A report by the Institute of Certified Management Consultants of Sask-atchewan with the title Think Big Saskatchewan makes interesting reading for anyone on the Canadian Prairies.
Its goal is to find ways to sustain the province’s economy beyond the current good times generated by a boom in commodity production and prices.
This boom in agricultural, petroleum and mineral commodities has allowed the three prairie provinces to prosper through what has been a difficult economic period in much of the rest of the developed world.
However, history shows that commodity booms turn to busts when new investment boosts production beyond demand.
The CMC paper suggests that the busts can be mitigated if an economy is diversified and includes processing and manufacturing.
It says diversification is easier when a region has a city of more than 500,000 people, which provides a self-sustaining economic engine offering the services, labour pool and infrastructure to attract processing and other businesses.
The paper suggests Alberta and Manitoba navigate through weak commodity markets better than Saskatchewan partly because they have big cities — Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg.
Also, a large city offers rural residents shopping and services, entertainment, medical services and airports. It provides a local consumer base for farmers markets, market gardens and rural tourism.
However, the road to a sustainable economy must go beyond establishing big cities.
The CMC paper emphasizes the choice is not urban or rural, but a partnership. The paper is only a first step. We suggest that future discussion include the following observations.
Cities might provide the infrastructure and labour pool that attracts industry, but the recent history of Western Canada in agricultural processing is not an urban experience.
The biggest growth in processing has been in canola crushing. It has happened in smaller centres such as Yorkton, Sask., and Lethbridge and towns such as Fort Saskatchewan Alta., and Altona, Man.
The meat business has the greatest labour needs, but it has largely abandoned large cities and located in such places as Brooks, Alta., Moose Jaw, Sask., and Brandon.
Efforts to foster processing must recognize that the decision to locate a plant depends on more than the labour resource.
The growth of a metropolis can also lead to an urban-rural political divide. Urban voters with little knowledge of what happens outside the perimeter highway can form majorities favouring policies that harm rural residents.
Unregulated low density urban growth paves over prime farmland. Misguided environmental regulation unfairly targets hog production or limits the use of pesticides that are safe and economically necessary.
To avoid conflict requires big thinking and urban-rural partnerships.
Members of provincial legislatures are elected to represent the interests of their ridings, but in their deliberations they must also consider the effect their legislation has on all people of the province.
Municipal politicians and civil servants also need to think beyond their boundaries. Regional planning is a necessity.
The right mindset in legislating, planning and development will help cities and their citizens become rooted in, and reflective of, their regions.
For urban people, the countryside must not become a place they drive through or fly over to get to somewhere else “important.”
Bruce Dyck, Terry Fries, Barb Glen, D’Arce McMillan and Joanne Paulson collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.