John W. Warnock

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Saskatchewan: Roots of Discontent and Protest | The Politics and Political Economy of a Prairie Province

Where will Saskatchewan go in its second century?




Saskatchewan: The Roots of Discontent and Protest

by John W. Warnock

Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2004.


Saskatchewan has been an anchor for the political left in Canada. The progressive farmers' movements were joined by trade unionists and others to create the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and then the New Democratic Party (NDP). Why did social democracy find its North American home in a sparsely populated prairie province?


This is the first book since Seymour Martin Lipset's Agrarian Socialism (1950) to offer an overall political economy analysis of the development of Saskatchewan. There has been ongoing discontent over the fact that the provincial economy remains based on agriculture and the extraction and export of natural resources. Its major contribution to the rest of Canada is a well trained labour force.


No matter which direction you head - north, south, east or west - all you find is the great open space of the prairie. Isolation is part of the psyche of this sparsely populated prairie province, and this abundance of great open space has uniquely shaped the people, their politics, their economy, and their relationship with the rest of North America.


While progressive on many fronts, Saskatchewan is tormented in other areas. Racism directed primarily against Aboriginal people remains deeply entrenched. Traditional patriarchal values are stronger here than elsewhere in Canada. The province is struggling with environmental change brought by free trade capitalism, global warming and climate change. The progressive populism of the past appears to be giving way to a right wing populism as support for the Canadian Alliance/Conservative Party and the Saskatchewan Party increases. Is the political culture changing? Are there any new political forces on the horizon?

Knowing that history is necessary to understanding how a society came to be what it is today, and using the broad, interdisciplinary social science approach of political economy analysis, Warnock traces Saskatchewan's past in an attempt to understand the present and glimpse the future. Along the wary, he tells the story of Saskatchewan, from inception to centennial.

JOHN W. WARNOCK teaches in the Department of Sociology and Social Studies at the University of Regina, Regina, Saskatchewan. He has a long history of involvement in political, human rights, social justice, and environmental organizations and is well known as a popular journalist. He has been a farmer and a consultant on food and agricultural issues. His books include The Politics of Hunger: The Global Food System, Free Trade and the New Right Agenda, and The Other Mexico: The North American Triangle Completed.


Table of Contents

1 Saskatchewan in the Era of North American Integration
2 Economics, Political Economy and Human Society
3 The World of Capitalism
4 Saskatchewan as a Permanent Hinterland Area
5 Saskatchewan and the Wheat Economy
6 The Political Economy of Racism
7 The Roots of Racism in Saskatchewan
8 The Persistence of Patriarchy in Saskatchewan
9 Populism of the Political Left and Right
10 Forest Resources in Economic Development
11 The Struggle Over Resource Royalties
12 Social Democracy on the Prairies
13 The NDP and Structural Adjustment
14 Building an Alternative to Neoliberalism


427 pp. Cover art by Mike Steadman entitled "We Remain."
Paperback ISBN: 1-55164-244-1 C$29.99

Order your copy today at Black Rose Books.


Saskatchewan's tradition of political economy: The Department of Economics and Political Science, University of Saskatchewan


by John W. Warnock


Extract from the Preface:

The Department of Economics and Political Science at the University of Saskatchewan was not as pure a political economy department as at other Canadian universities. But the scholarly work of its faculty was clearly in the British tradition of political economy, it had political economy courses, and there was an honours course in political economy and history. Many of the people teaching in the department also had close ties to the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) government, the first social democratic government in North America.


When I arrived at the department in August 1963 the first person I met was Cy Gonick. He was in the process of moving to the Department of Economics at the University of Manitoba. We discussed his plan to create Canadian Dimension Magazine, and he invited me to contribute to it and be on the original board of directors.


The second person I met was Ed Safarian, who had replaced the deceased George Britnell as chairman of the department. Safarian, who had a doctorate from the University of California, would begin the shift in the department away from political economy and toward an eventual split between economics and political science. He introduced me to Vernon Fowke. When my wife Betty and our young daughter arrived in Saskatoon, we spent our first weekend together in Saskatchewan at Fowke’s cottage at Wakaw Lake.


A department with prairie roots


Shirley Spafford has documented the early history of this department and its political economy tradition in her book, No Ordinary Academics (University of Toronto Press, 2000). There was an early conflict between William Walker Swanson, the first chairman, and those who followed. Swanson, born in Scotland, had a doctorate from the University of Chicago, and while he did important research on the wheat economy, he was a staunch free market liberal and was hostile to the Saskatchewan tradition of populist politics and the CCF.


The department changed under the new chairman, George Britnell. A local boy from Moosomin, he studied under Harold Innis at the University of Toronto. Vernon Fowke had been born at Parry Sound, Ontario, but his family had moved to Melville, and he attended the University of Saskatchewan. Ken Buckley, another leading figure in the department, was from Aberdeen, just down the rail from Saskatoon; he had also studied under Innis at the University of Toronto.


The most amazing person in the department, however, was Mable Frances Timlin. Born in Wisconsin, she graduated from Milwaukee state Normal School and in 1916 moved to Saskatchewan to teach school, first in Bounty and Wilkie, and then in Saskatoon. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English at the University of Saskatchewan while at the same time reading economics and political science. In 1935 she was appointed instructor in economics. She was the real theorist in the department. She completed a doctorate in economics at the University of Washington at the age of 40, authored widely acclaimed works on Keynesian economics, was the first woman social scientist admitted to the Royal Society of Canada, and was the first woman elected to the executive committee of the American Economics Association. While she had retired in 1959, “Timmie” regularly came around the department to engage in wide ranging discussions. I well remember a conversation with her when she strongly attacked mathematical economics and neoclassical model building as contributing nothing to the understanding of the Canadian economy. It was far removed, she argued, from the reality of Canada’s integration with the United States, dependence on resource extraction industries, and enormous size and pronounced regionalism.


It was under these four academics that the department earned its reputation as a Saskatchewan department devoted to the farm movement in western Canada and social democracy. The province was their home, they had lived here during the depression, and they well knew the problems of the farmer. They also believed that academics had an obligation to serve the people who paid their salaries. They gave lectures all around the province, worked for royal commissions, and advised governments. When Tommy Douglas’ CCF government was formed in 1944, George Britnell, Vernon Fowke, and Dean F. C. Cronkite of the College of Law served as the members of the Economic Advisory Committee. Britnell became an adviser to the leftist government of Guatemala under Jacobo Arbenz (1950-4), overthrown by a U.S. government-sponsored military coup.


Unfortunately, Fowke died prematurely, and I only had the benefit of his kindness and knowledge for several short years. He introduced me to Innis, the metropolitan hinterland thesis of Canadian political economy, and always stressed that we should understand the power of capital in economic development. Ken Buckley’s office was across from mine, and we had long discussions about the nature of capitalism and Canadian economic development. He introduced me to duck hunting. Norman Ward, the senior political scientist and resident humourist, introduced me to grouse and partridge hunting. Ward, one of Canada’s best known political scientists at that time, was the first to tell me that George Britnell taught more political science courses than economics or political economy. Britnell insisted that “anyone can teach political science.” Ward liked to say that being an academic was the next best thing to being a bum: you got paid well for doing what you really liked to do.


The other major influence on my development as a political economist came from Irene M. Spry, who only taught in the department for one year, 1967-8, before moving on to the University of Ottawa. She was a delightful woman, and as her office was adjacent to mine, I spent many hours there. She was still working on the Palliser books. But along with Helen Buckley, who was in the Centre for Community Studies, she was one of the very few academics who had any intellectual and political interest in the impact of the National Policy on the Aboriginal people in Western Canada. Spry was an impressive scholar with degrees in political economy from London School of Economics and Cambridge University, where she studied under John Maynard Keynes and the Marxist scholar, Maurice Dobb. She also had a masters degree in Social Research and Social Work from Bryn Mawr College. At the University of Toronto she worked with Harold Innis. She and her husband, Graham Spry, had co-founded Saskatchewan House in London. Graham Spry was the Agent-General for the province in London between 1946 and 1967. Like her husband she was a long time social democrat and member of the League for Social Reconstruction in the 1930s. It was a great loss when she moved on to the University of Ottawa. I was pleased to read that right up to her death at age 91 she was a political activist as well as a scholar. She encouraged me to be active in politics, insisting that if you hide away in the university you quickly lose touch with the views of ordinary people. I am still waiting for the book she was working on at the time of her death, From the Hunt to the Homestead, a political economy history of the prairies. She was an active supporter of the Associated Country Women of the World.


Over the years many well known scholars taught for a short time in this department including Frank Underhill, James A. Corry, Robert MacGregor Dawson, James Mallory, Bernard Crick, Hugh Thorburn, and Gordon Thiessen. While I was there Bruce Wilkinson, Ken Rae, Elias Tuma, John Cartwright, Don Rowlatt, and Robin Neill moved on to major careers elsewhere. Jack McLeod, who switched to the University of Toronto, wrote Zinger and Me on academic life in Saskatoon.


Keynesian political economy and social democracy


The University of Saskatchewan’s tradition in Canadian political economy was a combination of Harold Innis and John Maynard Keynes. It was liberal social democratic and materialist. In the 1960s a new political economy was emerging in Canada which looked to the traditions of continental Europe. I spent the 1970-1 academic year at Atkinson College, York University. Daniel Drache and I shared an office and a year trying to find more radical materials to include in our teaching of Canadian political economy. The older tradition identified with Harold Innis was almost completely devoid of human content. There was absolutely no discussion of social class in Canada, nothing on the development of the trade union movement or the Communist Party, and precious little on the nature of the capitalist class. There was virtually nothing on the relationship between the capitalist class in Canada and the many dominant foreign owned corporations. There was almost nothing on the relationship between the European settlers and the Aboriginal population nor on the role of women in the economy and society. All of those subjects are now very well covered by the new political economy.


The 1960s and 1970s were exciting times to teach in university. A large number of students were not only active in politics they were actually interested in reading, learning and trying to find the answers to the bigger questions. They were not satisfied with being spoon fed the usual liberal dogma. They wanted to read Marxism and study imperialism. Today most students focus on getting good grades hoping that this will land them a job after they graduate. Most go out of their way to avoid controversy. There are no active student course unions any more. Quite a few students do have a critical approach to their studies, but they are very cynical about changing anything. But there are still some who become active in the anti-war movement, the anti-globalization movement and Green politics. In my own early work and development as an instructor, researcher and writer in the new Canadian political economy I benefitted from a close relationship with Ed Mahood and Howard Adams, both of whom taught in the College of Education. They provided the critical intellectual support that was largely absent from my rather conservative colleagues.



The influence of the American social science model


The department changed under the direction of Ed Safarian and Bob Kautz. More Americans were hired as well as more Canadians who had received their advanced degrees in the United States. A crisis developed in 1971 when John Richards, a very popular professor, was not rehired. Richards was born and raised in Saskatchewan, had gone to the University of Saskatchewan, and was completing a doctorate at the University of Washington in St. Louis. It was widely believed that he was “fired” because he was a promoter of the Canadian tradition of political economy while the majority in the department wanted to move to the American tradition of completely separate disciplines of economics and political science. Others believed that he was not rehired because he was active in the Waffle group, the left wing organization within the New Democratic Party. Indeed, in the 1971 provincial election he was elected to the legislature from Saskatoon-Sutherland. He was a close personal, political and academic friend of mine at the time.


In any case, hundreds of students protested by occupying the department for weeks on end. Professors were blocked from getting to their offices. Student course unions demanded that Richards be re-hired. The department was deeply split, never really recovered from this conflict, chose to follow the American road, and formally split in two. A few years after the occupation I decided to leave the department and move to British Columbia. The political economy tradition disappeared from the two new reconstructed departments but re-appeared as the new Canadian political economy in the Department of Sociology.


In British Columbia I was a fruit grower in the Okanagan, but also a researcher and writer specializing in the political economy of food and agriculture. I became involved in the environmental movement. But I never lost touch with my friends in Saskatchewan. In 1986 John Conway and Joe Roberts asked me to return to the University of Regina as a special lecturer. It was natural that when I returned it would be to the University of Regina. Academics at this university had been major participants in the development of the new Canadian political economy. I found my home in the Department of Sociology which had developed a reputation in political economy, rural sociology, and continental integration, my major fields of interest.

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