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Saskatchewan Education and Politics:

Underfunding public schools & overfunding private schools. 

Weyburn - Carla Beck_0.jpg

Politics in SK is getting interesting again. Recent polls show a real resurgence in NDP support but probably not quite enough to change the government in next year's election, on October 28 2024, The Saskatchewan Party, a conservative party, (SKP) is at 51% with the NDP at 45%. The NDP was polling at 59% in Regina and 65% in Saskatoon. Although this looks very promising, these two biggest cities make up just 42% of the SK population.  

You would have to add Prince Albert, Moose Jaw and Swift Current to get to 605 000 or over half the SK population of 1.17 million people. Even if the NDP could ‘run the table’ in urban SK they would still be just short of the 31 seats required to form a government.


What happened to the old Tommy Douglas CCF base or even the Roy Romanow, Lorne Calvert NDP base up to 2007? Well, in large part, but not totally, demographics happened. The poor CCF farmers of the Douglas era have been replaced by combinations of much larger farms and agribusiness. As farmers retired, their kids did not take over, instead, other, more prosperous farmers bought up the land, ran much bigger operations, became richer, and, as a result, became much more conservative. 


Some, on the further left, blame the NDP itself, for the decline, citing a willingness to cater to, if not kowtow to agribusiness and the fossil fuel industry with “Third Way neoliberalism”, like ordering public sector workers back to work, which is a definite buzz kill with organized labour. See the link for a critique from the left. Here’s a new word for readers - “Pasokification” named for the once powerful Pan Hellenic Socialist Party of Greece, PASOK, which shifted radically to the right under debt payment pressure from Merkel in Germany and Europe in general. They promptly disappeared from the serious political scene, replaced by the Syriza Party further to their left. This can happen to social democratic parties who make themselves irrelevant.


To be sure, this played a role but the SK NDP is up against a political reality that, in the 21C, is one of the great political dividing lines between urban vs rural values. Clearly the Alberta and Manitoba NDP suffer from the same demographic polarization with the rural areas voting conservative and urban areas voting NDP. Their big cities, Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg, however, are just a higher % of the population. The big exception to this is “rural” ridings, not dominated by farming, but by resource extraction like mining and lumbering, often involving organized labour for example, in northern Manitoba, northern Ontario, BC’s lumber and mining areas which are far more likely to vote NDP. We cannot really blame rural Gerrymandering today since 3-4 of the largest ridings, by population, elect SKP MLAs. 


The class based argument only takes you so far. In “What’s the Matter With Kansas” Thomas Frank deals with the Democratic Party case that poor rural folk are “voting against their own interests” in tax policy and social policy but research by Pew and others shows that they are very aware of what is at stake in politics but, notwithstanding progressive entreaties, rural folk, at least for now, still have more traditional and conservative views of the role of guns, abortion, immigration, sexual orientation, traditional gender roles, government involvement, patriotism and nationalism. Many are religious, even Evangelical and actively and consciously choose their socially conservative rural values over urban values, with their eyes wide open. They have not been duped. They don't suffer from false consciousness.  


The silver lining for the left is, that every year the cities get bigger and the rural areas get smaller as a % of the population. Cities over 100 000 make up 80% of Canada’s 40 million people. Long term, there will be riding redistributions and the NDP will gain from them and the SKP will lose ground, literally. Jack Layton was onto something, trying to make the NDP the urban party of Canada. A pillar of the long term NDP strategy is to take the Liberals off the chess board and create a de facto duopoly of the NDP and Conservatives. This has been accomplished, across western Canada, provincially speaking.


It may not be necessary for the NDP to actually win in 2024, so long as they make substantial gains and put the fear of God in the SKP causing them to “do better” for reasons of self preservation, if nothing else. 


How does education get caught in the political struggle in SK? The nutshell answer, from the progressive POV is too much money for private, usually religious schools and too little money for public schools. In 2012, SK schools had the highest per capita school funding in Canada even with the uber conservative Fraser Institute acknowledging this. Under the SKP, the funding has fallen to 8th place, among the provinces.

To add insult to injury, the SKP is funding private schools like never before. It is bad enough to fund “Christian” schools (read social conservative) but their funding is up 25% while public school funding is up less than 1%. There have been accusations of serious abuse at two SK religious schools, Legacy Christian School and Prairie Christian Academy. These schools use uncertified teachers and try to claim that since they are not fully funded, they are not viable using certified teachers. (see link)

There are other issues in SK education. SK has the second highest number of indigenous students after Manitoba and many FN kids suffer the double whammy of poverty and intergenerational trauma. There are high numbers in the city schools and the 2 northern ridings that are almost one third of SK by land area. Wherever you go in the world,

 poor kids have the lowest average achievement and this is exacerbated if they are racialized or indigenous. By now, readers know the POV of this publication. Increased funding for the schools educating poor kids is always in order, but education alone will never solve the poverty issue. SK has a 19% child poverty rate, the second highest in Canada behind Manitoba at 24%.The cart is before the horse. The objective must be the mitigation of poverty in the short run and elimination of poverty as our aspirational goal. This makes mass education truly possible. 

End Note: The other parties in SK barely merit a mention at this juncture. They share about 3% of the vote, Saskatchewan United Party is far right libertarian, The Buffalo Party promotes western separatism or Wexit, and the Green Party, obviously, promotes environmentalism. The former PC and Liberal parties have been absorbed by the SKP. 

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