LUMSDEN, SASK. — Wayne Hooper scratched his head as he watched the recent English-language federal leaders debate from his home in small-town Saskatchewan.
The Prairies were just coming out of a historic drought, while a full-blown fourth wave of COVID-19 was filling up Alberta and Saskatchewan hospitals. Hooper had hoped the leaders of the five major parties would discuss how to pay off the national debt, and revive Canada’s cratering energy sector.
Instead, they used the only English-language debate to discuss race issues in Quebec, and talked about climate change with no mention of jobs out west.
"I just couldn’t believe it," said Hooper, a retired mechanic, shaking his head. "It feels like the East just wants to shut it all down."
Western alienation has ebbed and flowed over decades, flaring during the last election, when voters rejected every Liberal candidate across a 1,800-kilometre expanse of Western Canada.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s unpopularity helped put an end to Ralph Goodale’s 26 years as a Regina MP, whom Hooper said was respected across the partisan spectrum.
"I liked Ralph; I think he did good stuff in Regina. It was just backlash after seeing four years of Trudeau."
"The alienation seems quite widespread; it seems more cultural and regional, than just those economic triggers. I would be less worried if it was just about economics." ‐ Jim Farney, Regina director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy
The 2019 election followed so-called "yellow vest" protests over regulations that thwarted oil-sector expansion, and sparked a separatist Wexit movement. Without a single Liberal MP representing Alberta and Saskatchewan to appoint as cabinet minister, Trudeau tasked Manitoba's Jim Carr with taking the pulse of those provinces.
Two years later, the major parties have largely avoided the Prairies in this campaign. Trudeau’s sole Saskatchewan stop has amounted to a half-hour glad-hand with party volunteers on the tarmac of the Regina airport.
"There is a sense of being in flyover country, and not being particularly paid attention to," said Jim Farney, Regina director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy.
The alienation manifests in federal parties ignoring issues such as railway safety, and providing no clear strategy for adapting the oil and gas sectors to the climate crisis. Even the Conservatives lack a detailed plan, despite dominating the Prairies.
"The alienation seems quite widespread; it seems more cultural and regional, than just those economic triggers," said Farney.
"I would be less worried if it was just about economics."
A practical lens
The sprawling prairie is dotted with potash mines north of Regina, and descends into the Qu’Appelle Valley, where clusters of bright-yellow ash trees sit atop rolling, green ridges.
The winding river is surrounded by bales of hay and cattle ranches, interspersed with tight-knit towns.
Chad Guethert moved to the idyllic bedroom community of Lumsden, 30 km northwest of Regina in 2008, after a stint at a pipeline company in northern British Columbia.
He’s now a manager at the Evraz steel mill in Regina, which specializes in the tubes used to build pipelines. The plant has laid off almost half of its 1,050 employees in the past year, as multiple Canadian projects get delayed or cancelled.
"That's a lot of people making a healthy salary. So when you start taking that out of Regina’s economy, it hurts and it just spirals," said Guethert, whose former employer in B.C. has had similar layoffs in recent years.
He finds it hypocritical Ottawa has imposed environmental regulations that constrain Canadian oil and steel, while allowing imports from countries with worse standards. He sees little pushback from the Liberals on protesters who try blocking pipeline projects.
The Trudeau government bought the Trans Mountain Pipeline in 2018, a move Guethert and his neighbours felt wouldn’t have been necessary if Liberal policies hadn’t curtailed resource development. Some question why its proposed expansion remains unbuilt, though the project head says it's on track for completion in late 2022.
"You have guys with a Grade 12 education who aren’t being told what is next. A lot of these people are really, really going to struggle," he said.
Yet the 2021 campaign seems centred around house prices and gun crime in large cities.
"There is definitely a divide in this country, for sure," Guethert said.
Merle Massie, a University of Saskatchewan historian specializing in the environment and rural life, says many in the Prairies see the impacts of climate change with their own eyes, but find few tangible solutions from federal parties.
"It's not so much that people are completely in love with oil and gas and they're not paying attention. They just want all the parties to be specific and intentional — and intelligent about these sorts of things," said Massie, who operates her own farm near Biggar.
For example, tractors and combine harvesters are gas-guzzlers, but there are no electricity-powered ones on the market in Canada.
Massie said manufacturers would need incentives to start building such a fleet, while farmers would need decades-long loans to replace old vehicles, and a two-way power grid.
"If you want farmers to be pro-solar and pro-wind, we need to be able to harvest those as crops and sell that energy into the grid," she said.
Gas-powered homes can weather a two-day power outages; it’s less clear how electrically heated homes would fair.
"People look at this from that practical standpoint. Yes, we can do things — but let's do it smartly," Massie said.
Instead, the big three parties have settled on a carbon levy, which urban voters feel might pull suburbanites out of their SUVs and into cars and buses. That seems like a hair-brained scheme to rural folk who have no alternatives to gas-powered vehicles.
The Liberals used part of the carbon tax’s revenue to pay the Loblaw grocery chain $12 million to retrofit store fridges, a point Lumsden residents contrast with the rising cost of food.
"The carbon tax has become that touchstone issue; it's representative for everything around climate change," Massie said. "This idea, that you can tax people and that's going to change the weather — the disconnect in that very simple storyline really sets people off."
On the other side of Lumsden, in a trailer park on the edge of town, retired truck driver John Bellisle worries about the safety of Saskatchewan’s roads and railways.
Delayed pipeline projects have sent thousands of oil-carrying trains onto railways designed for grain cars. Bellisle is alarmed by the handful of explosive derailments across the Prairies, and feels the tragic 2018 Humboldt Broncos bus crash exposed loose regulation in the trucking industry.
"It’s just terrible out here," he said. "And it doesn't matter which way we vote."
The wrong direction
Two rural highways converge in Southey, a town of 800, where a curling rink and three bars serve an expanse of grain elevators and abandoned wooden houses.
Paul Sentes owns a farm nearby, where the rising cost of fuel makes everything more difficult.
"The carbon tax is killing us," he said. "It hasn't made anybody's life better in Saskatchewan. And I don't know anybody who's driven less than they did before."
To Sentes, life in Canada is headed in the wrong direction. He says his daughter’s roommates in Regina are collecting COVID-19 benefits and won’t bother working. Ottawa chooses which media outlets get public subsidies, while Trudeau is pushing provinces to implement vaccine passports.
"He's trying to make it a communist country, and everybody in Western Canada doesn't believe in that. We're more of a free-enterprise mindset," Sentes says, tugging on his cowboy belt buckle, and recalling the days of prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
"His dad gave the one-figured salute to Western Canada when he was in power, so the apple doesn't fall far from the tree."
A friend invited Sentes to hear from the upstart Maverick Party, formed in 2020 to advocate for a western independence referendum, unless major changes are made to equalization and the Senate.
Sentes voted for the Conservatives, but found the Maverick Party better reflect the anger westerners feel.
"They know they don’t have a chance, but are just making a statement," he said. "It’s the same as it always was here."
The Maverick Party is focused on Alberta and British Columbia ridings, but has a smattering of signs in Saskatchewan and Manitoba (around Dauphin).
Massie says the Maverick Party hasn’t made many appearances on Saskatchewan’s campaign circuit, which involves local car shows and Legion halls. The ring-wing People’s Party of Canada has more a presence, but few expect enough Conservatives supporters to switch and have the main party lose a seat.
That's because Prairie voters tend to latch on to whichever party taps into the sense of frustration over being a cash-cow for eastern provinces, she said.
"It’s not the specifics of left and right, but the specifics of who is listening to us," she said. "There's a lot of groupthink in small towns; you never want to be shown as contrary. So as soon as the wind is blowing in a certain direction, people jump on board."
"He's trying to make it a communist country, and everybody in Western Canada doesn't believe in that. We're more of a free-enterprise mindset." ‐ Paul Sentes, who farms near Southey, Saskatchewan
She said the former Harper government seemed to emphasize being present in the Prairies, for fear of losing the base it needed to make up for the party’s softer support in Ontario and Quebec.
That resonates with Ray Park, a Lumsden retiree who votes Conservative. He disagrees with the NDP platform, but says party leader Jagmeet Singh is one of the few politicians who seems to genuinely care about every region.
"We need someone who can unite all parts of this country," said Park.
"This whole province has been feeling the hit for a number of years. We want every province to be fruitful, but it just doesn't feel that way."
No seat at the table
Linda Anderson rolls her eyes when she recounts how her neighbours put an end to Ralph Goodale’s political career.
"It was really like, let's get this wonderful guy, who's done so much for Saskatchewan, out," she said. "It's totally frustrating."
The Regina—Wascana riding makes up the most dense part of the provincial capital, including its university and art gallery. Joggers and couples with dogs circle Wascana Park, where a curvy lake abuts the legislature.
Goodale represented the riding for 26 years, until the 2019 election, when a third-party group with strong ties to the province's governing Saskatchewan Party went on an advertising blitz. Billboards around town linked Goodale with Trudeau’s energy policies.
Bill C-69 expanded the federal regulatory process for major projects, to include more environmental and health factors. Though virtually unheard of in other provinces, it was dubbed a "pipeline killer" across Alberta, Saskatchewan and southwest Manitoba.
Longtime resident Colin Ryane accepts Goodale advocated for Saskatchewan, but says he was still part of a team that brought about that sort of legislation.
"I didn’t dislike him, but I wasn’t a huge fan," he said, arguing all parties take the West for granted.
"In short, they've just forgotten about us, until they make it equitable. We deserve more of a voice."
Farney says it will be hard for Saskatchewan to navigate major issues without a voice at the cabinet table, if the Liberals get another mandate but no local seat.
The province is planning a massive, $4-billion irrigation project that will require federal cash and likely some regulatory approval.
Like Manitoba, Saskatchewan has a huge population of First Nations youth who face a stark socioeconomic gap, which can only be rectified through strong relationships with local leaders.
"That's hard to do from Winnipeg, let along Ottawa; that would play out in a lot of nuanced ways that are hard to pin down, unless you really know the file," Farney said.
To him, Winnipeg MP Carr and Saskatchewan-born Vancouver MP and environment minister Jonathan Wilkinson have only partially filled the gap Goodale left at the cabinet table.
"I don't think they are seen to carry the same type of weight."
The Liberals are targeting Regina—Wascana, as well as far-north Desnethé–Missinippi–Churchill River, which tends to vote based on local issues. The NDP are focused on the working-class riding of Regina—Lewvan, but fear a vote split with the Liberal candidate.
In Regina—Wascana, many Liberal supporters also dread the possibility their riding stays blue, due to an electoral system that rewards groupthink.
Anderson said a ranked ballot would better reflect voters in the Prairies, and blames the Liberals for turning their back on the 2015 pledge to do away with the current system.
"People assume in the West, they're all Conservative and it's a solid blue wall. But living in this region are lots of people who don't vote blue," said Anderson. "Saskatchewan is so divided."
Last week, just around the corner, Liberal candidate Sean McEachern had to call the police after someone harassed him and a group of campaigners for 45 minutes, throwing dog feces on his windshield.
Skip Cutz, 73, said the incident was probably a one-off, but he sees a growing rift between urban and rural voters.
"When some of old buggers are out golfing, I ask why they're mad with Trudeau, and they don't know. So I try not to ask about it," said Cutz, who has lived most of his life in the province.
"With the affluence, we've attached our wheel-wagon to that Alberta way of thinking, like that Quebec is taking our equalization payments and not allowing a pipeline."
Farney said the rise of the Reform Party prompted a series of policy changes that meant to address regional grievances. He worries the divide over oil is growing into something more that can't be fixed by economic policy.
"If it's cultural, then it's something much deeper and longer lasting, and more challenging to deal with from a federal perspective," he said.
Helen Abraha argues that sentiment transcends partisan politics.
She voted for the Liberals in 2015, but by 2019 she saw little progress on climate change, Indigenous reconciliation and equitable tax policies, and has supported the NDP since.
Abraha doubts her vote will have any impact, a sentiment expressed by almost all 40 people in Saskatchewan interviewed by the Free Press for this article.
"We need more of a seat at the table, and more funding," Abraha said. "We deserve a voice."