Saskatchewan Suffers Population Decline As COVID Slows Immigration, Economy

Saskatchewan Suffers Population Decline As COVID Slows Immigration, Economy
Saskatchewan Party Leader Scott Moe adjusts his face mask following a media event in Saskatoon on Oct. 6, 2020. (Liam Richards/The Canadian Press)
Lee Harding

Saskatchewan’s population has dropped for the first time since 2006 as the province lost more people to other provinces than it has in any single year in decades. The news comes weeks before voters go to the polls in the population-sensitive province.

A recent estimate by Statistics Canada showed Saskatchewan’s population has dropped to 1,178,681—a decline of 2,874 people from earlier in the year. It’s the first decline since 2006, the year before the Saskatchewan Party began its 13-year reign.

The drop is a blow to the Saskatchewan Party, which faces an election on Oct. 26. The decline is worse than any annual out-migration during the 1991-2007 NDP era.

University of Saskatchewan political science professor Loleen Berdahl says population growth “helped create a narrative turn-around for the Saskatchewan Party so they were very critical of the years and years of population drop under the NDP. There was of course a lot of concern about young people leaving the province … particularly to Alberta.”

Patrick Charbonneau, a senior analyst at Statistics Canada, told the Epoch Times that out-migration to other provinces was the main cause, but Saskatchewan was also affected by a decrease in international immigration into the province.

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in a file photo. (Shutterstock)
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in a file photo. (Shutterstock)

The pandemic has stalled immigration in all provinces. Immigration accounted for over 80 percent of Canada’s population growth in the past year. With international borders closing, Canada saw a massive drop in population growth from one of its highest quarterly increases—208,659 from July to October (third quarter of 2019)—to a record low second quarter of 2020 to 25,384.

Saskatchewan also had the highest net interprovincial losses in Canada. Favoured destinations were Alberta, Ontario, and British Columbia, respectively. The province’s eastern neighbour, Manitoba, had the second-worst provincial out-migration.

“Over the period from July 1st 2019 to June 30th 2020, the net loss was minus 11,247 people,” Charbonneau says, adding these were Saskatchewan’s worst losses since 1990-91.

Population growth has been an important element of Saskatchewan Party election platforms. Premier Scott Moe, who noted stagnant growth under the previous NDP government at his election campaign launch on Sept.29, set a goal in 2019 of 1.4 million by 2030. His predecessor, former party leader and premier Brad Wall, set a goal in 2012 of 1.2 million people by 2020.

Moe expects growth in Saskatchewan will resume after the pandemic subsides.

“We have had a tremendous 10-year growth spurt,” he said. “That’s something we want to continue.” He added that jobs, careers, and opportunities were the “simple recipe for success.”

The NDP panned the premier on the population decline in a press release, saying, “We just wanted to make sure Scott Moe was in the know.” The NDP wants to prioritize the hiring of Saskatchewan people and companies for government contracts to curb the losses.

Saskatchewan was Canada’s third-most populous province in 1931 with 921,785 people, and was still in third place in 1941 despite population losses during the depression. Tommy Douglas’s Co-operative Commonwealth Federation gained power in 1944, forming the first socialist government in North America. An offended oil industry aggressively drilled for oil in Alberta, fuelling remarkable population and economic growth. Today, Alberta’s population is 4.42 million.

James Pitsula, professor emeritus of history at the University of Regina, says the province’s resource-based export economy has always left it “vulnerable” to market forces.

“The other thing that makes Saskatchewan vulnerable is that some of the main levers of the economy are in Ottawa,” he says.

“One of the big complaints in Saskatchewan from the earliest days of settlement was the national tariff policy, which was geared to developing industry in central Canada. That’s something John A. Macdonald put in, and that’s something that [Wilfred] Laurier continued.”

Homesteaders often made their homes out of sod since much of the land was without trees. Wood and farm implements were pricey due to the national tariff policy.

“Prices were raised artificially and those were all inputs for western farmers. So that you have your agricultural equipment, your building materials, everything was overpriced because of the intervention of the federal government to protect the industries of central Canada.”

Pitsula sees parallels with today.

“Now we have a government in Ottawa that is very hostile to oil and gas and fossil fuels, and that has put a damper both on Saskatchewan and Alberta. And B.C., because the government has been very clear that it wants to phase out fossil fuel and carbon.”

These factors limit the claim or blame any Saskatchewan government is due, he suggested.

“The government can have programs, it can build infrastructure, it can give subsidies to industries so that they can develop. But some of the main things, even the currency and the dollar, whether there’s a lot of stimulus in the economy or not, most of that is controlled in Ottawa,” Pitsula said.