In an effort to strengthen civic life in rural Saskatchewan, a University of Alberta geophysics student used the economic health of the nearest small-town auto dealerships as a measure for viability to redraw the boundaries of its municipalities.
The boundaries for Saskatchewan’s rural municipalities have stayed virtually unchanged for more than a century, despite 70 years of uninterrupted rural population decline, explained Alex McPhee, bachelor of science student and cartography enthusiast.
“Jurisdictions that once had thousands of people living, farming and participating in civic life are now dwindling to an average population of 398, with the smallest having just 72,” he said.
While advances in agricultural technology have lessened the economic blow this mass depopulation might have otherwise had, McPhee said one area where there has been a clear negative trend is in the realm of democracy and civic engagement.
“As these local government areas dwindle, fewer and fewer people are available to stand for local government office,” he said.
He noted that about half of Saskatchewan’s rural municipalities did not hold an election during the 2018 election cycle as acclamation became the norm.
“Moreso, dozens of these places have vacancies on council, while three couldn’t find a single person that was willing to serve as reeve.”
He said CBC recently highlighted a big rise in municipal employee workplace abuse claims, linking it to the difficulty of electing new members on council.
“There’s simply a breakdown in accountability,” said McPhee, adding that although rural municipalities hold just 16 per cent of the province’s population, they account for 37 per cent of complaints about municipal governments.
“Even councillors who are known to be abusive or incompetent stay simply because there are no alternatives.”
McPhee applied to the U of A’s Undergraduate Research Initiative to fund his research project. He then used 2016 census data as a starting point for a detailed population model—a process that involved reviewing satellite images to check for signs of habitation such as cultivation of the land.
From there, he combed through economic studies commissioned by the Saskatchewan government looking for benchmarks for rural sustainability. What he found was that the presence of an auto dealership is a leading indicator of whether or not a small town is still a commercial centre for its outlying region. In fact, dealerships are the greatest indicator of viable and non-viable towns, with the average viable town having an average of two dealerships, and the average town in long-term decline having just 0.13 dealerships.
“A vehicle is a big purchase, and it takes a lot to be willing to pass up the closest town to buy their truck,” he said.
Expanding out from each service area while being mindful of natural watersheds, physical barriers and historical landmarks, McPhee cut the 296 counties down to 38.
Not only would this legitimize democracy again, McPhee said, but there are obviously great savings to be gained for the province—a major reason the issue of redrawing rural municipalities is a frequently discussed reform.
“Unfortunately, something like this would be expected to generate a big ruckus,” he said. “Any Saskatchewan government that relies on seats in rural areas, which is almost all of them, has commissioned a study, found that amalgamation is necessary and then shelved it.”
Saskatchewan is not alone in facing down amalgamation. In 2013, lawmakers in Manitoba required that municipalities with a population less than 1,000 amalgamate with one or more neighbouring municipalities by 2015.
Once the dust settled, the consolidation reduced the total number of rural municipalities in Manitoba from 197 to 137. And while the savings have certainly been recaptured, McPhee said the new merged councils are often a venue for past regional differences to keep playing out.
“If there are five people on council from one old municipality and three people from the other, then one set of interests will constantly win out, often in a way that exacerbates the long-running historical grievances.”
Rather than acrimonious mergers within the same boundaries and hyphenated compromise names, McPhee said his reform comprehensively affects every boundary and creates regions that are a little more culturally palatable.
“With no vestige of the old map remaining, none of the predecessor municipalities would have as much of a cultural claim to keep using these new larger councils as a venue for supremacy or inequality between different regions.”
And while McPhee is hopeful to have his proposal published, he said at this political moment, it is probably better left for academia.
“The issue is salient almost worldwide, even more so in developing countries where there is a huge exodus away from the subsistence lifestyle.”