Saskatoon·Opinion

Should Saskatchewan celebrate 2 birthdays?

Saskatchewan officially joined Confederation as a province 112 years ago (Sept. 4, 1905). It had been a long, at times acrimonious, struggle. But it was not over.

Sask. became a province years before it had control over its lands and resources

School children marching through downtown Regina on inauguration day. (Ontario Archives 6184-S8906)

It's Saskatchewan's birthday.

Saskatchewan officially joined Confederation as a province 112 years ago (Sept. 4, 1905). It had been a long, at times acrimonious, struggle. But it was not over.

In the late 1890s, hundreds of thousands of people headed to the "last best west." The crush of settlers overwhelmed local facilities.

The Regina-based territorial government simply did not have enough money to meet the growing service and infrastructure demands.  Any revenue from North-West lands and resources went to the federal and not the territorial treasury.

There was only one solution. 

In May 1900, the North-West Territories assembly petitioned Ottawa to admit the southern prairies into Confederation as a province. But the Wilfrid Laurier Liberal government turned down the request as premature — not once, but three times.

One stumbling block was Territorial Premier Frederick Haultain's call for one large province between Manitoba and British Columbia to be called "Buffalo." It was feared that such a super province might upset the balance of Confederation.

Haultain’s one large western province was to be called Buffalo. (Saskatchewan: A New History)

Liberal negotiation with Haultain was also difficult because of his support of the federal Conservative party in the 1904 general election. It was a serious lapse in judgement — one that crippled his future political career. 

From his first days in territorial government, Haultain's strategy for dealing with the federal government was to adopt a non-partisan approach and speak with a single, territorial voice. But he was so disillusioned with the Liberal government's intransigence that he cozied up to federal Conservative leader Robert Borden, who promised action on provincehood.

Frederick Haultain, the North-West Territories first and only territorial premier. (University of Saskatchewan Archives B-360)

By February 1905, Laurier could delay no longer and personally introduced legislation to create two roughly equal, north-south provinces: Saskatchewan and Alberta.

The autonomy bills also maintained federal control over western lands and resources. 

In other words, Saskatchewan and Alberta were not full partners in Confederation. They, along with neighbouring Manitoba, were treated differently — unequally. 

Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, as a nursemaid, delivers the twin provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta. (Montreal Daily Start, Feb. 23, 1905)

Under the 1867 British North America Act, provinces exercised control over the public lands and resources within their boundaries.  But that right was denied Manitoba in 1870 and denied Saskatchewan and Alberta in 1905 on the grounds that federal control was needed to promote immigration and settlement.

Ottawa attempted to make up for the loss of revenue by awarding the new provinces generous subsidies based on population. But Haultain wanted no part of the compensation package and demanded the same right as other provinces.

Displacing Haultain

Once the autonomy bills were passed — establishing the new provinces effective Sept. 1, 1905 — the Liberal party turned its attention to securing power in Saskatchewan and displacing Haultain.

Despite the territorial premier's defining role in defending the interests of western Canada, his opposition to the legislation made him a liability and he was passed over as premier and lieutenant governor. 

In Haultain's place, A.E. Forget, a lifelong Liberal who had first come West in 1876 as clerk for the North-West Territories council, was retained as lieutenant governor.  He, in turn, invited Walter Scott, a Liberal backbencher in the House of Commons and owner of several western newspapers, to become premier. 

The Liberals were so confident of their hold on Saskatchewan that Laurier went to Edmonton first for the Alberta inauguration. 

One of four ceremonial arches along the Sept. 4, 1905, parade route through Regina. (Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan R-A4110-2)
Saskatchewan's ceremony was consequently delayed several days. And during the Regina festivities on Sept. 4, Haultain was not even asked to speak. 
The provincial inauguration souvenir program. (University of Saskatchewan Special Collections)

Western Canada's father of Confederation did not quietly go away. 

In the fall of 1905, Haultain formed a "Provincial Rights" party dedicated to securing full provincial rights for Saskatchewan. He promised, if he formed the government, to challenge the constitutionality of the Saskatchewan Act, especially federal control of the province's public lands and natural resources. 

But he never got the chance because the Liberal reign in the province lasted nearly a quarter century.  Ironically, that was how long it took Saskatchewan to secure control of its public lands and resources.

Continuing sensitivity over lands and resources

At first, the Saskatchewan government quietly pocketed the generous federal subsidy it received in lieu of its lands.  But when the northern boundaries of Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec were extended in 1912 (making the central provinces much bigger than Haultain's Buffalo), Saskatchewan began demanding control of its resources. 

Repeated attempts to hammer out an agreement foundered over the question of compensation for lost revenue, and it was not until 1930 that the matter was finally settled. 

Ever since then, Saskatchewan has been extremely protective of provincial rights in this area.

NDP Premier Allan Blakeney's wrangling with the federal government over resource taxation in the 1970s was no different from Saskatchewan Party Premier Brad Wall's spirited challenge of BHP Billiton's hostile takeover bid of the Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan in 2010.  

Their attack on outside forces had a strong echo in the provincial and territorial past, a reminder of earlier struggles to secure an equitable relationship with Ottawa. 

It also speaks to Saskatchewan's continuing sensitivity over provincial lands and resources — something that is not fully appreciated nor understood outside the region.

Maybe Saskatchewan should celebrate two birthdays: one for when it became a province, the other for when it became a province with control over its lands and resources.  

About the Author

Historian Bill Waiser lives in Saskatoon.