In recent comments, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe referred to his province as “a nation within a nation.” While this conception of “Canada’s breadbasket” raised many eyebrows, and has even led to some mockery, Moe’s adoption of a nationalistic discourse has the stated goal of achieving greater autonomy for his province. However, it is important to ask whether Saskatchewan as a nation is a feasible sociopolitical endeavour. Is it even necessary to achieve his goal of greater political autonomy?
While any talk of nationhood in the Canadian context automatically leads to Quebec – a province that Moe wants to emulate regarding the special agreements, notably over immigration, that it has with the federal government – it is essential to highlight that Saskatchewan is not Quebec. La belle province has a distinct culture from the rest of Canada, based on the fact that a vast majority of its population is French-speaking. Its nationalistic political discourse is built on the preservation of this cultural distinctiveness. Even its immigration agreements are aimed at preserving and promoting the French language in Quebec, whereas Saskatchewan seeks greater immigration control to better respond to specific demographic and labour needs. Nationhood for Quebec is not simply a bargaining strategy to obtain greater benefits from the federal government, it is also a cultural reality.
Yet, the lack of a distinct, clear cultural marker does not automatically disqualify a region from being a “nation” within its country. Bavaria in Germany and the northern Italian region of Padania are examples of regions without a different linguistic or religious culture that have been successful in using a nationalistic rhetoric to achieve their political goals. These two regions have distinct histories, especially in the case of Bavaria, and tend to desire divergent policies from other regions in their countries. Therefore, these cases, which are much more similar to Saskatchewan than to Quebec, give hope to Moe’s wish of his province being recognized as a nation.
Bavaria and Padania nevertheless point to the importance of political movements being independent from national parties to successfully promote regionalist demands. In Bavaria, the hegemonic Christian Social Union is autonomous from any national party, although in permanent collaboration with the pan-German Christian Democratic Union. In Padania, the Lega Nord (Northern League), which had been the main political force behind Padanian nationalism, is independent of Italian national parties but has governed in coalition with them (though in recent years it has dropped the “Nord” and the Lega has become more of a pan-Italian party).
Padania serves as another lesson for Saskatchewan: size matters. Padania is in fact a macro-region that is traditionally composed of five administrative regions in northern Italy. While Saskatchewan is a large geographic unit, its population represents a small proportion of Canada. Furthermore, there really isn’t a sense of Saskatchewan’s historical or political exceptionalism. In other words, its quite similar to its neighbours in the Prairies. Therefore, to have a real political influence on the federation, Saskatchewan would be arguably better served by a narrative based on a “Prairie nation” rather than one simply focused on itself.
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Saskatchewan could potentially be a noteworthy “nation” in the Canadian political landscape. However, it would realistically need to team up with its Prairie partners and conceive of a political movement centred on the regional demands of the Prairies macro-region. While the Prairies have tended to have a rather coherent political discourse, the Prairies are more than Saskatchewan. More importantly, regional political movements in the West have longed to rule in Ottawa. Even the spearhead of Western alienation that was the Reform Party quickly fell for the siren call of controlling the federal cabinet and rapidly transformed itself to become a viable governing option in Ottawa.
It is therefore doubtful that Saskatchewan has the characteristics needed to sustain “nationhood,” and to be treated as a “nation within a nation” – especially considering that its premier’s nationalistic turn seems to be in response to the policies of the current federal government. Political movements that represent actual “nations” do not care much about which party is heading the central government; they are more concerned with preserving and enlarging their autonomy. If Erin O’Toole were prime minister, it is doubtful we would be discussing Saskatchewan’s claim to nationhood.
Nonetheless, whether Saskatchewan is conceived of as a nation does not take away from its capacity to achieve its goal of “flexing” its provincial muscles and achieving greater autonomy.
The Canadian federation has allowed provinces to control important public sectors and even permit them to have a marked international presence. It is also important to mention that Quebec has historically tended to have a greater level of autonomy not because it has been treated in a “special” manner compared with other provinces, but rather because it has wanted to have control of more public sectors than other provinces. Nowadays, the quest for provincial autonomy is no longer limited to Quebec. This drive for devolution has especially been present in immigration policy, where the last two decades have seen the signing of numerous bilateral provincial-federal agreements over the selection and integration of immigrants.
Consequently, rather than take a solo approach based on a vague conception of nationhood, Saskatchewan should work with other provincial partners, who seek the devolution of many of the same powers that Saskatchewan now wants, as well as the federal government to reach beneficial intergovernmental agreements. Such a co-operative federalism strategy, rather than a confrontational nationalist one, would permit provinces to flex their desired muscles while keeping the federation strong.