grow wheat. Perhaps because of the dry climate and resulting crop failures, creating periodic economic crises, the people of Saskatchewan have sometimes rejected the two leading parties, the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives, and sought to create their own parties. The Liberal Party dominated Saskatchewan's politics until 1944, with only a short interlude (1929–34) of Conservative rule. In 1944, under the leadership of T. C. Douglas, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) won the provincial election, forming the first social democratic government in Canada. The ccf governed until 1964. In 1961 the ccf became the New Democratic Party, which subsequently formed the governments in Saskatchewan from 1971 to 1982 and from 1991 to 1999. Intervening governments were formed by the Liberal Party from 1964 to 1971 and by the Progressive Conservative Party (after a long period of quiescence) from 1982 to 1991. In 1995 the Saskatchewan Party replaced the Progressive Conservative Party.

In the early part of the twentieth century, most of the population was rural. Today, most of the population is urban. While the shift of population from rural areas to urban ones has eroded the political power of rural Saskatchewan, agricultural concerns, ranging from inadequate rainfall to low prices, can still dominate the political agenda. However, rural Saskatchewan no longer holds the political reins in Saskatchewan.

Like other Canadian provinces, the government of Saskatchewan is modeled after the British parliamentary system. It has an elected legislative assembly, a party system, and a premier and cabinet. The premier is the head of the executive council or cabinet. Each member of the cabinet is a minister with assigned specific powers and responsibilities. For the government to pass a bill, the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly must approve the bill by a simple majority vote. The largest opposition party forms the Official Opposition. In 1997 there were fifty-eight elected members of the legislative assembly. The largest party, the New Democratic Party, had forty seats; the Saskatchewan Party had nine seats; the Liberal Party had five seats; one member sat as independent; and three seats were vacant. Premier Roy Romanow was the leader of the New Democratic government. Because of Canada's past colonial status, each province has a lieutenant governor who originally represented the British Crown but who now performs ceremonial functions. In 1999 Jack Wiebe was the lieutenant governor of Saskatchewan.

Canada is a federal state with political powers divided between the federal and provincial governments. The powers held by the provincial government are named in the Canadian Constitution of 1982, which superseded the British North America Act of 1867. Saskatchewan is responsible for its cultural and educational institutions, highways, medical services, natural resources, and social services. To meet these obligations, the Saskatchewan government has the power to tax its citizens and businesses and to receive fees (royalties) from firms exploiting its natural resources. Saskatchewan has never been represented in large numbers in Ottawa, but the province has produced important national political leaders, such as John Diefenbaker, who was prime minister from 1957 to 1963, and "Jimmy" Gardiner, who was minister of agriculture from 1935 to 1957.

While the duration of a government is five years, most call for a new election in the fourth year, especially if conditions for winning the next election appear favorable. But elections in Saskatchewan are never a sure thing. Past experience shows that few governments have held office for more than ten years, and rarely has the winning party garnered more than 50 percent of the votes. The volatility of the Saskatchewan voter is less a swing from the left to the right than a reaction to "good" government. No matter what the ideology of the party in power, eventually the government loses favor with the electorate.

Robert M. Bone University of Saskatchewan

Bone, Robert M. The Regional Geography of Canada: A Country of Regions. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Dyck, Rand. Provincial Politics in Canada. Scarborough, Ontario: Prentice-Hall, 1991.

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