Q&A: Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall

Saskatchewan's premier says his province is bucking the downward economic trend, so stop on by.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall wants you. Wall has been touring Canada and parts of the U.S. recently to spread the relatively good news about the province’s economy, and convince people to move to a place where historically citizens have left in droves. But Saskatchewan is one of the few provinces expected to eke out growth this year. Wall is competing aggressively, promoting the province at job fairs and offering a $20,000 tuition rebate for recent university and college grads who relocate to Saskatchewan and stay for seven years. Wall spoke with staff writer Joe Castaldo about the province’s economy and its challenges.

Tell me about the mood in Saskatchewan these days.

The mood is positive. But in typical Saskatchewan fashion, there’s no one spiking a football in the end zone, so to speak, even though we’re doing reasonably well. It seems like an oxymoron, but I’d say there’s a modest pride. We’re very familiar with the cyclical nature of the economy. People are cautiously optimistic that we are going to withstand the worst of the recession.

How come?

We’re not too dependent on any one resource. We are the second-largest producer of oil. There is gas, there is potash, there is uranium, and agriculture. I’m feeling very positive about the longer term for agriculture. There’s a larger middle-class around the world, and we have half of the arable acres in Canada. Whether it’s lentils or dry beans or even mustard, we’re set up nicely.

How are you diversifying away from resources?

We have a strong manufacturing sector that’s feeling the pinch, but is comparatively strong. We’re looking to the knowledge economy, with an innovation agenda that builds on our strengths as an agricultural biotech leader, and our leadership position in carbon capture and sequestration, and finally value-added uranium opportunities.

A lot of that is still tied to resources. How badly will you be affected if prices continue falling?

We’re always concerned about resource prices. That’s why we’re seeking this new economy, this innovation economy. But prices are still comparatively strong on potash, which is helping our budget. Oil is going to be coming back. In the long-term, we’re well positioned.

So what’s your biggest challenge?

It’s people. Even though there have been layoffs in Saskatchewan, we have to be thinking not just about today, but we’ve also got to be thinking about six months from now, a year from now, two years from now. And there’s going to be a people shortage. That’s why we have a graduate retention program. It was only ever intended for Saskatchewan students, but we wanted to expand it for the country because we’ll need those people in the future.

How do you convince people to stay in Saskatchewan once economies pick up elsewhere?

One of the beauties of our country is the mobility. We can live anywhere that we choose to live. All that governments can do is hopefully set the right business climate for opportunities to be had. As a government, we can do a little bit of incentives, like the graduate retention program, and then after that, people will make a choice. And that’s fair. We’ve been very generous with our people over the decades, with them moving to other places, and we’re just signalling that we’re going to compete very hard to have them come home.

You were in Ontario last fall promoting Saskatchewan at a job fair. How did that work out?

We got 86 families directly out of the job fair to come to our province, which is a big number for Saskatchewan. Our best market for people moving to the province has been Alberta. Usually these are ex-pats coming home. For the first time ever, in the last quarter of last year, Ontario was No. 1.

How much are you spending on recruitment efforts?

Our advertising campaign last year, and into this year, was $800,000. We’re trying to be very strategic about it with targeted website ads, radio, billboards and coming to job fairs.

How large would you like the population to grow?

Our opponents have said this is statistically impossible, which I don’t agree with, but the objective of our government is that we would grow at least at the national average, which is about 1% in population growth per year. Of course, we’ve been shattering that the last number of quarters, so we know it’s possible. That would put us at about 1.1 million in less than 10 years.

I’m a young person. Convince me to come to Saskatchewan.

For young people, quality of life is important. We need to stress that more, the amenities that are available. But especially in this economy, there are opportunities. There’s a job in Saskatchewan. It’s a good place to be right now. I don’t know where you’ll find that anywhere else.