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Alberta can learn from Saskatchewan

When I moved to Edmonton in October of 1993, I left behind a Saskatchewan that could only be described as being in the worst of all possible economic conditions. Alberta, on the other hand, was the sole true beacon of entrepreneurial spirit and free enterprise in all of Canada.

How times have changed.

Edmonton, back then, was still dealing with the lingering effects of Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program, and the crippling blow it dealt the province. It was also dealing with the civic pride fallout from the Wayne Gretzky trade, and the dismantling of its beloved Edmonton Oilers.

That said, and in contrast to what I had left behind in Saskatchewan, I couldn’t help but be impressed, almost to the point of being stunned, at the overall number of active businesses, and the activity level of the city in general. I used to think that if this was Edmonton on its knees, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like under good economic circumstances.

Thanks to policies initiated by Premier Ralph Klein starting in 1992 — cutting a bloated civil service and an out-of-control deficit and debt — Alberta became (once again) a province of fiscal responsibility, as well as a great place to invest and to do business.

Investment poured into Alberta, at a level that few other jurisdictions on the planet, short of perhaps Dubai, China and a select few other locations, have ever experienced. It was truly mind-boggling to bear witness to this level of economic activity and all of the good, and certainly some bad, that it brought.

There is only one problem. The province under the Progressive Conservatives is a one-trick pony, mired in the belief that its economy is secure because of its energy sector. This total lack of vision — to plan for the future — is now coming back to haunt the province.

Meanwhile, significant changes are taking place in Saskatchewan.

Led by the vision of Premier Brad Wall, the people of Saskatchewan, after decades of almost unbroken NDP governments and misguided socialist economic policy, are finally looking forward to a much better and exciting future.

Among many initiatives Wall undertook upon taking office was to encourage resource exploration and development, with an energy royalty policy that not only rivalled Alberta’s, but in many ways surpassed it.

The basis of these strategies was simple: Develop and implement economic policies that encouraged capital investment, couple them with tax cuts and rules that were dynamic and fair, and business would come.

The tax cuts, the largest and most significant in Saskatchewan’s history, and the increase in capital investment and business expansion that they brought, have allowed Wall to balance the province’s budget and achieve a record five consecutive budget surpluses, all while achieving a Standard and Poor’s AAA credit rating for the first time in the province’s history.

Saskatchewan’s economy had traditionally been agriculture-based, although it is blessed with some of the largest potash and uranium deposits on the planet. Wall, however, recognized that much more could and should be done to both diversify the province’s economy and encourage further value-added components to what already existed. There is a concise, yet captivating document called Saskatchewan Plan for Growth/Vision 2020 and Beyond that really captures this simple, yet extraordinary vision.

Oil and gas exploration was natural for Saskatchewan, simply because of the corporate and physical infrastructure that existed in Alberta. Today, the activity level in the province is running at almost full capacity. Northern Saskatchewan, with its plentiful natural resources, has become an economic powerhouse of its own. A large diamond mine, 60 km east of Prince Albert, is underway. The once-defunct Weyerhaeuser pulp mill north of Prince Albert is being transformed into a facility that will produce a preliminary product for the manufacture of Rayon. The Synchrotron, at the University of Saskatchewan, has made Saskatoon a world-class centre of excellence for the international science community, and the resulting spinoff businesses of that centre alone will keep Saskatchewan at the forefront of science and technologies for generations to come.

Although Wall cannot take credit for it being established, he can certainly take partial credit for the exciting new directions it is headed in today.

Saskatchewan has become a literal hot-bed of value-add agricultural industries, boasting everything from gourmet mustards, honeys and fruit-based products to even cottage wineries made from locally grown products. And in small towns that were literal ghost towns a decade ago, manufacturing fills warehouses everywhere.

On top of it all, Saskatchewan has become an international tourist destination, from historical sites such as Al Capone’s tunnels in Moose Jaw, golf resorts, to the unrivalled beauty of 100,000 lakes.

And with all of this activity and development, not only has Saskatchewan stopped the out-migration of its youth, it has become a destination point for young and seasoned talent alike. And with the brain trust that is gathering there, one can only imagine what new ideas and initiatives with come forth in future years.

Yes, Alberta is an economic powerhouse, and will be for years to come. But one cannot help but look one province east and wonder what it truly could be if it had the vision of a leader like Wall.

Shawn Brown is the founder and president of Forest For the Trees, a boutique business advisory service headquartered in Edmonton (www.forestnow.com. This column was supplied by Troy Media (www.troymedia.com).

 
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