Saskatchewan’s curse

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
April 24, 2001

Canadian citizens and Canadian corporations support Saskatchewan’s money-losing rural economy with tax dollars. Some may resent it, but because there are relatively few Saskatchewan farmers and other rural residents, and relatively many Canadian taxpayers, the cost for each federal taxpayer is small.

Not so for residents and businesses in Saskatoon and Regina, who rival the province’s rural residents in number. These city residents must support the rest of the province not only with their small share as federal taxpayers but – because the federal government and the province split the cost of farm subsidies – with an immense share as provincial taxpayers.

Worse, these city residents don’t pay just in dollars. The cost of supporting an outsized rural economy has crippled the province, stifling innovation, hamstringing the province’s many viable industries, giving its universities among the worst ranking in Maclean’s annual survey, removing opportunities for the province’s young, and compelling them to leave to the heartbreak of their parents.

Saskatchewan’s curse is its vast expanse of flat, arable land, uninterrupted by mountains, lakes, or other geographical boundaries that might concentrate the population. When the land was first settled, communities were built 10 miles apart, along the railroad lines, to service the steam engines with water towers. From the railroad communities, the road system evolved, creating a dispersed rural infrastructure. Because the land could be farmed, it was, leading to Canada’s most dispersed population. The steam engines are all gone now, but not the rural communities that no longer have a productive economic purpose, and not the infrastructure that was established for a bygone era.

“We have the most miles of highway of any province, more than Ontario or Quebec,” which have much larger economies to support the expense, explains Mike Woods, Saskatchewan’s director of communications. “We have 9% of Canada’s national highways and 3% of the population. To make it worse, we have 159,000 kilometres of rural grid roads.”

That comes to roughly one kilometre of grid road per rural family to be maintained and rebuilt, an expense rural residents balk at paying. That’s why the people in Saskatoon and Regina must kick in.

Roads aren’t the half of it, Kenneth Fyke, the head of the province’s Commission on Medicare, recently explained. “A province of only a million people spread over a vast landscape faces enormous challenges in ensuring the accessibility of high quality service to all its citizens,” stated his report, Sustaining a Quality System. “Medicine now goes far beyond what any small town hospital can provide … quality of care requires a critical mass of service that only larger centres can provide.”

Under the current, impossibly decentralized hospital system, Saskatchewan supports 50% more hospital beds per capita than British Columbia or Ontario. Even so, rural people must often drive two to five hours for a 10-minute pre-check, and then must return later, the Commission explained. This inefficient system, and the inefficient use of scarce health-care dollars to maintain rural hospitals, also has other costs. It artificially undermines Saskatoon and Regina hospitals, whose specialists need to service larger populations to maintain their skills – and their interest in remaining in the province.

Four or five large hospitals could efficiently provide acute care for 1 million people, Mr. Fyke notes. Saskatchewan has 70 hospitals, many of them serving rural areas that are steadily losing population.

The Commission proposes triage. Rather than risk the health-care system’s collapse, the Commission recommends shutting down most of the rural hospitals – which, in any case, poorly serve rural areas – while improving primary care.

Roads in the rural areas, too, are in danger of disappearing, just like the grain elevators – a decade ago Saskatchewan had 500 grain delivery points; soon there will be 50 – and just like the 3,000 kilometres of abandoned railroad branch lines that no longer carry grain to the elevators. The eight-axle trucks that now carry the grain destroy the fragile roads, which are being forced to carry excessive loads.

In 1993, the province contemplated letting its low-volume highways revert to gravel. An outcry then caused the government to back off from most of its plans, and last September it tried and failed again, although on a small scale. But the plans remain, as does the logic of switching to gravel. To maintain the low-volume highways costs $5,000 per kilometre per year, and another $100,000 to $200,000 per kilometre when they must eventually be rebuilt – the situation today.

These roads typically serve but 200 to 300 vehicles per day on stretches that might range to 100 kilometres. Cost per vehicle per year to maintain a single 100 kilometre stretch: $2,000. Because the cost of rebuilding these roads is so high, the government hasn’t: About 2,500 kilometres are classed as under “great stress.” Translation: the road has lots of potholes, its asphalt often broken up into chunks.

These low-volume highways – 800 kilometres of those most stressed – have just received a reprieve, thanks to high energy prices: Saskatchewan is an oil producer – oil is run to generate profits, unlike agriculture – and the government has put about $100-million in added royalties into its low volume roads. Those royalties could have lowered taxes for the poor, to help them cope with difficult times, or for businesses, to help them succeed and make Saskatchewan a magnet – instead of a repellent – for talent. Or – the most sensible choice of all – the $100-million could have bought out many of the province’s unprofitable farms, letting the land revert to wilderness and lowering the future burden on Saskatoon and Regina of supporting the rural economy.

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