The Saskatchewan 2017-2018 budget handed down by Finance Minister Kevin Doherty on March 22 is cynical and short-sighted. It makes the assumption, which is broadly challenged by economists, historians, and social scientists, that successful societies gather as much as possible of the their privileges, goods, and services in the hands of individuals and corporations. That unexamined Neo-Liberal agenda led to the 2008 meltdown, and we all know too well how that worked.
I'd like to take some of the assumptions behind your budget, particularly your cuts to schools, universities and libraries, along with your decision to sell the PFRA lands, to their logical conclusion. While the portrait I create of a future Saskatchewan may seem fanciful, it nevertheless follows logically from the ideology that dictated your budget. Much of my vision is based on sound science and wide reading in economics.
First, attracted by the lowered business taxes, businesses will indeed have moved to Saskatchewan. But in two or three years they will have left again. This is because an anti-intellectual Saskatchewan government, like those in the deep southern United States, will not have an educated workforce for the knowledge economy. Moreover, new industries dedicated to renewable energy sources, industries that provide good jobs, will have left because the government continues to put all of its support behind expensive carbon capture and storage facilities.
Lacking a bus service, small towns become unproductive silos and a drain on health care dollars when people can no longer get to the larger urban centres to manage their health conditions and only go when they are in crisis.
There are three simple things that seniors can do to stave off dementia: read, ensure that they can hear and interact with the world around them, and exercise. As an unintended consequence of the budget you tabled in March, a future Saskatchewan will have more demented seniors in institutions because the government has cut subsidies for hearing aids and local libraries.
The landscape will be dominated by roads, Global Transportation Hubs, and football stadiums, which will have the whiff of scandal about them with respect to the buying and selling of land, interspersed with enormous agribusiness fields of grain that are not doing very well. That is because the government's failure to establish an informed policy on climate change will have numerous unintended consequences. Selling off the PFRA pastures to agri-business and oil and gas companies means that the province has lost one of its fountains of biodiversity. When the grains that farmers grow are buffeted by extreme weather, we will have no hearty grasses in the Palliser Triangle to help us develop new breeds. As well, the amounts of fertilizer necessary for agri-business will have killed off bees and other crucial pollinators. As a result, food production will plummet.
The Saskatchewan Government will have felt morally compelled to accept refugees from Syria and other hot spots around the world. Those refugees will have quickly migrated to Alberta, where even the Medicine Hat News notes that cuts to Saskatchewan libraries have a disproportionate effect on immigrants.
...Leading me to a digression. Clearly Education Minister Don Morgan spent no time in libraries before he cut their budgets, and didn't consult with anyone in the library system who knew what the modern library looked like or who could tell him about the current circulation patterns in our beautifully-integrated and envied library system. His ignorance is patently clear. He also didn't know that the Provincial Government is indeed currently not in the brick and mortar business of housing libraries; municipalities provide that space. His solution for many small communities, to meld the collections of the public library and the school together, was clearly not thought through: he didn't realize the cost of such a project nor the danger to students if strangers were roaming through their school on the way to the public library. Nor does he realize that e-resources, while important, are not a panacea; in any event, these are only available to people whose families earn enough to pay for internet access. So cutting libraries cuts services to the most disadvantaged among us.
This year the Regina Public Library hosted 7,000 programs that involved 130,000 participants. (I would recommend that the Education Minister read the RPL fact sheet that can be found at saskla.ca.) Library use has increased 13% over the last five years and RPL had 1.5 million visits in 2016. While their circulation statistics are impressive--they checked out over 2.2 million books, DVDs,eBooks, eAudiobooks, and magazines--they are much more a place to take out material.
Back to the newcomers. Libraries help them acquire literacy and update their resumes. There are after-school reading programs that immigrant children can attend, letting them develop their English at the same time they become more familiar with Canadian customs and values. Libraries help people apply for citizenship. When those immigrants have migrated to Alberta, you will find many of the basic services they kindly and patiently provide for us have fallen off. The kind of intellectual and economic innovation you get when cultures collide won't occur.
I've got a lot of complaints about your budgets, but I keep coming back to libraries. Why? They welcome everyone, regardless of age, race, religion, social status, and wealth. They provide support groups for breast cancer survivors. They link a lonely woman from Afghanistan who was a skilled weaver with the Saskatchewan weaving community. She has made a meaningful connection and now her English is coming nicely. They provide career coaching. Seniors knitters meet in libraries, knitting scarves and toques they festoon Victoria Park with in early winter, so that everyone who needs a hat can have one.
Libraries are at the centre of our democracy and our well-being. They are where we learn to manage the planet better. (No avid reader would tell you climate change is a hoax.) They are where we connect with one another on equal footing.
Neo-Liberalism emphasizes the individual--the individual's accomplishments, the self-made man. But it does so in a vacuum, as if he stands entirely alone, proudly tall in the midst of the prairie. But it manages to ignore all the crucial things we share in common: air, water, sunshine, roads, greenspaces, educational institutions. Much of the land that individual stands tall on would not be as healthy as it is but for all those things we share in common.
As a writer, I spent a lot of time thinking about what the "good life" is. I'm thinking of good ethically and psychologically. What good actions do people take to make good lives for themselves? What elements of their lives feed and nurture their inner sense of well-being? I suspect that if you think about those questions, one of the first things that comes to mind is relationships you have with other people. Your wife or husband. Your children or grandchildren. That old friend you have coffee with every couple of months who reminds you who you were as a teenager or a young adult.
So why are you building economic policy on the shoulders of the sovereign individual and not in the hands of two people in relation, shaking hands, giving a hug, sharing a story?
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