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Capsules on Saskatchewan's elections from The Weekly Writ
Every installment of The Weekly Writ includes a short history of one of Canada’s elections. Here are the ones I have written about elections and leadership races in Saskatchewan.
This and other #EveryElectionProject hubs will be updated as more historical capsules are written.
1938 Saskatchewan election
Patterson wins, the CCF arrives
June 8, 1938
The 1930s were a time of tumult in Canadian politics, as the Great Depression upended governments and new political movements were on the rise. In Saskatchewan, the election of 1938 pitted the Liberal government of W.J. Patterson against two of those new movements — and a future prime minister.
Though Patterson was only heading to the polls for the first time as premier and Saskatchewan Liberal leader, the province had been governed by his party for 28 of the 33 previous years since Saskatchewan was created in 1905.
That sole exception was the 1929-1934 interregnum of James Anderson, itself the product of a tumultuous election when the Conservatives reduced the Liberals to a minority (with a little help from the Ku Klux Klan). Anderson was then able to govern in a coalition with Independent and Progressive members of the legislature, and was shortly rewarded for his efforts with the a stock market collapse and a drought.
The Conservatives were swept out of power in 1934 (literally, they didn’t win a single seat) and James Gardiner returned to the premier’s office. He didn’t stay long, however, as he made the jump to federal politics to join Mackenzie King’s cabinet in 1935.
Patterson, the minister of natural resources (and telephones), was chosen as his replacement by caucus in part because his chief opponent, T.C. Davis, decided to vote for Patterson rather than himself, and lost by a single vote.
In many ways, though, Gardiner remained the force behind the Saskatchewan Liberal Party. Patterson, an unflashy politician, left the organization of the party to another minister, C.M. Dunn, under the watchful eye of Gardiner, who would also hit the hustings and campaign for his former provincial party.
Against the Liberals were arrayed a motley crew of opposition parties, the foremost being the new Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, whose members had waged the last campaign under a Farmer-Labour banner (and would eventually become the modern NDP).
With just five seats, the CCF formed a small but effective official opposition under George Williams, who ran the party almost single-handedly. There were divisions within the CCF, however, as Williams did not see eye-to-eye with either M.J. Coldwell or Tommy Douglas, the party’s two Saskatchewan MPs in Ottawa. There was also indecision on how to move forward against the Liberals, with the CCF negotiating with both the Conservatives and Social Credit about where to run candidates. In the end, the CCF ran just 31 in Saskatchewan’s 52 ridings.
Social Credit was still a newish phenomenon in 1938, though it had been in power for three years in the neighbouring province of Alberta under the erratic William Aberhart.
Based on a monetary theory developed by a British author that was not entirely understood by the evangelical preacher and new premier of Alberta, Social Credit imagined a monetary system that would ensure the amount of money in circulation would equal the value of everything being produced. It was a theory that didn’t quite make sense and Aberhart’s interpretation of it led to provincial legislation being disallowed by the federal government and the distribution of government credit derided as “funny money”.
While the shine was starting to wear off Social Credit in Alberta by 1938, the party was still a force to be reckoned with and Aberhart looked to Saskatchewan as his next conquest. Resources were poured into the province from Alberta and the Socred campaign in Saskatchewan was run from Edmonton, with Aberhart’s No. 2 (and future premier) Ernest Manning put in charge of organizing it.
Aberhart spent a week in Saskatchewan speaking to enormous crowds and railing against “the money power” and “financial tyranny”. In all, the Socreds put up 40 candidates in Saskatchewan approved by the party in Alberta.
Finally, there were the Conservatives, now under the leadership of Prince Albert lawyer and future prime minister John Diefenbaker. Broke and seatless, Diefenbaker could do nothing more than run 24 candidates and wage a campaign that was largely ignored. He complained about the Liberals’ machine politics and patronage, saying that “government inspectors … are so thick they have been ordered to wear a distinctive ribbon in their lapels so they will not go around asking each other for their vote.”
In the end, the fight was primarily between Patterson’s Liberals and the two upstarts. The governing party warned against the dangers of Social Credit’s crackpot theories and the creeping socialism of the CCF.
After nearly a decade of suffering, the province was not quite in the mood for more uncertainty. It was still reeling from drought and the Depression, with half of the provincial budget in 1935-35 going to relief.
The weather improved in early 1938 and the prospects were good that the drought was coming to an end. Patterson promised to continue relief payments while continuing to invest in the education system, the highway network and various medical programs.
Patterson and friendly editorialists cast the fight as one between a steady, stable and reliable Liberal administration and an array of new parties pushing new, untested and dangerous ideas, none of which could form a government without the help of one or more of the other parties. In short, a Liberal defeat was a recipe for instability and recklessness just when Saskatchewan was getting back on its feet.
Though the Liberal majority was reduced, Patterson’s pitch worked. The Liberals captured 45% of the vote, down three points from 1934, and won 38 seats. That was down 12 seats from the last election, but the Liberals nevertheless nearly swept the rural ridings in the west and the southeast while winning the two-member urban ridings in Regina, Saskatoon and Moose Jaw.
The CCF captured 19% of the vote, down five points from the Farmer-Labor performance of 1934, but gained five seats. It took on the role of the official opposition once again, winning nearly all of its seats in the rural east of the province.
Social Credit failed to make a breakthrough, winning 16% of the vote and just two seats, though one of them was Melville, the seat of Liberal organizer Dunn.
Two “Unity” candidates — an odd amalgamation from various parties, including the CCF, Conservatives who were opposed to the Liberals — were also elected, while Diefenbaker’s party was shut out again, its vote dropping 15 points to just 12%. Undaunted, Diefenbaker would look to federal politics for his future.
Patterson celebrated the victory, saying “an invasion from an adjoining province has been repelled and a sane, business-like constructive program has been chosen in preference to theoretical and theatrical proposals.”
Social Credit would not gain a beachhead in Saskatchewan. But the Liberals would soon meet their Waterloo. When the province next headed to the polls in 1944, Patterson would go down to defeat at the hands of the CCF, now under Tommy Douglas. The 1938 election would be the last the Liberals would win in Saskatchewan for another 26 years.
1982 Saskatchewan election
A Devine wind sweeps Saskatchewan
April 26, 1982
You could forgive Saskatchewan’s premier, Allan Blakeney, for thinking his odds of winning an election in 1982 were good.
After long being a have-not province, Saskatchewan’s economy was finally booming. Growth was the highest in the country. Unemployment was lower than anywhere else. Resource revenues were pouring into government coffers, allowing it to run balanced budget after balanced budget.
Blakeney had also just played a key role on the national stage in the constitutional negotiations, earning respect across the country.
But if the Saskatchewan New Democrats had been a little more in touch with the mood of the people, they might have realized that the odds of re-election were, in fact, not so good at all.
Blakeney and the NDP had been in power in Saskatchewan since 1971. The province was seen as an NDP stronghold. With the exception of the Liberal government of Ross Thatcher, in office from 1964 to 1974, no one else had governed Saskatchewan since Tommy Douglas’s upset victory as leader of the CCF in 1944.
The political landscape was shifting in Saskatchewan, however. The Liberals had collapsed as a force and it was the Progressive Conservatives who were emerging as the chief rival to the NDP. Achieving government, though, seemed like a long-shot. No Conservative had governed Saskatchewan since 1934.
When Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals announced they would end the Crowsnest Pass freight rate on grain shipments, thereby increasing grain growers’ costs, Blakeney thought he had a winning issue. His government railed against the decision and sent pamphlets to voters across the province. The NDP could play an anti-Ottawa, Western-grievance card as well as anyone else.
On March 29, after announcing another balanced budget that increased spending on social programs but did not reduce taxes, Blakeney set April 26, 1982 as the date for the next election. Before he did that, though, his government brought in legislation prohibiting strikes of essential workers during the campaign in response to a work stoppage by CUPE hospital staff.
While it was meant to avoid any discontent on the part of voters, it had the effect of seriously hurting the NDP’s support among the key labour electorate that was also an important source of volunteers and campaign organizers. Instead of backing Blakeney, CUPE protesters appeared at Blakeney’s events.
The NDP planned to run on its record of a strong economy and governing competency, adopting the “Tested and Trusted” slogan in order to contrast Blakeney’s experience with that of the 37-year-old PC leader, Grant Devine.
An economics professor, Devine had never won anything before he prevailed in the 1979 Saskatchewan PC leadership contest. In fact, he’d lose one more time in 1980, when he failed to secure a seat in the legislature in a byelection.
But Devine proved to be a strong campaigner. With a slogan of “There’s so much more we can be”, Devine made lots of costly promises, starting with getting rid of the provincial tax on gasoline, which he announced on the first day of the campaign.
That set the tone. More promises followed, including a cap on mortgages set at interest rates of 13.25% — the Saskatchewan government would cover anything above that. He also promised to phase out the PST and reduce the income tax, promises that would severely reduce the government’s revenues. But for voters who were worried about sky-high interest rates and felt Blakeney’s government was overly focused on balancing the budget, these promises resonated.
The NDP had miscalculated. The Crowsnest rate wasn’t a good issue. It was seen as out of the province’s hands, a federal issue, and in any case all of the parties were just as against Trudeau’s move as Blakeney was. Even Ralph Goodale, the former Liberal MP and leader of the Saskatchewan Liberals, had come out against it.
As the momentum shifted, Blakeney turned his focus on Devine’s platform, arguing that all of these tax cuts would inevitably lead to program cuts. But when that failed to move the dial, Blakeney tried to match Devine’s largesse with promises of his own.
The result was a huge landslide PC victory that surprised even the Tories. The early returns were so good for Devine that a PC government was called in less than 30 minutes.
Devine and the PCs won 55 seats, a swing of over 35 seats in the expanded legislature, taking 54.1% of the vote, a gain of 16 points over the PCs’ performance in 1978.
In that election, the New Democrats had swept Saskatoon and won all but one seat in Regina. This time, it was the PCs who swept Saskatoon and won all but two seats in Regina, an enormous swing that reduced the NDP to just a handful of seats in the rural areas, where the PCs also made significant gains.
The New Democrats won just nine seats and 37.6% of the vote. Up to that point, it was the worst result in the history of the NDP since before the CCF came to power in 1944. It cut a swathe through Blakeney’s cabinet, taking even future premier Roy Romanow down with it.
The slide of the Saskatchewan Liberals continued. They had been shutout in 1978 and were shutout again in 1982, but their 4.6% of the vote marked the first time the party had hit single-digits. They barely finished ahead of the separatist Western Canada Concept, which had hoped to repeat the success of its Alberta equivalent that had just won a byelection in that province. It took 3.3%.
Blakeney, who held on in his own seat, would stay on as NDP leader and improve the party’s position in a rematch in 1986. He’d step aside after that, making way for Romanow.
For the PCs, 1982 would rank as their best result ever. But the costly promises made by Devine during that campaign would leave a legacy of huge deficits during his two terms in office, contributing to the eventual demise of the Tories in the 1990s. The remnants of the party would go on to form the Saskatchewan Party that looks as unbeatable in the province today as Allan Blakeney’s New Democrats seemed to be at the start of 1982.
2013 Saskatchewan NDP leadership
Cam Broten becomes Saskatchewan NDP leader
March 9, 2013
Being opposition leader in Saskatchewan has been a thankless and perilous task over the last few years. Not since 2007 have the Saskatchewan New Democrats had a leader who contested more than a single election, a trend that will continue after Ryan Meili announced last month he’d be stepping down.
In 2013, though, there wasn’t a trend — just one unlucky leader in Dwain Lingenfelter, defeated in 2011. The future didn’t look particularly bright, though, with Brad Wall still enormously popular at the time. But nothing lasts forever, right?
So, with a vacancy at the top of the Saskatchewan NDP, the race was on. And it would turn out to be a pretty demanding one, as candidates faced off in more than a dozen debates throughout the fall of 2012 and the winter of 2013.
For most of the contest, there were four candidates. All under the age of 40, it marked what some called a generational shift for the party.
The (admittedly small) caucus was lining up between two of their colleagues: Saskatoon MLA Cam Broten and Regina MLA Trent Wotherspoon. Also on the ballot was Erin Weir (a future NDP MP) and Meili, who had finished second to Lingenfelter in the 2009 leadership contest and was seen as the candidate furthest to the left.
Weir, however, withdrew from the race in February and threw his support behind Meili, leaving the ballot to just Meili and his relatively centrist opponents, Broten and Wotherspoon.
Despite caucus backing the other two, it was Meili who came out on top on the first ballot with 39%, followed by Broten at 33.5% and Wotherspoon at 24%.
With Wotherspoon being eliminated, his support swung toward Broten by a margin of about 3:2, propelling him to 50.3% of the vote against 49.7% for Meili. Just 44 votes out of the more than 8,000 cast separated Broten and Meili.
Broten would go on to lead the New Democrats into the 2016 provincial election with little hope of victory. I recall that campaign fondly as I was covering it closely for the CBC, travelling to Regina to take part in the election night television special. What I remember most was a pronunciation tip I got from a local colleague: “Broten is your bro, not your bra.”
When it was over, he wasn’t even that — he was defeated in his riding of Saskatoon Westview, memorably losing on the final polling box to be counted. The party captured just 10 seats, one more than in 2011 but on an expanded map that contained three more seats.
Broten’s resignation would result in a re-match of sorts in the 2018 Saskatchewan NDP leadership, as Meili and Wotherspoon faced each other again. Third time was the charm for Meili, as he won the honour to lead the party into the 2020 election — and, unlike Lingenfelter and Broten before him, retain his seat. It wasn’t enough, though, and the Saskatchewan NDP will select his replacement in June in the hopes that, this time, they might land on a winner.
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NOTE ON SOURCES: When available, election results are sourced from Elections Saskatchewan and J.P. Kirby’s election-atlas.ca. Historical newspapers are also an important source, and I’ve attempted to cite the newspapers quoted from.
In addition, information in these capsules are sourced from the following works:
Saskatchewan Premiers of the Twentieth Century, edited by Gordon L. Barnhart
Jimmy Gardiner: Relentless Liberal, by Norman Ward
The Life and Political Times of Tommy Douglas, by Walter Stewart
M.J.: The Life and Times of M.J. Coldwell, by Walter Stewart
Rogue Tory: The Life and Legend of John G. Diefenbaker, by Denis Smith
Promises to Keep: A Political Biography of Allan Blakeney, by Dennis Gruending