Doing Right by Saskatchewan – Interview with Premier Brad Wall

This month, The Canadian Business Journal is proud to present an interview with one of the friendliest and most dedicated politicians working in Canada today – Premier Brad Wall. Premier Wall was generous enough to share just how amazing a place Saskatchewan is to work, live, and do business – and we’re so thankful he did!

Sara Kopamees: I was listening to your presentations and I noticed something odd, especially for a person in your position: you are so funny!

Brad Wall: [chuckling] you know what? If we started taking ourselves too seriously in politics, or even at a magazine like The Canadian Business Journal, we would be heading down the road to perdition.

SK: One of the things I wanted to first touch on is your address at the FirstEnergy East Coast Canadian Energy Conference, when you said Saskatchewan is “turning heads nationally and internationally”. Part of the reason we’re focusing on Saskatchewan is that some people out west don’t think we pay enough attention. Well, Saskatchewan definitely has our attention! What are some notable local ventures that have sparked national interest?

BW: Well, thank you for the opportunity and for the interview, your magazine’s attention is pretty important to the province. One of the things we’re focused on right now is solutions at the confluence of energy and the environment. Set aside the economy for now, as difficult as that is to do, as it’s the ever-present story all over the world. We’re really focused on sustainable energy, and the technology that might bring us towards more sustainable energy. This focus has been a door opener for us – being able to credibly tell people that Saskatchewan has the largest carbon capture project that is actually working in Wayburn, of course with reference to communiqué language between President Obama and Prime Minister Harper. That’s a huge story for Saskatchewan.

[pausing] It’s a story that opens a lot of doors, and is an ice breaker in meetings and discussions, whether those talks are with someone like Senator Joe Lieberman or when I’m speaking at the energy conference. But more than that, Sara, the story is just about the biblical proportion of our resources. That’s a local story that is international in scope. Saskatchewan is home to the Bakken formation, which is bigger than Trudeau Bay! Of course, we share that formation with Montana, North Dakota, and a bit of Manitoba.  But a portion of the formation is in Saskatchewan and is attracting a huge amount of attention in the uranium industry. With regards to the uranium story, we really have not done a good enough job sharing what the potential is to the world and North America, but we have to do that now. We have the largest uranium mining company headquartered in Regina, and Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan is in Saskatoon – both local Saskatchewan stories with reach internationally.

SK: So would you say that this provincial “boom” has been, in your eyes, overdue?

BW: Some would say that the seemingly sustained growth is long overdue for this province. But we’ve always had these resources. On the commodity side of things, the price cycle is pretty important. What happened with the relatively quick rise of potash prices helped things here. Our last budget we announced on Wednesday is a surplus budget based on the strength of potash. We’re working very hard to get the message out about sustainable energy, but also about the next step in diversification. Our government wants to diversify our economy away from its dependence on commodities. Not towards manufacturing necessarily, but towards the knowledge economy, the innovation economy.  We also want to start focusing on two other areas: clean coal, and carbon capture and sequestration.  I think you can expect to see some exciting things from us, and from our talks with Governer Schwietzer out of the state of Montana. Another area of opportunity for us is with adding value to uranium opportunities. We are the Saudi Arabia of uranium but we don’t add any value to it at all.

Our other vision as a government is to explore other opportunities and add value to the resource that’s here – from refining to recycling, to medicine, to science, to electricity and even the next generation of reactor technology.  

SK: So from the adding value perspective, is investing more into these ventures how you propose to keep the momentum going for Saskatchewan?

BW: That’s part of innovation. If we can become the place in North America or at least one of the places where the government is prepared to partner (not inasmuch as risking tax payers money on commercial ventures), but prepared to partner in research and development that leads to those commercial opportunities – that is the diversification that I seek for our economy. The manufacturing sector in our province is still very important, especially as it relates to agricultural implement manufacturing. But we see what’s happened to the traditional side of that sector of the economy globally – so we want to take the next step in terms of diversification of the economy. Again I will say very clearly: we’re prepared to partner, to invest in the research and development side in the weeks and months to come.

SK: Let’s take a step back for a minute. What led you to initiating the $500 million “booster shot”? How was it feasible to do it?

BW: We have to recognize good fortune when it happens. A lot of that good fortune has to do with commodity prices, and what happened in our budget last year. Any government that’s going to take credit for what happened in potash prices and oil prices may be not telling the truth [chuckling]. It’s tempting for us politicians to say ‘look what we did!’ but I think it is really incumbent on our government to do the right thing with these windfall resources. That is what the economic booster shot is all about. We were focused on infrastructure investment, and we were coming from an extraordinary year we had last year. However, even with income tax reductions that we announced last fall, and with making them retroactive to the start of ’08, and also with reducing the provinces debt by 40 per cent in our first budget year, we still have a balance in the Growth and Financial Security Fund of $1.2 billion. The balance was going to be much higher than that’s when we took the decision to provide this ‘booster shot’. My
opinion: if we were asking the feds to provide a stimulus to accelerate infrastructure spending, then we shouldn’t be asking them for anything we’re not prepared to do ourselves.

One of the most exciting parts of the booster shot: schools all over Saskatchewan have had a long list of little maintenance things that never seem to get done, because it’s not necessarily popular politically to announce new roofs, or widening an access to the bathrooms, or replacing a gym floor. But they have an important stimulating function because it’s often local businesses that get to do that work. So a big chunk of the boost went to education projects.

SK: I think other provinces could see a lot of value in what you’re doing. Do you think there’s an opportunity for other provinces to look at what you’ve done and say, ‘how can we emulate that decision’?

BW: Sure there is. We check across the country to find out about what other provinces are doing and we’re seeing some pretty interesting things. Premier Graham in New Brunswick is doing some interesting things with the business tax side of things. We want to do that sort of thing here – Premier Campbell, Premier Stelmach and myself met in Vancouver with some of our cabinet members for the first ever joint cabinet meeting to talk exactly about how we can work together. We want to make sure we’re doing the right things in terms of policy, reducing interprovincial barriers to trade, and promoting trade. I think intuitively you’re asking about what’s being done in other provinces and whether they look at us to find out what we’re doing. I think fundamentally there are too few people in Canada for us not to be carefully examining what each province is doing and find out about best practices.

SK: I definitely agree with you there. What has the reaction been to your promise to not raise royalties in the resource and energy sectors? It’s a phenomenal promise.

BW: [laughing] Well, like I’ve said before, it’s probably the biggest ovation I’ve ever gotten for announcing that our government is not going to do anything. But it is absolutely the case. Other jurisdictions have to take the decision that’s right for them, and I’ve been asked before: What does this promise say about other provincial policies? I say, with respect to the west, it says that Saskatchewan is a little bit behind actually. We have all of these resources, but we’re a little behind in terms of our potential. So we can do things like stop royalty increases where another province might not be able to. But we undertake those things that are right for us. And that means stable royalties.

SK: Saskatchewan is turning around permits for resource exploration very quickly. Why have Saskatchewan regulators prioritized improving this process?

BW: That’s a great question, and one that’s oft overlooked. Entrepreneurs big and small are by definition impatient. They understand the importance of sustainable development, and that’s a priority of our government. But in that context, there are many efficiencies that we can find in the process. We have a great team of officials who understand that the environmental rigors have to be in the permitting process, sustainability has to be there, and we have to make informed decisions. But we also have to respond to the industry, and turn things around in a way that can accomplish growth along with environmental sustainability. That’s what our officials are doing. I’ve told the Energy and Resources Ministry (although we are finding a way to control spending) that if they need more people in permitting, in order to keep this reputation that they’ve developed for quick turnaround and common sense, we’re prepared to provide those resources.

SK: So much of the Saskatchewan message is positive, with regards to the economy. What do you want to say to other Canadians, in the resource sectors or beyond, who could use a positive message?

BW: I would just say that we’re not immune to what’s going on. We’ve had layoffs, drilling’s going to be down this year, maybe to a lesser extent than elsewhere. But still, the dose of reality is that we’re not immune, our customers worldwide for these resources are under pressure economically. However, we have a good story to tell, and there is opportunity here. I would say this to your readers: even Saskatchewan is having a bit of a breather economically. We’re still growing, but having a breather.

I would also like to say that now is the perfect time to consider doing business in Saskatchewan.  If you want a place that’s a friendly business environment, a place that has an amazing workforce, and you want to invest in a place where you can pick up the phone and talk to a government who’s informed by common sense, and who understands how important growth is, then Saskatchewan is the place!

SK: Well, story is positive and we think everyone needs to hear it – that’s why we’re talking to you!

BW: Yes, and it’s good that you’re trying to send a positive message. I mean, how much of the economy is psychological? If all you’ve got is the four horsemen of the apocalypse riding down Wall St. on the six o’clock news, well, it gets demoralizing.

SK: [laughing] No kidding! And the potential we have in this country is so great! We have to enforce that message as much as we can. All right, last but not least. If a certain Toronto editor came to Regina to visit, and wanted to watch the Roughriders with a bunch of fans, where should she go?

BW:
You definitely want be at Mosaic Stadium. You have to be at the stadium. It is not just a football game, it’s an experience. We say: get a watermelon, clean it out well, make a football helmet, and put it on (you’ll be one of many), and get as much green paint on as you can. But if you can’t be at the game, the Warehouse District in Regina is the place to go. Better yet – Sara, once you’ve moved here, to help build our province, you’ll be invited to probably half a dozen house parties for every roughriders game.

 “My opinion: if we were asking the feds to provide a stimulus to accelerate infrastructure spending, then we shouldn’t be asking them for anything we’re not prepared to do ourselves.” – Premier Brad Wall

$500 MILLION ‘ECONOMIC BOOSTER SHOT’

SaskParty government accelerates infrastructure spending to ensure economy remains strong

The Saskatchewan Party government is accelerating the $1.5 billion dollar infrastructure investment announced last fall.

$500 million of that spending is being moved into the current fiscal year to get projects underway more quickly in light of the global economic slowdown.

This announcement includes:

$131.6 MILLION IN PER CAPITA FUNDING FOR MUNICIPAL INFRASTRUCTURE PROJECTS

- Of this $131.6 million, $100 million will be delivered on a per capita basis.

- Municipalities are eligible for $108.79 per capita;

- Based upon the 2006 census:

- $58 million will go to cities;

- $15.8 million to towns;

- $5.1 million to villages and resorts;

- $19.2 million to rural municipalities; and

- $1.9 million to northern municipalities;

- $31.6 million in additional funding is being provided for new projects under the Building Canada Fund.

$142 MILLION  FOR EDUCATION

- New schools in Humboldt, Regina, Oxbow, Prince Albert, Porcupine Plain; and

- Renovations of schools in Duck Lake, La Ronge, Saskatoon, Hafford, Regina, Elrose, Weyburn, Maple Creek, Balcarres.

- Mechanical upgrades, renovations and foundation repairs in 28 schools;

- New and renovated re-locatable classrooms in 10 schools;

- Improved accessibility in 7 schools; and

- Roof repairs or replacements in 43 schools.

$26.4 MILLION FOR POST-SECONDARY EDUCATION

- Renovations and upgrades for Great Plains College in Swift Current;

- Expansion of the nursing program at SIAST Wascana Campus in Regina;

- Expanded training opportunities for electricians  at SIAST Woodland Campus in Prince Albert;

- Renovations to support new and existing programs at St. Peter’s College in Muenster; and

- Video conferencing capabilities at SIIT in Saskatoon.

$29.9 MILLION FOR AFFORDABLE HOUSING

- $15 million to the University of Saskatchewan  to build two new student residencies;

- $12 million to fund renovations to housing at the Milton Heights Lutheran Care Society in Regina;

- $2.3 million in funding for a 12-unit seniors housing development put forward by the Prince Albert Housing Society Inc. for the Métis community;

- $400,000 for renovations and expansion of the Saskatchewan Abilities Council activity centre in Maidstone;

- $100,000 for renovations to the Saskatchewan Abilities Council activity centre in Yorkton;

- $100, 000 for the purchase of property in which to operate a group home for individuals with intellectual disabilities in Langenburg.

$152.8 MILLION FOR NEW LONG-TERM CARE CENTRES

- Maple Creek (Cypress Lodge Nursing Home & Maple Creek Hospital: 48 long-term beds);

- Rosetown (Wheatbelt Centennial Lodge: 47 long-term care beds);

- Kerrobert (Kerrobert Integrated Health Centre: 36 long-term beds);

- Biggar (Biggar Diamond Lodge: 59 long-term beds);

- Tisdale (Sasko Park Lodge: 33 long-term beds);

- Kelvington (Kelvindell Lodge: 46 long-term beds);

- Meadow Lake (Northland Pioneers Lodge: 55 long-term beds);

- Prince Albert (Pineview Terrace Lodge: 50 long-term beds);

- Shellbrook (Parkland Terrace and Shellbrook Hospital: 34 long-term beds);

- Watrous (Manitou Lodge: 35 long-term care beds);

- Redvers (Redvers Health Centre: 24 long-term care beds);

- Kipling (Willowdale Lodge: 28 long-term beds);

- Radville (Radville Marian Health Centre: 52 long-term care beds).

$17.65 MILLION FOR TRANSPORTATION INFRASTRUCTURE

- $10 million to the City of Regina to support the development of the Regina Global Transportation Hub;

- The Global Transportation Hub will provide Saskatchewan business and export markets with efficient, state of the art links to Canadian and international markets;

- $6 million to the City of Swift Current for Highway 1 and Highway 4 interchange improvements;

- $750,000 to the City of Lloydminster for the twinning of Highway 16 through the city;

- $450,000 to the City of Weyburn for improvements to the New City Garden Road;

- $300,000 to the City of Melfort for improvements to Highway 6;

- $150,000 to the City of Humboldt for improvements to the Highway 20 intersection.

By Sara Kopamees

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