I was down in Swift Current this weekend. It’s a gorgeous city that has benefitted from the oil boom tremendously. You see it everywhere from box seats in the Credit Union iPlex to new buildings throughout town. Better wheat and grain prices haven’t hurt either.
Every conversation I was a part of… while checking into the hotel to breakfast at the Humpty’s to the conversations around me at the curling contained one word; layoffs and how scared people were as they hit closer and close to home.
Oil is the economy in Swift Current. Oil and farming. With the family farm nearly extinct (something you really notice driving down Highway 4), there are less and less opportunities to make money. That was the boom of the oil fields. People who had no choice to go to Alberta for work could stay at home and get jobs. Now neither option is on the table and people are scared.
I have heard some people say, “why can’t they go back and farm”. 40 years ago that was an option. Family farms were smaller which meant smaller and less expensive machinery, land values were smaller and you could make a living on a section or a section and a half of land. I’ve had friends who have tried to start up farming. It was almost impossible to do, even with family help. Equipment costs are one hurdle but with corporate farms able to pay well above market rate for farmland, the small farmer doesn’t stand a chance.
So what’s the plan for the provincial government? Not a lot actually. Neither the Saskatchewan Party (let’s be honest, they’ve run out of ideas) and the NDP (who are ignoring rural Saskatchewan in this election) don’t have any. The Saskatchewan Party is paving highways and is going to replenish the rainy day fund (which they have depleted running deficit after deficit when times were good) when oil hits $75 a barrel.
Note to the rest of us, $75 a barrel oil is delusional. It may not return for years.
Which gets to my point. The Sask Party is more or less telling us that this is a momentary blip and things will be okay on the other side. It’s good politics but horrible governance because they don’t know if things get better ever again. It reminds me of when Grant Devine used to say and believe that things will be okay as soon as the rain returns and the prices rebound. It never did in his time in power and people were hurt.
There isn’t an easy solution. Saskatchewan doesn’t have a large manufacturing base but part of me wonders that small targeted investing and mentoring in larger Saskatchewan towns and smaller cities as a way to help people start and grow small businesses is needed. We have the same kind of things in the city with Ideas Inc and whatever it is that SREDA is doing (basically the same thing as Ideas Inc is doing but I am too lazy to Google it. Oh wait, it’s called Square One and it the same kind of thing as Ideas Inc but without office space.)
Make it competitive. Go after only the best ideas. Keep politicians out of it. Use the model of Y! Combinator.
Twice a year we invest a small amount of money ($120k) in a large number of startups (most recently 107).
The startups move to Silicon Valley for 3 months, during which we work intensively with them to get the company into the best possible shape and refine their pitch to investors. Each cycle culminates in Demo Day, when the startups present their companies to a carefully selected, invite-only audience.
Maybe that is the wrong model, maybe it is the right one. All I know is there needs to be a long game of building entrepreneurial capacity and hope in Saskatchewan that isn’t based solely on the price of Brent crude. The Saskatchewan Party kind of flails at the topic when they suggest it to be easier for more home made food to be sold in gas stations. Outside of the entire discussion of food safe practices and the rather demeaning nature of this policy, they are right in that it needs to be easier for home based businesses to make money and hopefully hire employees.
The easy option will be to try to do this with government spending on mega projects or pie in the sky schemes to attract manufacturers to Saskatchewan. Anyone recall that airplane manufacturer that was going to make airplanes in Saskatoon? That turned out well didn’t it? I can go on and on about the NDP schemes as well. Megaprojects aren’t saving rural Saskatchewan.
The only thing going on in rural Saskatchewan is resource extraction of some sort and unless we want to keep living a boom and bust cycle, finding ways for rural Saskatchewan to be about more than oil, farming, and government jobs, something has to change and right now, it isn’t even a political discussion.