Saskatchewan·Opinion

What's behind the Sask. Party's enduring appeal in rural Saskatchewan?

To understand the shift that has moved all political parties to the right in this province, we need to look at the difficult political issues that get minimal attention from any campaigning party.
'We feel a lift in our settler hearts when we look out upon the dazzling yellow, calendar-ready fields of mid-July,' Trevor Herriot says. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

This is an opinion piece by Trevor Herriot, a Regina-based writer and naturalist.

For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.


With the provincial election behind us, those who were hoping for a different result will once again find themselves trying to answer a vexing question: how do we account for the Saskatchewan Party's enduring appeal, and in particular their success in rural ridings? 

There will be talk about constituency boundaries, the rise of neoliberal thinking, the decline of agrarian collectivism and the NDP closure of rural hospitals and schools. All of these are significant contributors, but they are not the whole picture. 

To understand the shift that has moved all political parties to the right in this province, we need to look at the difficult political issues that get minimal attention from any campaigning party: climate change, Indigenous rights, the opioid crisis, and the loss of wetlands and grasslands. 

The NDP, to its credit, mentioned these in its platforms, but even it realizes that talking about them as key issues will not get you elected in Saskatchewan. The Sask Party, meanwhile, has found that sending their base subtle signals of denial will.

A softer form of denial

None of this is unique to Saskatchewan. Around the world, public discourse is dividing in the face of existential issues that we either accept as real or we deny. Politicians, liberal and conservative, are finding many degrees of denial. Some are sneaky ways to disguise denial as acceptance. 

Scott Moe can say he is concerned about climate change, but then do everything in his power to oppose a carbon tax, while also taking time to speak at a rally of climate-change-denying yellow-vesters. The message is clear to those who keep his party in power: don't worry, we will not be taking any real action on climate change. 

He can also say he is in favour of masks, but then choose not to wear one in public, endearing him to any anti-maskers out there. 

It is a softer form of denial, but denial just the same, and the fear driving it is all about land. Who owns it, controls it, allows access to it and makes money off it. 

The standard settler perspective

Settler property rights, imposed on the prairie unilaterally after the signing of treaties, have in little more than a century become entangled with global agribusiness to foster an entrenched oligarchy of landowners with an outsized influence on public values and policy.

Most of what happens on millions of acres of prairie land between the international border and the northern forest is controlled by people who look like me, white people whose ancestors fled problems in other parts of the planet and ended up transferring them here.  

A culture that runs on deeply-entrenched, socially-endorsed denial will not change its perspective without a fight.- Trevor Herriot

Our corporations and governments are dominated by white people living in cities, most of whom are inter-generational refugees from the go-big-or-go-home farmland shakedown of the last 50 years. We still get misty-eyed when we think of the family farm and our homesteading ancestors. 

A voting majority of us work hard to make sure our gaze does not wander from the standard settler perspective: great-grandpa and grandma were pioneers, they came to the empty prairie with nothing, built their farm by themselves out of nothing, and today we are the inheritors of that legacy and the wealth that comes from the land.  

The canola field view

I have come to think of it as the canola field view. We feel a lift in our settler hearts when we look out upon the dazzling yellow, calendar-ready fields of mid-July. 

The trick is to keep your eyes fixed on that pleasing horizon. Whatever you do, don't think too much about what is happening underneath to the soil, insects, amphibians and birds. Don't think about how that ancient land came to be growing Roundup Ready crops. 

With our eyes on golden horizons, we take refuge in our decency and our moderate views. 

We listen when Indigenous people talk about reconciliation and residential schools. Sure, the government and the churches did some terrible things, but that was a long time ago. It's time to move on. 

Canada's leaders made some mistakes, but to take down all the statues would be to erase our history. 

There might be a few racists out there, but not in my family or community.

Suicide, addictions, mental trauma and violence — these things are problems in Indigenous communities, but their leaders are squandering opportunities and money instead of helping their own people. It's got nothing to do with policies of assimilation and dispossession. They gave their land to the Crown and they got their reserves, education and medical care in a fair trade.

A slow transition to justice

These comforting lies we repeat to one another are the hidden determinants that ensured we would once again elect the reigning party of denial. Yet there are signs that a slow transition from fear to reparation and justice is underway. 

Between elections and outside the legislature, where our day-to-day social cohesion hangs in the balance, there are civil society and faith-based groups of artists, activists and environmentalists engaged in the good work of decolonization, working toward a day when Indigenous laws, ways of life and knowledge will inform all of our relations with one another and with the land.

For now, though, the lovely canola field view will continue to be consoling. A culture that runs on deeply-entrenched, socially-endorsed denial will not change its perspective without a fight. 

To look elsewhere and consider the shadow cast by our settler grip on the land is just plain dangerous. In that dark place lurks unsettling stories of ecological destruction, dispossession, genocide and white supremacy.


This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

Interested in writing for us? We accept pitches for opinion and point-of-view pieces from Saskatchewan residents who want to share their thoughts on the news of the day, issues affecting their community or who have a compelling personal story to share. No need to be a professional writer!

Read more about what we're looking for here, then email sask-opinion-grp@cbc.ca with your idea.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Trevor Herriot is a prairie naturalist who writes books, essays, and radio documentaries about the intersection of culture and nature on the northern Great Plains

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