If someone asked you to think about Saskatchewan’s “distinct cultural identity,” what would come to mind?
It’s a question that could become central to those living in Prairie province after Prime Minister Scott Moe recently pledged to “do everything and every effort to begin to relax our autonomy,” as the province begins to see itself as a “nation within Canada”.
He later reportedly told reporters that he was not talking about separating from the country.
It is about being a “cultural identity” within Canada, as Quebec describes itself.
What that identity is, exactly, and how greater autonomy on its behalf could help the province remain open questions.
“I’m not sure about that,” laughs Tom McIntosh, a political scientist at the University of Regina.
“Is Saskatchewan different from Newfoundland? Well, of course it is … All provinces have unique characteristics. That doesn’t necessarily make them nations. “
Still, the idea caused a sensation this week after Moe appeared on “The Roy Green Show” to denounce Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s COP26 promise to limit oil and gas emissions without consulting Saskatchewan. Alberta Prime Minister Jason Kenney expressed frustration over the same circumstance last week.
Alberta and Saskatchewan appear to be aligned in the fight for greater autonomy from Ottawa. Both say they feel the heavily reliant energy sector is under attack from federal liberals. Both provinces have invoked Quebec as an example of how to obtain concessions from Ottawa.
So what constitutes a “nation” or “nation within Canada” status?
It can mean different things, according to experts. But in the Canadian context, and when used by politicians like Moe, it generally means being culturally distinct in some way through language or a shared history. Generally, it can simply mean a subsection of a population.
Sentiments of Western alienation have been simmering for years, of course, renewed by the fall in oil prices in 2014 and the recent rise of the Liberal Party at the federal level, beginning in 2015.
Experts who spoke to the Star, however, said Quebec has a long cultural history, as well as the French language, reinforcing its desire for greater autonomy from the rest of the country.
In May, Quebec presented proposed language reforms that would unilaterally change Canada’s constitution. Known as Bill 96, the legislation seeks to amend the country’s supreme law to enshrine Quebec’s status as a nation and its official language as French. In 2006, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper recognized Quebec as a nation within Canada, with the support of Parliament.
Saskatchewan may have a tougher argument when it comes to being culturally distinct and needing more autonomy from the federal government, McIntosh said.
“I have yet to see what the evidence is to back that up.”
Daniel Béland, a political science professor at McGill University in Montreal, said Moe is “emulating Jason Kenney” and his recent push for autonomy in Alberta.
Alberta, under Kenney, has for years raised the possibility of expelling the RCMP to establish its own provincial police force; withdraw from the Canada Pension Plan to launch one from Alberta; and the beginning of constitutional negotiations, all for the sake of gaining more autonomy.
Moe has taken a few pages out of Kenney’s manual, saying Saskatchewan would also view the police, as well as immigration, the energy sector, and taxes as ways to loosen the shackles of confederation.
Policies to achieve the kind of autonomy suggested, especially in fiscal and police matters, could be costly.
“Doing this – creating these institutions, saying having your own provincial police force and having your own distinct social programs and so on – all these policies cost money,” Béland said. “It is not clear that there are people on board.”
Establishing a provincial police force would be expensive, McIntosh said. (It could also be uncomfortable, since the RCMP training center is located in Saskatchewan.)
Taxation is doable, Quebec has its own tax system, McIntosh noted, but that too would be costly. People in Saskatchewan could end up having to file two income tax forms instead of just one, and the province would have to shoulder the infrastructure bill that Ottawa currently covers.
“I’m not sure what the political appeal of that is,” he said.
“The question,” added Béland, is “whether these two prime ministers will put the money where their mouth is.”
Béland pointed to data released by Viewpoint Alberta, a team of researchers that surveyed Alberta and Saskatchewan residents on whether they view their respective provinces as “a culturally distinct society.”
Of the 800 people surveyed online in March, 37 percent of Albertans and 42 percent of people in Saskatchewan thought so. However, it also found that 54 percent in both provinces viewed Quebec with a different cultural identity.
There is a notion among conservatives in the West that Quebec was able to score points with the federal government while nationalism was rearing its head there and the widespread desire to separate was at a fever pitch, McIntosh said.
“What they don’t realize is that, yes, Quebec has been given some kind of asymmetric authority within the federation, but it’s because those nationality claims are based on something deeper and deeper than, ‘We just want more treats. from Ottawa, ‘”he said.
“As Quebec made more profit from Ottawa, it was a by-product of a nationalist sentiment that is rooted in language and culture.”
As for why Moe is drumming for Saskatchewan autonomy, McIntosh believes the reasons are twofold. Moe has a leg to stand on when criticizing Trudeau for lack of consultation prior to his announcement, he said.
But the headline-grabbing comments could also now be dismissed as a distraction from the COVID-19 crisis in the province.
Critics have criticized Moe for his response to the skyrocketing number of cases in recent months, as hospitals have come under intense pressure. Meanwhile, thousands of medical procedures have been postponed in the province.
“It’s an attempt to change the channel in the province,” McIntosh said.
With files from The Canadian Press