Pre-campaign polls have suggested that the Saskatchewan Party could win another big victory in the Oct. 26 provincial election. The party could even capture a majority of ballots cast in the province for the fourth consecutive time.
Coupled with the Conservative sweep of Saskatchewan in last year’s federal election, another big win for the Saskatchewan Party would only further cement what has become the modern conservative era in Saskatchewan’s political history.
But that is just latest chapter for a province that has come a long way from its political origins.
The strength of conservative parties in Saskatchewan in recent years — be it the federal Conservatives or the Saskatchewan Party — has been impressive.
The two parties have chalked up a record of 150 wins and only 25 losses at the riding level in provincial and federal general elections since 2008, capturing a majority of the vote in six of the last seven elections. Every other party has received less than 33 per cent of the province wide vote since then.
It is the kind of dominance from one part of the political spectrum that Saskatchewan has rarely seen — though wins by one party for decades at a time has been quite common in the province’s political history.
Saskatchewan’s Liberal origins
It might be hard to imagine, but Saskatchewan was once a Liberal bastion.
The Liberals governed Saskatchewan for all but five of its first 39 years as a province. At both the provincial and federal levels, the Liberals towered over their rivals thanks to their support among farmers and immigrants. In the 1920s, the Saskatchewan Liberals bucked the trend as farmer governments were elected in Alberta and Manitoba.
There were strong ties between Liberals at both levels of government for much of this period, with premiers Charles Dunning and James Gardiner eventually making the jump to become powerful members of the federal cabinet. When Mackenzie King lost his Ontario seat in the 1925 federal election, the riding in Prince Albert was made available to him. He continued to be the MP from Prince Albert until 1945.
Saskatchewan was an important part of King’s electoral strategy in the 1920s and 1930s, as the province had the third-most seats in the House of Commons. With dominant performances in Quebec and Saskatchewan — an electoral coalition that is also hard to imagine today — the Liberals could make up for their weakness in other parts of the country.
The shift to the left
The Great Depression changed Saskatchewan, but the Liberals were fortunate to be out of power when the stock market crashed in 1929. That put them in a good position to return to office in 1934 after one term of Conservative rule.
By the Second World War, however, the Liberals were seen to have lost touch with their supporters. The political machine built up under Gardiner had gotten rusty and the socialist appeal of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) grew across the country, especially in Saskatchewan.
After the CCF came to power under Tommy Douglas, the party came to dominate politics in Saskatchewan. The provincial and federal wings — the federal CCF was led by Saskatchewan MP M.J. Coldwell — won the most votes in all eight provincial and federal elections held between 1944 and 1957.
The CCF and its successor, the NDP, was not as dominant in the following decades. Federally, the province swung to the PCs when Saskatchewan’s John Diefenbaker became leader. Provincially, the Liberals under Ross Thatcher and the PCs under Grant Devine each won a couple elections in the 1960s and 1980s.
But the New Democrats — the successor to the CCF — were still a formidable force provincially and were returned to office under Allan Blakeney in 1971 and Roy Romanow in 1991. The federal New Democrats took at least 31.5 per cent of the vote in every election between 1968 and 1988, a mark they have only hit once since.
Federal politics were in flux in the 1990s, allowing the federal Liberals to (narrowly) win the popular vote in Saskatchewan in 1993 for the only time in the last 79 years. But even as NDP fortunes tanked elsewhere in Canada, in Saskatchewan the party was able to finish second to Reform in 1997 and the Canadian Alliance in 2000.
After Romanow and his successor Lorne Calvert strung together four terms ending in 2007, the CCF and NDP had been in power for 47 of the previous 63 years, winning 12 of 16 elections. The CCF and NDP have governed no other province in Canada for as long.
Part of the conservative heartland
That is perhaps what makes the shift over the last two decades so striking.
The swing to the Conservatives began in the 2006 federal election, when the party captured 49 per cent of the vote in Saskatchewan, its best performance in more than 40 years since Diefenbaker had a hometown advantage.
Brad Wall then took the Saskatchewan Party to victory in 2007, capturing 51 per cent of the vote, followed by the Conservatives taking 54 per cent in 2008 and 56 per cent in 2011. Later that year, Wall led the Saskatchewan Party to a record 64 per cent of the vote.
The federal Conservatives took a bit of a hit in 2015, but the Saskatchewan Party held firm at 62 per cent in 2016. Then, under Andrew Scheer — another leader from Saskatchewan — the Conservatives surged to 64 per cent of the vote in 2019. Only in Alberta did the Conservatives get a bigger share of ballots cast.
A case could be made that Saskatchewan and not Alberta is now the bedrock of conservative support in Canada. The federal Conservatives swept Saskatchewan in 2019, but fell one seat short of doing the same in Alberta. Some federal polls have recently put Conservative support in Saskatchewan running roughly even with the party’s support in its western neighbour.
Provincially, the Saskatchewan Party and leader Scott Moe remain popular, while Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and his United Conservative Party have dropped in the polls. The NDP won an election in Alberta in 2015. The NDP has not won an election in Saskatchewan since 2003.
Another emphatic victory by the Saskatchewan Party would make the case stronger. Already, the party has put up historic performances, capturing more than 60 per cent of the vote in the last two provincial elections. The only other provincial parties in Canada to have done that in at least two consecutive elections were the Newfoundland Liberals after the province joined Confederation and the Quebec Liberals during the First World War.
A change in fortunes for the Saskatchewan Party would be a significant reversal of a pretty clear historical trend in the province. But if history repeats itself, Saskatchewan will one day transition to another party having its time in the sun. Just, perhaps, not yet.