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Geography of Saskatchewan

By: Randy Widdis

Near Shackleton.
David McLennan

The view of Saskatchewan held by many Canadians is dominated by a number of images: Wheat-filled elevators overlooking flat fields of grain; children with toques pulled over their ears playing a game of shinny on a frozen slough in -30° weather; parents standing at their small town’s bus depot with their eyes full of tears, waving goodbye to a departing coach as it carries their child off to build a life elsewhere. While these symbols represent selected features of the place, they are illusory in the sense that they convey an image of a society that is as simple and amorphous as the horizontal landscape with which many people also associate Saskatchewan. But Saskatchewan is a more heterogeneous place than many people think, and geography serves as an insightful disciplinary canvas upon which to paint a more compelling picture of the province. This is an overview of the geography of Saskatchewan, identifying its major physical and cultural components but also examining the evolving connections between place and identity, in order to develop a more dynamic understanding of the province as it has transformed over time.

Place, Region and Identity

Geography seeks to understand the nature of place. Geographers systematically analyse the social, economic, political, and environmental processes operating in a place in order to provide an integrated understanding of its distinctiveness or character. The answer to the question, “What makes Saskatchewan unique?” requires a geographical approach that focuses on integration in place and interdependencies among places. In this context, it is important to consider interactions taking place over time within the province, and also those relations developing between Saskatchewan and the rest of Canada and the world.

Traditionally, the nature of and identification with this place have been built on the linked characteristics of rurality, agriculture, and isolation. However, the traditional culturally identifiable references—small towns and a wheat monoculture—are diminishing in importance: indeed, the iconography of the province, so dominated by a rural agricultural sector, experiencing decline in the face of global restructuring, is increasingly irrelevant. This raises the question, “What is this place becoming?” and emphasizes the need to shift conceptions of the province from an image mostly connected with a rural Euro-Canadian past to a present and future in which Aboriginal presence, urban dominance, and an evolving economy can be meaningfully articulated.

Spatial isolation resulting from physical barriers such as the Canadian Shield and the Rocky Mountains as well as great distances have combined with cultural separation to act as divisive forces within Canada, and have fostered attachments to province and region. The role played by geography is significant: Saskatchewan as region/place has evolved from the constant re-creation of society through human actions and interactions with a changing environment. These were carried out in historically and geographically specific contexts, but the transformations that took place also occurred in wider contexts of political, economic and social relationships with the rest of the country and the larger world.


Figure 1. This map shows Saskatchewan's geographical isolation. The Great Plains region, outlined in black, stretches from Canada's Northwest Territories through the mid-United States and into eastern Mexico
Canadian Plains Research Center Mapping Division
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A central tenet of geography is that location is key to understanding a wide variety of processes. Social and geographical isolation has historically played a role in the development of the province and, arguably, still functions to make this place unique. Its relative location within Canada, far from the largest markets, has always hindered the development of secondary manufacturing and, for many years now, has discouraged the in-migration of other Canadians and foreign-born alike. In a larger context, Saskatchewan is part of a greater North American international region (the Great Plains) that is primarily extractive, economically limited by its peripherality, and politically under-represented because of its small population1 (Figure 1). While geographical isolation continues to affect the pace of development, revolutions in Transportation and communication technology have reduced the costs associated with relative inaccessibility and generated scope for the development of high-tech and location-free industries. These include biotechnology and petroleum-based research, linked to the traditional agricultural and petroleum industries already prominent in the province.

The Physical Environment

Geographic research on the distinctiveness of place also focuses on the nature of relationships between humans and their physical environment. Saskatchewan has a number of distinct physical environments, and their peopling at different times has resulted in variable settlement experiences. Many Canadians are unaware of this diversity because most of those who pass through the province travel along the TRANS-CANADA HIGHWAY, across a part of the province that is flat: this reinforces the common perception of Saskatchewan as a place dominated by horizontal and monotonous landscapes. Those who take the time to explore the province know differently.

Geographers apply the concept of ecozone, defined as a spatial unit that describes particular biophysical features and underlying relationships, to illustrate the regional variety of physical environments. Saskatchewan has four ecozones—the prairie, boreal plains, boreal shield, and taiga shield—and three natural vegetation regions—grassland, parkland, and forest.2 The Shield is comprised of ancient, mostly crystalline rocks of Precambrian age (see Precambrian geology). Younger sedimentary rocks cover this crystalline basement in the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin that underlies the southern portion of Saskatchewan. The relatively flat landscape of this region is referred to as the Interior Plains. Prairie and boreal plains ecozones cover this region. (See ecoregions).

Grasslands dominate the drier prairie with Trees only growing near rivers where they can get enough moisture. The prairie is divided into tall and short grasses, the latter now concentrated in the drier southwestern part of the province. The parkland, a transitional zone separating the grassland and boreal forest, is covered with trees interspersed with grassland. Deciduous trees (aspen, poplar and birch) dominate in the south; conifers (spruce and pine) are more prevalent in the north. The parkland merges into the southern boreal forest as areas of grassland diminish and finally disappear. Black and brown Soils often derived from glacial deposits left during the last ice age are ideal for the cultivation of crops in the grassland and parkland. (See also Grasses and Grasslands, Native; trees; soils).

The southern part of the boreal forest lies within the Interior Plains; but to the north lies the Precambrian Shield, comprising crystalline basement rocks and the somewhat younger sedimentary rocks of the Athabasca Basin, which together represent more than three billion years of Earth history. Glacial Erosion scoured this land, creating a poorly drained region dotted with thousands of lakes, rivers and bogs. Agriculture is almost impossible because of thin grey soils, rocky and swampy terrain, and short growing season. Hardier coniferous trees prevail in this region. The taiga shield in the far northeastern part of the province is a transitional zone between the boreal forest to the south and the treeless Arctic tundra to the north. The black spruce and jack pine in this cold environment are widely spaced.

The entire province, with the exception of the Cypress Hills in the extreme southwest, was affected by glaciation. glacial deposition during the retreat of the ice sheets left behind a landscape of moraines, glacial spillways (e.g., the Qu’Appelle Valley), drumlins, and other related landforms. The last ice cap left a moraine-capped escarpment (the Missouri escarpment) running from 100 km west of the Manitoba border, angling northwestward to Swift Current and then north-northwest into Alberta. In many parts of the prairie are deposits formed on the floor of former Proglacial Lakes, creating the large expanses of flat land so prominent in southern Saskatchewan.

The Cypress Hills are the highest point in Canada between Labrador and the Rockies.
Canadian Plains Research Center Source: Ecoregions of Saskatchewan (1998)

The Cypress Hills, a plateau bypassed by the glaciers, reach as high as 1,392 metres, the highest point in Canada between Labrador and the Rockies. Cooler temperatures and greater precipitation than the surrounding Prairies produce a mixture of wet grasslands, aspen parkland and fescue prairie, as well as aspen, lodgepole pine and white spruce forest. Other distinctive landforms include the badlands of south-central Saskatchewan, characterized by unusually shaped rocks, sandstone bluffs, and cliffs. The Athabasca Sand Dunes, along the south shore of Lake Athabasca in the northwest, form the largest dune fields in Canada. Other sand dune areas occur in the Great Sand Hills, Douglas Provincial Park, and Good Spirit Lake.3

Saskatchewan’s climate can be classified a number of different ways. Generally, the southern areas (especially the southwest) are drier, while the north has cooler summers and colder winters. The province’s continental position and the unencumbered invasion of cold Arctic air masses from the north and warm Gulf of Mexico air masses from the south usually ensure both long cold winters and hot dry summers. The prevailing westerlies that come from the Pacific are dry because they lose most of their moisture in the form of orographic precipitation as they cross the Rockies.

Because Saskatchewan depends so much on agriculture, it is understandable that Climate is a subject that engenders much discussion. In this context, the issue of climate change is one that attracts considerable attention. Most climate change scenarios for the prairie provinces, predicated on increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, indicate a rapid increase in temperatures, a reduction in soil moisture because of higher evapo-transpiration, and a greater incidence of extreme climate events. While predicted increases in temperature would lengthen the growing season, higher temperatures and lower soil moisture could adversely affect agriculture, particularly in the drier regions of the province. The potential impact of climate change on agriculture, forest ecosystems, recreation and tourism, wildlife and biodiversity, aquatic ecosystems, water supply and demand, and other aspects of Saskatchewan’s economy and environment, is a topic for debate. The perceived inevitability of this change, regardless of its nature and dimensions, is something that concerns many. (See Climate Change: The Future).

Historical Geography

Widely divergent soil types, vegetation, and surface features at the local and regional scales as well as significant differences in climate between north and south produced a variable setting for the historical evolution of the province. In the far north, the last glacier receded about 9,000 years ago. As the ice disappeared the land was colonized by plants, animals, and people. The early forest cultures that followed established hunting and gathering societies based on moose, woodland caribou, beaver, waterfowl, and fish. In the sub-Arctic climate zone of the taiga shield, people hunted the barren ground caribou as they migrated between the Arctic tundra in the summer and the northern edge of the boreal forest in the winter. In the south the glaciers had receded several thousand years earlier. The first grasslands peoples, belonging to the Clovis material culture, hunted Pleistocene species such as mammoth, prehistoric bison and horses during the period 11,500 to 10,500 years before present (see archaeology). A number of cultures followed, and with the extinction of the Pleistocene species the subsistence economies of these groups became focused on Bison. The development of the bow and arrow facilitated large-scale, communal bison hunts during the Late Plains Indian period (2,000 to a little over 300 years ago).4

It is generally believed that Henry Kelsey, a Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) agent who followed the Saskatchewan River from Hudson Bay in 1690–91, was the first European to enter present-day Saskatchewan. At that time, the Denesuline (Dene) were the only cultural group in the far north. Woodland peoples belonging to the Cree culture lived in the boreal forest. Atsinas (Gros Ventre) inhabited the grasslands of west-central and southwestern Saskatchewan, while Nakota (Assiniboine) bands occupied the eastern half of the grasslands at that time.5 The Dene are believed to have obtained some European goods as early as the 1620s, procuring them from Cree who lived further south and east. By 1682 the HBC had established a post at Port Nelson on Hudson Bay, and endeavoured to establish permanent trade with the Dene. In 1717, Fort Churchill was built at the mouth of the Churchill River and Dene from northern Saskatchewan came to trade there. Following Samuel Hearne’s travels to Lake Athabasca in 1769–72, Peter Pond in 1779 supervised the construction of the first HBC trading post in the region, about 50 km from the mouth of the Athabasca River. Ten years later, this post was replaced by Fort Chipewyan, which was built on the southwestern shore of Lake Athabasca.6

The Plains Cree were originally a woodland group who adopted the horse-bison culture when they moved into central and southern Saskatchewan in the early 18th century. With the beginning of trade with the English and French on James Bay and Hudson Bay in the late 17th century, the western Cree and Nakota of present-day northwestern Ontario and Manitoba no longer had to rely on the Ottawa and Ojibwa for European goods (e.g., steel traps, guns) they wanted. Almost immediately, the Nakota and western Cree began building trading networks toward the grasslands/parkland region.7 By this time, the horse had been reintroduced to the North American plains from New Mexico, and was quickly integrated into the economic and social life of the Indians of the region.

Firearms and the fur trade had an indelible impact on the Plains Cree and the Dene. Within a short period of time, Natives prized European goods for both utilitarian purposes and as new forms of wealth. They exchanged furs (beaver and buffalo) and meat for trade goods, and gradually adopted more of the Europeans’ food, clothing and technology. While western Aboriginal peoples originally travelled to Hudson Bay to trade, they eventually persuaded both the French and the English to establish trading posts in their territories: Cumberland House was built in 1774 to include the Saskatchewan area.

Recent research challenges the traditional interpretation of this trade, which assumes that First Nations peoples fell into a subordinate and dependent relationship vis-à-vis the Europeans. The revisionist position is summarized by Thistle, who states:

Natives in the region were numerically superior and knowledgeable enough to maintain a significant degree of control over their participation in the production of fur and in the transportation and provisioning systems, as well as the strategic balance of power. The social and political systems of First Nations peoples clearly served as the basis for the structuring of the early fur-trade periods as it is apparent that changes in the Native material culture was predicated on their own needs and world views. On the other hand, it was Europeans who adapted themselves […] to the “customs of the country.” During the period from 1690 to 1840, Europeans were clearly unable to impose their own conditions on the relationship with Native peoples and, therefore, found it necessary to adapt themselves to the existing social, political, technological, and economic systems of the First Nations peoples of the regions.8

Despite the efforts of the French and English to manipulate the conditions of trade and rival bands to their advantage, Native peoples took advantage of the rivalries between the Europeans before 1763, and between the trading companies after that date, to attain as advantageous a position as possible within the system. Over time, however, the continued expansion of the Fur Trade resulted in differing paths of development and relationships with the trading companies. Parkland Cree and Nakota intensified their hunting of bison to meet the growing provision requirements of the HBC and North West Company, and consequently became less dependent on the trapping and trading of furs to obtain goods. This transition from a woodland- to a grassland-based economy gradually reduced their reliance on the trading companies, as they found that the bison would meet many of their requirements for survival. Those groups remaining in the Forests, however, faced a different situation. Over-hunting meant that the Woodland Nakota, Cree, and Ojibwa had to rely increasingly on trapping—in spite of the fact that the fur resource was declining. Increased trapping intensified their dependence on European ammunition, axes, traps, cloths, blankets, and other equipment.9

Yet eventually, the parkland and grassland tribes would lose their advantage. Missionary activity challenged traditional forms of leadership, and Native peoples concentrated around permanent settlements. The impact of disease and the near extinction of the buffalo had a devastating effect on Native groups. It was at this time that the nature of the relationship with Europeans changed from that of parity and, arguably, control, to dependence.10 The HBC was not prepared to replace the bison with another food source for the Plains Indians: instead, the Canadian government provided sustenance, but required these nomadic hunters to relocate and settle on reserves.11

During the mid-19th century, British and Canadian expeditions, the former led by John Palliser and the latter by Henry Youle Hind and Simon Dawson respectively (see Palliser and Hind Expeditions), explored the prairies. Both expeditions divided the western interior into two zones: a fertile belt appropriate for agricultural settlement, which loosely followed a trajectory along the North Saskatchewan River from the Red River Settlement to the Rockies; and an arid area (Palliser’s Triangle) south of that arc which was seen as suitable only for grazing. Both parties failed to explore the far southwestern part of present-day Saskatchewan, choosing instead to make second-hand references to this area as the northern extension of the Great American Desert.12 The impact of these expeditions and the subsequent and more favourable report of John Macoun were significant. The region was no longer viewed as a wilderness suitable only for the fur trade, but as an area with great potential for agriculture. Indeed, as one historian maintains, the information contained in their reports “provided the basis for the redefinition of the geography of the North West.”13

In 1868, legislation was passed enabling the Crown to accept the surrender of Rupert’s Land (see Rupert’s Land Purchase). This was followed in 1870 by an Order-in-Council that set out the details of transfer to the Dominion government and the entry of Manitoba into Confederation, after which the lands of present-day Saskatchewan and Alberta were administered as territories (see boundaries).14 After the exile of their leader Louis Riel, disillusioned Métis from southern Manitoba began to settle land along the South Saskatchewan River. Métis buffalo hunters previously had temporary camps throughout southern Saskatchewan, including the Qu’Appelle Valley, Duck Lake and Batoche areas, and later returned to these places, establishing permanent agricultural settlements to supplement traditional hunting. It was as this time that the Canadian government began negotiation of treaties with the Native peoples in preparation for an expected influx of settlers.

The salient features of Canadian land policy in the west—homesteads, land survey, and railway land grants—were transplants from the United States. The sectional survey system, with its geometrical design, was intended to get settlers on the land as cheaply and quickly as possible. Although western Canada’s first Homestead Act was passed in 1872, the region failed to attract the hundreds of thousands of Europeans and North Americans moving westward. Between 1870 and 1896, adjacent American lands were filling up while the Canadian prairies remained largely empty of White settlement. The lack of rail connections to export points limited development before 1879, but the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1886 and the extension of its subsidiary, the Soo Line Railway, to the Canadian border removed this barrier. Yet settlement still proceeded slowly: less than 170,000 people settled in the three North-West Territories (Assiniboia, Saskatchewan, Alberta) between 1881 and 1886.15

The Métis of the Saskatchewan Valley had settled the land before the survey was begun, and dreaded the prospect of White settlement. Appeals to the government to have their river lots legally recognized were only partially successful: established lots were acknowledged, but new areas needed for expansion would only be surveyed under the sectional system. The Métis believed the land was theirs by right of their Indian parentage, and objected to having to wait three years for title as immigrants did.16 They asked Louis Riel to return to Canada to lead the protest for land rights. Ottawa ignored their demands, and in 1885 the Métis and their Indian allies proclaimed a provisional government. Following an armed skirmish at Duck Lake between the Métis, Natives, Mounted Police and White volunteers, Ottawa sent an armed force under General F.D. Middleton to quell the revolt. They eventually succeeded, Riel was executed, and the Métis were forced to live under the new order.17

Only by 1896, when lands to the south had largely filled and the worldwide recession of the 1890s was ending, did significant numbers of settlers begin to flow into the region. The British were the largest immigrant group (N=562,054) between 1900 and 1910, although the numbers of Americans (N=497,249) and, to a lesser extent, continental Europeans (N=394,088) increased dramatically at the end of the decade. While many of the British were attracted to the developing industrial heartland of Ontario and Québec, Americans and continental Europeans were more responsive to the opportunities presented by settlement in the west. Between 1897 and 1910, 32% of arrivals from continental Europe and 42% of arrivals from the United States made homestead entry in western Canada.18 This influx of population and the development of an economy based primarily on agriculture played a direct role in the creation of Saskatchewan as a province in 1905.

Eight-horse One Way, June 1947.
Everett Baker (Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society)

A basic fact of immigrant life in Saskatchewan and in the west was the inherent tension between the centrifugal forces of new social patterns on the one hand, and the centripetal attractions of nucleated settlement and cultural retention on the other. The Rural Settlement Patterns of the region as well as the associated Urban Geography were influenced by a variety of factors including soil quality, land availability, and access to markets and railways. But for large numbers of Europeans and transplanted European migrants from the United States, settlement was also shaped by social factors: kinship and kith affiliation, and ethnic congregation were primary migratory forces. Communities in the west were centred on ethnic institutions that served as a basis for social ties. In the resultant Ethnic Bloc Settlements, family, church and community structured local society and relationships.

Despite the competing pulls of the novel and the familiar, allegiances both to the new nation and to transplanted cultural traditions could coexist in Saskatchewan, although at times this relationship was uneasy. Ethno-cultural groups were influenced by Anglo-conformity, but also by transplanted and re-institutionalized cultural practices. While the availability of “free”19 homestead land enabled cultural groups to congregate in space, it also created economic opportunities which reduced the potential for conflict that arises from scarcity. Thus, while segregation did occur to some extent in Saskatchewan and the west, evidence shows that “neighbourly contacts with families of different ethnicity but from the same region, as well as interaction with English-speaking groups in the marketplace, precluded the emergence of mono-cultural blocs… Bloc settlement could thus be regionally homogeneous but ethnically diverse.”20

Other factors—the National Policy (1879) and low freight rates established under the 1897 Crow’s Nest Pass Agreement, and the new strains of wheat developed to grow in the harsh climate of the prairies—also played a role in developing the economy and attracting settlers to Saskatchewan. During the first three decades of the 20th century, Saskatchewan was Canada’s fastest growing province: between 1900 and 1930, there were 303,000 homestead entries. The population grew from 91,000 in 1901 to 922,000 in 1931, and during this interval the number of farms increased from 13,000 to 136,000.21 A linear pattern of service centres emerged across the prairies, controlled and directed by the railways: stations with Grain Elevators were established 8–18 km apart, thus easily accessible to most farmers. Other services were soon established, catering to the farmers’ needs. Those centres most favourably situated, chosen as the location of government or commercial enterprises, or benefiting from the energy and acumen of local leaders, moved quickly to the top of the urban hierarchy.

The development of the province and the western region in general, both during the fur trade and agricultural settlement periods, occurred in wider contexts of political, economic and social relationships that Swainson contends were characterized by dependence and exploitation:

The area and its resources were controlled from outside, for the benefit of several distant centres, whose relative importance changed from time to time. London, Montreal and Toronto, the major and competing metropolises, were flanked by such lesser competitors as Minneapolis-St. Paul, Benton and Vancouver. A prime result of this pattern of development has been a continuing resistance to outside controls. At the same time, the character of western people and institutions has been heavily influenced by forces outside western control.22

For example, Potyondi argues that during the fur trade era, Native peoples and Métis were “in the vanguard of the assault on the very resources that gave their cultures meaning. In turning their profound knowledge of the regional ecosystem to monetary advantage, they quickly depleted the natural resources of the plains to satisfy a far-off, metropolitan-based demand that they scarcely understood.”23

External influences on development were also evident in the federal control of public lands and natural resources in the three prairie provinces, which lasted for twenty-five years after Saskatchewan and Alberta achieved provincial status. Ironically, the three provinces gained control of their lands and resources just as the Great Depression brought dreadful conditions for western grain farmers, already heavily indebted to eastern banks and trust companies. Thousands declared bankruptcy, and anger was directed towards federal policies that prevented farmers from taking advantage of cheaper American farm machinery and consumer goods during a time when their grain was sold on world markets at abysmally low prices. This frustration translated into the creation of social movements and political parties (Progressive Party, the United Farmers of Canada, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, Social Credit Party) which assailed eastern capitalists and politicians.24 During the 1930s, Saskatchewan experienced drought, falling grain prices, out-migration, farm consolidation, the beginning of rural-urban migration, and the decline of rural communities. Although economic conditions improved during the war years with increasing yields and grain prices, the population continued to decline, falling by more than 100,000 during the 1930s and 1940s.25

A notable feature of Saskatchewan is the prevalence of Co-operatives across different economic sectors (see Co-operatives in saskatchewan). The first co-operative was organized by wheat farmers in the early 1900s to help market and distribute crops. The largest today is the now publicly traded Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, which operates grain elevators and terminals, livestock yards, and many other facilities. Other co-operatives are active in retailing, wholesaling, housing, banking, and other service industries. This co-operative consciousness also made its way into politics. The socialist Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), which was organized in 1933 during the nadir of the Depression, emphasized the need for government intervention in the economy in general and the importance of Crown corporations specifically. The party designated Health Care and agriculture as the primary issues in the 1944 election, and swept to power on the basis of overwhelming rural support. The first “socialist” government in North America put into place policies that have persisted, in spite of changing administrations.

forestry, the oil and gas industry, the potash industry and uranium mining spurred economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s. This, in turn, triggered the development of the service sector. As a consequence, agriculture, although still the most important industry in the province, gradually decreased in terms of its primacy. International trade of primary resources continued to be the lifeblood of the Saskatchewan economy during the last few decades of the 20th century, but gradually the economy diversified.

Human Geography


Figure 2. Percentage of Population 65+, Canada, provinces and territories, 2001.
Canadian Plains Research Center
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Any consideration of population in Saskatchewan has to take into account the context of socio-economic trends such as increased farm size and mechanization, declining farm incomes due to agricultural restructuring and decreasing prices, increasing loss of community services, and greater mobility resulting from improvements in the transportation system. The population of the province has displayed only minimal growth since the middle of the 20th century, and most projections maintain that growth will continue to be slow in the immediate future. Among the provinces, only Newfoundland and Labrador exhibited lower growth than Saskatchewan during the period 1981–2001. Compared with the other provinces, Saskatchewan has the highest elderly dependency ratio (Figure 2)26: this is a consequence of a declining fertility rate and a significant out-migration of the young. Interprovincial Migration has resulted in a net population loss for most of the last thirty years, as both young and old leave the province in record numbers. The result will be fewer people in the workforce, more people collecting pensions, and greater demands on the health care system. Saskatchewan also has relatively low attraction and retainment of immigrant rates when compared to other provinces.27

Yet, while the overall population of Saskatchewan is experiencing slow growth, the same cannot be said for the Aboriginal sector of the province. Registered Indians, living on and off reserves, increased to 90,797 in 2000 from 74,095 in 1996—an increase of 23%. In January 2001, approximately 143,000 registered and non-registered Aboriginals comprised about 14% of Saskatchewan’s population of just fewer than one million people. The net growth of this population sector is currently about 5% per year,28 and projections made of the Aboriginal population in 2045 range from 434,000 to just less than one million. Even using the lower estimate, Aboriginals are expected to make up approximately 32.5% of Saskatchewan’s population at that time, compared to 13.3% in 1995.29

Northern Saskatchewan’s population differs from the south in that the relative proportions of First Nations (Cree and Dene) and Métis are greater. Yet Aboriginal people from both northern and southern reserves and communities are joining non-Natives in-migrating to the province’s largest cities. In 2001, Saskatoon was the country’s youngest metropolitan area, due primarily to the fertility of its large Aboriginal population. Regina also had a much younger population than most other cities in Canada, for the same reason.30

The Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce has identified population growth as a priority for the province. Migrants tend to be young, skilled, and in their family-raising years. Depopulation creates a vicious downward spiral that erodes the foundation of rural communities: those who remain are proportionately older and poorer than urban populations, and struggle to maintain basic services. Fewer people mean fewer businesses, fewer tax dollars, and a deteriorating infrastructure. These conditions combine to repel both businesses and people from locating in these centres, and drive out those who would seek better prospects elsewhere. Many are also pulled to neighbouring provinces by the promise of a better living standard: in 2001, Alberta and Manitoba had better job creation records than Saskatchewan (64,787, 17,499, and 4,268 respectively). Saskatchewan’s greater dependence on agriculture, primary resources and a less diversified economy means that the province feels the effects of poor markets and low commodity prices more than the other prairie provinces.31 (See also Population Trends.)

A struggling farm economy and resultant community decline have fuelled rural-urban migration within Saskatchewan: more and more, people are moving to the larger centres, particularly Saskatoon and Regina, where greater opportunities for employment exist. In addition, improved transportation has increased the attraction of larger communities, and shopping patterns for rural people have shifted from nearby rural communities to regional shopping centres, where more businesses, greater variety, and lower prices are available. This circumvention of small- and mid-sized communities discourages new commercial development from locating in these centres, and hastens their decline.

Economic Geography

The economy of the province remains highly export-oriented and includes the traditional resource-based industries (agriculture, Forestry and mineral extraction), a limited manufacturing base, and a small but growing high-tech sector focusing on industries such as Biotechnology, aerospace, and petroleum-based research. As is the case elsewhere, non-industrial sectors of the economy have expanded more than industrial sectors. The prices for primary products fluctuate significantly, but increasing diversification of the economy has served to offset somewhat the downturns in primary prices and sales that occur from time to time. The relative prosperity of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, a period that witnessed some declines but was generally characterized by modest growth, gave way in the 1980s to more severe recessions: “World overproduction of small grains, coupled with the failure of GATT to restore order in international grain markets, resulted in several successive years in which prices received were at or below the cost of production.”32 Smaller subsidies, a leaner safety net, and the termination of the Crow Rate, which resulted in a substantial increase in the cost of shipping grain, hurt agriculture. All this took place within the context of a global restructuring of the industry, resulting in a shift away from grain Farming to a more diversified crop and livestock base.

In most rural communities, agriculture is no longer the major direct employer, and farm mechanization and amalgamation have substantially reduced the demand for farm Labour. The number of farms has decreased; average values of farmland have fallen; farm income has shrunk relative to the average income per worker in other sectors; farm debt has risen; and wheat prices have declined. Rural communities in general and farmers in particular are desperately trying to adapt to new institutional arrangements of global restructuring. While the 1990s were kinder to Saskatchewan, particularly because of the emergence of a new economy made possible by agricultural diversification, limited manufacturing growth and the expansion of new technologies especially in Saskatoon and Regina, hundreds of rural communities experienced significant decline and some even became extinct. Saskatchewan enjoys a low unemployment rate—5.6% in January 2004, the third lowest in the country—but this figure is tempered by the out-migration of those people who might otherwise find it difficult to gain employment.33

Table 1. Saskatchewan Exports outside of Canada ($ millions) by Industry and Total, 1995 to 1999
Canadian Plains Research Center
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Despite some modest diversification, the Saskatchewan economy is still reliant on primary exports and therefore remains strongly affected by global trends (Table 1). In 2001, total exports of $22 billion accounted for 73% of Saskatchewan’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a figure that sustained and/or created 220,000 jobs. The largest trading partner for both Canada and Saskatchewan is the United States: in 2002, the province shipped $6.9 billion worth of products to the US.34 The most important exports—non-durum and durum wheat, oats, barley, and Canola seed—are sold primarily to the West Coast (California, Oregon and Washington) and the Midwest (Illinois and Minnesota). Saskatchewan Agriculture is attempting to expand its markets in Europe, particularly Germany and the United Kingdom, and in Japan.35 Drought, a higher Canadian dollar, and BSE (Mad Cow Disease) have recently reduced agri-food exports; but exports still increased by 5% between 2002 and 2003 owing to export sales of energy, minerals, industrial goods, forestry products, and machinery and equipment.36 In total, mineral resources now account for a larger proportion of export value than agriculture. In the future, agriculture will further diversify, with greater emphasis on cattle and hog raising; processing grains into foods, feeds, alcohol and ethanol; and the development of nutraceutical and dermaceutical industries (organic food, vitamins and minerals, herbs).

Saskatchewan’s strongest inter-provincial trade ties are with Ontario, the neighbouring prairie provinces, and Québec. With the exception of the Atlantic region and the Territories, Saskatchewan had trade deficits in the 1990s with every major region of Canada, a point that reflects the relatively underdeveloped state of the province’s manufacturing sector. Between 1992 and 1998, Ontario was the province’s primary domestic trading partner, accounting for $2.1 billion (33%) of total inter-provincial exports and $3.9 billion (37%) of inter-provincial imports. Major imports from Ontario include Automobiles, pharmaceuticals, food products, and computers.37

As agriculture declines in relative terms, oil and gas extraction is playing a greater role in the economy of southern Saskatchewan: in January 2004, some 400 companies employed 22,000 people directly or indirectly in this sector. Saskatchewan is the second-highest oil-producing province, with 20% of all Canadian crude oil and equivalent production. It is also the third-highest gas-producing province. Refineries in Regina and Lloydminster upgrade the heavy, viscous oil that is dominant in Saskatchewan.38 In addition, the province is the largest world producer and exporter of potash.

Mining and forestry, so important in the northern half of the province, have also been features of the post-war economy. Saskatchewan is the world’s largest Uranium producer; this is the most important export from the north, but there has also been extraction of base metals such as copper, nickel, and zinc, as well as of gold, silver, and other precious minerals. Exploration for Diamonds could generate future mines. Total mineral sales in 2001 were $2.4 billion, about 6% of the provincial GDP.39 During the 1960s, the increasing demand for paper and other wood-based materials resulted in the expansion of forestry: more than half the province is forested, and in 2003 the industry put more than $750 million into the provincial economy.40

The development of forestry and mining in the north disrupted the land base of Aboriginal peoples, and precipitated a change in the relations between traditional hunting and gathering societies and non-Natives representing both provincial and external capital interests. Increasingly, First Nations, Métis and non-Natives, both northerners and from elsewhere, were employed as wage labourers in a resource sector. In addition, many new businesses have been created in the service sector through government, First Nations and corporate investment. However, wages in these industries are generally low.

A relatively rapid transition from a hunting and gathering periphery to an extractive industrial periphery has occurred in northern Saskatchewan. Unfortunately, forestry and mining are subject to the vagaries of the world market: this fact, combined with the significant multiplier leakage associated with these industries, results in high rates of unemployment and dependency. This dependency is exacerbated by the reality that external interests control the primary flows of capital into and out of the region. Despite the traditional importance of resource extraction and production, it is the tourism industry that many northern communities look to as the key to development, notwithstanding the considerable obstacle presented by geographical isolation.

As the First Nations population increases relative to the rest of the population, its role in the provincial economy is becoming more crucial. Treaty Land Entitlement (TLE) agreements are slowly providing the capital needed by First Nations to purchase land and engage in economic activities, a significant development in light of the fact that the Aboriginal population is growing faster than the Aboriginal employment rate. The funding received as a result of these agreements is often invested in a manner that reflects a collective approach to economic development. This approach, according to Robert Anderson, serves three purposes: “the attainment of economic self-sufficiency as a necessary condition for the realization of self-government at the First Nation level; the improvement of the socio-economic circumstances of the people of the First Nations; [and] the preservation and strengthening of traditional culture, values and languages, and the reflection of the same in development activities.”41 Yet while many advocate a collective approach, there is disagreement among First Nations people regarding economic development, especially in areas of forestry and gaming. Those who are business- and politically minded want to take charge of economic opportunities that exist in the larger society. Others oppose this type of development, which they view as essentially foreign to Indian culture, preferring instead to leave the land in its natural state and strive for alternative forms of growth.

Culture and Landscapes42

Landscapes reveal and evoke the personality of a place. Geographers argue that landscape is more than the visible, concrete elements associated with human occupation: it may also be conceptualized as a metaphorical text which, like a book, can be read and written by individuals and groups for different purposes and with many different interpretations. Geographers contend that landscapes reveal much about alienation, power relations, and dependency.

There are a number of cultural landscape images that give us lasting connections to the place called Saskatchewan—symbols and metaphors that dominate artistic expressions of the province in a variety of media. The visible and perceptual imprint of humankind that is most associated with the province, both within and without, is the agricultural landscape, a landscape where the sectional survey ensures that geometry triumphs over geography, at least in the south. Traditionally, southern Saskatchewan was dominated by the isolated, dispersed farmstead: the product of a settlement pattern created by a survey system designed to get people on the land quickly, with little regard for the isolation that it produced. However, the countryside was and still is interspersed with pockets of clustered farm settlements, where various ethno-cultural (e.g., Ukrainians, Germans) and ethno-religious (e.g., Hutterites, Mennonites) groups have located together in order to maintain their culture and communal ways of life.

Table 2. Saskatchewan's Ethnic Ancestry, 2003
Canadian Plains Research Center
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Saskatchewan is made up of people from more than fifty ethnic and racial origins. In the 2001 Census, 963,150 Saskatchewanians reported ethnic ancestry in the groups shown in Table 2. The imprints of this ethnicity on the cultural landscape—sometimes striking, more often subtle—are revealed in the Architecture, language, Religion, and dress, as well as the settlement pattern, of Saskatchewan’s ethno-cultures. With a few exceptions, ethnicity is more visible in rural parts of the province, where sites and buildings closely associated with particular ethnic groups stand out because of lower surrounding densities.

While the rural portion of southern Saskatchewan is defined largely by the agricultural landscape, despite the significance of potash mining and the growing importance of the energy sector its counterpart to the north is characterized by a more rugged natural environment and a small, dispersed population. Yet the human imprint is still very much evident in the boreal forest. Northern Saskatchewan is varied topographically, and challenges the clichés of the flat prairie. Forestry and its associated pulp and paper production, and uranium and other mining activities have given rise to structures and communities that sometimes have a limited life span (e.g., Uranium City). The exploitation associated with this primary activity has profoundly affected the natural landscape, but there is also evidence of the more recent efforts of humans to inject sustainable principles into their development.

Community as place and value is the symbol most associated with the rural landscape. Yet the rural landscape is no longer secure, and is increasingly marred by an imposed relic landscape of abandonment: see-through houses litter the landscape; barns, churches, schools, businesses, and train stations stand empty of both people and animals.

Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church of St. Elia, built in 1953, is a long-recognized landmark in east central Saskatchewan. Located in Wroxton, approximately 40 km eastof Yorkton, the traditional onion-domed design of the church clearly reflects the ethnicity of the community.
David McLennan

The cities present a number of different cultural landscapes that reflect successive phases of capitalist development. Both Regina and Saskatoon grew rapidly as service centres, and neither developed much of an industrial base: as a result, the industrial landscape so prominent in other major centres in North America is not much in evidence in either city. Notable exceptions include the oil refinery and steel mill in Regina. In both Regina and Saskatoon, the present cityscape bears evidence of what has been termed the post-Fordist era of capitalism, in which factories are small and more flexible in their methods of production. In addition, research and development are carried on in Research Parks present on university campuses in both cities.

These changes in the cityscape prompt reflection upon what these places are becoming. Certainly, there is much evidence of the construction of landscapes that are increasingly distant from the environment and the history of the region. It seems that all cities, not just those in Saskatchewan, are being taken over by developments (e.g., strip malls, fast food and clothing chains) that are built on a national and very often American-based model, and are insensitive to local cultural and visual traits. Efficient they may be, particularly in this automobile-dominated society, but to many they are blight on the landscape. The continuing expansion of capitalism is accompanied by countervailing tendencies towards homogenization; a trend most clearly expressed by the large “box” businesses (e.g., Wal-Mart, Home Depot) that now dominate the landscape of the suburbs. This kind of development is occurring at the expense of the central business districts, and decay in the form of vacant buildings is very much evident in Saskatchewan’s cities.

Old bank and fire hall in Liberty, Saskatchewan, are an example of the province's “relic landscape of abondonment.”
David McLennan

The most significant paradox evident in the cultural makeup of Saskatchewan is that which exists between Native and non-Native societies. The immense social changes that indigenous peoples have experienced are reflected in both the rural and urban landscapes. The Indian reserve can be interpreted as a landscape of segregation, the result of a colonial process of subjugation and a cultural ideology of racism; alternatively, it can be viewed as a landscape of congregation, a place where cultural identity is ensured, ironically, by geographical and social isolation. No matter how it is interpreted, the reserve, with a few exceptions, is a place of poverty: the reserve system isolates people from the larger economy, and the result for the most part has been disastrous poverty and social ills.

Research Park, University of Regina.
University of Regina, Photography Department

Increasingly, Saskatchewan Native groups have left impoverished reserves to find jobs in cities, so that today over 50% of Aboriginal people in the province reside in urban areas. Yet while cities and towns are home to the majority of Native and Métis people, there is little in the urban landscape that is reflective of their traditional rural-based ways of life. While many who left the reservation have enjoyed the “benefits” of city life—better employment and Education prospects, improved housing, better transportation and communication, and so on—for others, the cycle of poverty continues as much in the city as it did on the reserve. Standards of Aboriginal housing are often below what is required for basic health, safety and comfort, and Aboriginals frequently find themselves segregated within urban ghettos. Yet the Native urban landscape is undergoing change: Treaty Land Entitlement has resulted in the purchase of a number of urban reserves that present greater opportunities for economic development. The newly constructed campus of the First Nations University of Canada in Regina bears witness to this change, and serves as a symbol for a new kind of place-making in which Aboriginal people no longer feel alienated.


This overview has emphasized to a considerable degree the complex and dynamic nature of Saskatchewan, a place of varied landscapes and ecosystems with a society where different races and cultures overlap. The real Saskatchewan is no longer rural, dominated by flat fields of wheat and by small towns; it is a place undergoing economic, social, cultural and political transformations. The traditional icons associated with the province no longer reflect the place that it is becoming. It is a place of dualities: Native/non-Native, urban/rural, grasslands/forest, north/south. Within this context the historical myth of an unlimited future, promised in the propaganda images of “A Garden of Eden” and “The Last Best West,” must be juxtaposed against a present and future reality of a province whose development has been, and will continue to be, confronted by geographical, demographic, economic, social, and political challenges.


1. Joel Garreau, in his book The Nine Nations of North America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), included southern Saskatchewan within a greater North American nation that he identified as the “Bread Basket,” and the rest of the province within an international nation called the “Empty Quarter.” In the former, southern Saskatchewan was linked with the American northern plains, the upper Midwest states, southern Manitoba and southern Alberta, on the basis that each region within this “nation” is based on a renewable economy and a productive agricultural sector. In the latter, the rest of the province is linked with the central and northern parts of Manitoba, Alberta and the mountain west states of America on the basis of small populations, rich energy resources, and vast wilderness.

2. David Gauthier and Ed Wiken, “Ecoregions of Saskatchewan.” In Peter Jonker, John Vandall, Lawrence Baschak and David Gauthier (eds.), Caring For Homeplace: Protected Areas and Landscape Ecology (Saskatoon and Regina: University Extension Press and Canadian Plains Research Center, 1997), 4.

3. Information on the physical environments of Saskatchewan comes primarily from: Gauthier and Wiken, “Ecoregions of Saskatchewan”; Jeffrey Thorpe, “The Life: Vegetation and Life Zones.” In Henry Epp (ed.), Three Hundred Prairie Years: Henry Kelsey’s “Inland Country of Good Report” (Regina: University of Regina, Canadian Plains Center, 1993), 11–16.

4. David Meyer, “People Before Kelsey: An Overview of Cultural Developments.” In Epp, Three Hundred Prairie Years, 54–73.

5. Ibid., 70–71.

6. “Human History in Far Northern Saskatchewan” (February 17, 2004): 2–4. Canoe Saskatchewan Site: http://www.canoesaskatchewan.rkc.ca/.

7. Arthur J. Ray, “Some Thoughts About the Reasons for Spatial Dynamism in the Early Fur Trade, 1580–1800.” In Epp, Three Hundred Prairie Years, 115.

8. Paul Thistle, “Dependence and Control: Indian-European Trade Relations in the Post-Kelsey Era.” In Epp, Three Hundred Prairie Years, 128–29.

9. Arthur J. Ray, Indians in the Fur Trade: Their Role as Hunters, Trappers and Middlemen in the Lands Southwest of Hudson Bay, 1660–1870 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974), 147.

10. Thistle, “Dependence and Control,” 129.

11. James Dempsey, “Effects on Aboriginal Cultures Due to Contact with Henry Kelsey.” In Epp, Three Hundred Prairie Years, 135.

12. Barry Potyondi, In Palliser’s Triangle: Living in the Grasslands, 1850–1930 (Saskatoon: Purich Publishing, 1995), 39.

13. Douglas Owram, Promise of Eden: The Canadian Expansionist Movement and the Idea of the West, 1856–1900 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), 65. An insightful treatment of the British and Canadian Scientific expeditions is presented by John Warkentin, who in his book entitled The Western Interior of Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1964), includes excerpts from the journals of Palliser and both Hind and Dawson as well as from other accounts and reports written by Explorers of the western interior of Canada between 1612 and 1917.

14. Much of this discussion of settlement is drawn from R.W. Widdis, With Scarcely A Ripple: Anglo-Canadian Migration into the United States and Western Canada, 1880–1920 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998), 290–336.

15. John Culliton, “Assisted Emigration and Land Settlement,” National Problems of Canada, Economic Studies 9 (Montréal: McGill University, 1928), 23.

16. John Archer, Saskatchewan: A History (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1980), 81.

17. Ibid., 84–98.

18. Minister of the Interior, Immigration Facts and Figures (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1910).

19. Homesteaders had to pay a $10 settlement fee and clear a minimum number of acres within the first three years of settlement before they were awarded title to land.

20. Dirk Hoerder, Creating Societies: Immigrant Lives in Canada (Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999), 158.

21. Jack C. Stabler and M. Rose Olfert, Saskatchewan’s Communities in the 21st Century: From Places to Regions (Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 2002), 1.

22. Donald Swainson, “Canada Annexes the West: Colonial Status Confirmed.” In R. Douglas Francis and Howard Palmer (eds.), The Prairie West: Historical Readings (Edmonton: Pica Pica Press, 1985), 120.

23. Potyondi, In Palliser’s Triangle, 42.

24. Tom Flanagan, “From Riel to Reform: Understanding Western Canada.” Working paper of the fourth annual Seagram Lecture, McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (1999), 2.

25. Stabler and Olfert, Saskatchewan’s Communities, 2.

26. The elderly dependency ratio is the population aged 65 and over expressed as a proportion of the total population.

27. Doug Elliott, Demographic Trends in Saskatchewan (Regina: Saskatchewan Intergovernmental and Aboriginal Affairs, 2003), v–viii.

28. Mario DeSantis, “The Aboriginal People are our Forgotten People” (2001): http://www.ftlcommm.com.

29. No author, “The Impact of Saskatchewan’s Growing Aboriginal Community.” Saskatchewan Indian 30, no. 2 (2000): 18. http://www.sicc.sk.ca/saskindian.

30. Andrew Ehrkamp, “Aboriginal Population Growing.” Regina Leader-Post (Wednesday January 22, 2003).

31. Ibid.

32. Stabler and Olfert, Saskatchewan’s Communities, 3.

33. Government of Saskatchewan, The Saskatchewan Economy (February 16, 2004): http://www.ir.gov.sk.ca

34. Ibid.

35. Saskatchewan Agriculture, Food and Rural Revitalization (Regina: Saskatchewan Agriculture, 2002): http://www.agr.gov.sk.ca

36. Export Development Canada, http://www.edc/ca/docs/news/2003.

37. Trade Patterns and the Economy of the Northern Great Plains: A Baseline Report (2000): http://www.tnt.ngplains.org.

38. Government of Saskatchewan, The Saskatchewan Economy.

39. Customs Brokers, International Trade Bulletin (February 17, 2004): http://www.pcb.ca

40. Ibid.

41. Robert Anderson, The Business Economy of the First Nations in Saskatchewan: A Contingency Perspective (Regina: School of Business and Public Administration, Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, n.d.), 310–11.

42. Much of this discussion comes from Randy Widdis, “Place, Placelessness, and Placemaking as Evidenced in Saskatchewan’s Cultural Landscape.” In Jonker et al., Caring For Homeplace, 19–26.

Randy Widdis

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