Historian says creating new Saskatchewan cities has 'great significance'

By Jennifer Graham

The last time two Saskatchewan towns became cities in the same year, Premier Walter Scott was walking the halls of the newly completed provincial legislative building, agricultural was the driving force of the economy and most of the province's nearly 500,000 residents lived in rural areas.

It was 1913 when North Battleford and Weyburn became the province's newest cities.

Nearly 100 years later, Saskatchewan is doing it again, announcing last week that the towns of Meadow Lake and Martensville have reached city status.

"There's a great significance to yet another city in Saskatchewan because in the national consciousness, Saskatchewan is a place that time forgot - of rural roads, country elevators, wheat fields," says Bill Waiser, a professor in the history department at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

"What people don't realize today is that Saskatchewan is essentially an urban province. More people in Saskatchewan live in urban centres than they do in the countryside."

For years, Saskatchewan was a place people loved to leave.

After reaching a high of more than 1,032,000 people in 1987, the province's population started to drop. It fell to below 992,000 in 2006 before things started to turn around.

Saskatchewan's population was at 1,027,092 in June, according to figures released by Statistics Canada. Most of the growth came from people moving to Saskatchewan from other provinces.

Waiser says two out of every three people in Saskatchewan live in urban centres - most in Regina and Saskatoon.

The historian, who penned the book "Saskatchewan: A New History," says people need to get away from the images of Saskatchewan as one big wheat field or as a small town where most people are engaged in agriculture.

"That's not the real Saskatchewan of today," Waiser says.

"The fact that Martensville is becoming yet another in the list of cities in Saskatchewan reflects the fact that there's this growing urbanization in Saskatchewan, that people are moving off the farms into the cities where they can get better services."

"Yes, Saskatchewan has that feel of a rural province because of the grid roads, the country elevators, the grain fields, but that rural population is becoming increasingly smaller as the urban population grows."

In fact, Waiser says a lot of smaller communities will likely see their numbers decline and might eventually disappear.

Such hamlets, villages and towns were put on the map a century ago to service the agricultural community so that producers didn't have to haul their crops too far. But Saskatchewan's economy has expanded into areas such as mining and oil and gas. Agriculture's contribution has declined, taking with it the need for all the small rural centres, says Waiser.

In Saskatchewan, a community must have a population of 5,000 or more to get city status.

Martensville has seen its population grow because of its proximity to Saskatoon, the province's largest city. Martensville is just 20 minutes north of Saskatoon, but it doesn't want to be seen as a bedroom community.

"We want our own identity," says Martensville Mayor Giles Saulnier.

Saulnier says the city is trying to move forward and grow with the Saskatchewan economy. He insists the personable image that makes small town life appealing won't change.

"It's the people. It's walking down the street and saying hello to your neighbour and that will continue to happen because everybody wants to lend a helping hand in Martensville," says Saulnier.

"It's a sign of what we are as a community."

Premier Brad Wall says two towns becoming cities in the same year is evidence that Saskatchewan is growing even during the recession. The growth in Meadow Lake is being driven by many factors, including agriculture, energy exploration and the potential of oil sands development.

But the situation is not all rosy.

Saskatchewan was the only province to experience a sizable deterioration in the job market in August, losing 3,200 jobs, according to the latest Labour Force Survey released by Statistics Canada. However, the province still boasts Canada's lowest unemployment rate at five per cent.

Waiser admits there are challenges with a shifting population and the current economy, but he says people should look forward to what Saskatchewan is going to do.

"It's not going to be an easy road ahead of us, it's going to be bumpy, but I suggest that Saskatchewan will find its own solutions to the challenges that it faces and that the rest of Canada should be watching closely."


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