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Saskatchewan government’s lack of action is an implicit denial of climate change

As Canadians confronted the realities of climate change in 2021 — from heat domes to floods to fires — the province was making promises to increase oil production and double the growth of the forestry industry

Trevor Herriot is a writer and grassland advocate living in Regina. Cathy Holtslander is a Saskatoon-based researcher and environmental advocate.

The year that has just passed brought the reality of climate change into the lives of Canadians in devastating ways. 

Here in Saskatchewan, the severe drought and heat dome of midsummer saw the South Saskatchewan River, the lifeblood of the prairie, drop perilously low. As high temperatures and desiccating winds cut crop production in the south by half, Néhiyaw, Metis and Dene people in the north were forced out of their homes, fleeing fires that burned more than 800,000 hectares of forest and peatlands. 

Indigenous people, who suffer disproportionately on the front lines of climate inaction, have long warned us that colonial ways will make the earth uninhabitable. 

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As 2022 begins, let’s take stock and ask ourselves: how well are we responding to the calls for climate action and justice from Indigenous Knowledge Keepers, scientists and the youth in our communities? 

While some jurisdictions committed to reducing dependence on fossil fuels, the Saskatchewan government went the other way, pledging to increase oil production by 25 per cent to 600,000 barrels per day by 2030. Saskatchewan already has the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Meanwhile, the province’s climate action strategy rests almost exclusively on carbon capture technology — designed to allow for the extraction of more oil — and expensive and unproven small modular reactors that produce dangerous nuclear waste. 

In the face of global consensus that putting a price on carbon is an effective way to reduce emissions, the Saskatchewan government wasted an undisclosed amount of money on its failed Supreme Court challenge to the federal government’s power to implement carbon pricing. Premier Scott Moe also went on record opposing any cap on emissions, characterizing it as “an outright attack on the energy industry in Saskatchewan.”

Managed well, native grasslands are an important carbon sink and can play a role in nature-based climate solutions. These solutions have gained increasing traction recently — receiving attention in the federal budget and at the COP26 climate summit in 2021, but the Saskatchewan government has resisted calls to increase protection of grasslands, opting to sell off Crown lands instead. Photo: Trevor Herriot

At the COP26 gathering this fall, nature-based solutions gained some attention as political leaders heard from scientists that we can fight climate change by working with nature to enhance the resiliency and carbon-storing capacity of natural landscapes. But as other governments embrace international targets to protect 30 per cent of natural landscapes by 2030, in 2021 the Saskatchewan government ignored the pleas of Indigenous leaders and continued to sell off Crown lands, effectively removing their protected status as public lands. And rather than increase protection for our northern forests to meet the target, the provincial government announced plans to double the growth of the forestry sector by 2030, opting for clearcuts and short harvesting cycles that will be unsustainable in the hotter, dryer conditions, more frequent and intense fire seasons and shorter winters climate change will bring. 

Its forestry plan targets old-growth stands that provide habitat for endangered woodland caribou. The government has also given a green light to Paper Excellence, a subsidiary of the Indonesian giant Sinar Mas, to obtain a portion of its wood supply for a re-opened Prince Albert pulp mill from agricultural Crown land and private landowners in the forest fringe area — where there are no obligations to replant, and where deforestation would be the likely result.

Doubling the growth of the forest industry by 2030 would also mean cutting smaller, younger trees over wider areas, making larger cutblocks and leaving less biomass behind to decompose and form new soil. Regrowth and plantations would struggle to survive on eroded land in baking heat. At a time when climate change demands more careful stewardship to protect and enhance natural forests, Saskatchewan’s leadership is setting a course for degradation and deforestation. 

This was also the year peat bogs began to receive international attention as the most efficient carbon sinks on the planet. According to the United Nations, they cover a mere three per cent of the Earth’s surface, but store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests put together. In Saskatchewan, the Lac La Ronge Indian Band is in a fight to protect more than 2,500 hectares of peat bogs on their traditional lands, threatened by the government’s support for a Quebec company’s proposal to clear the forests and sell the peat.

In southern Saskatchewan, the provincial government continues to stand by as market forces and new agricultural systems drive carbon-releasing land-use practices across millions of hectares in Treaty 4 and Treaty 6 territory.

Facing rising costs and increasing pressures, some farmers turn to the draining of wetlands and the plowing of perennial grasslands to increase farmland. Both practices degrade the ability of the landscape to store carbon. Photo: Trevor Herriot

As farmers face rising land and input costs, and lower yields in drought years, many are draining wetlands, plowing perennial grasslands and bulldozing, burning and burying aspen bluffs and shelterbelts. All of these unregulated practices degrade the capacity of our waterways and landscapes to retain moisture-holding soil carbon and recharge groundwater that buffer the effects of climate change. In the provincial government’s much-criticized climate change strategy, “Prairie Resilience,” the only measure to support “natural systems” south of the boreal forest is business-as-usual zero-tillage cropping that depends on using glyphosate, a controversial herbicide suspected to degrade soil ecology. Despite its name, the strategy does not once mention native prairie and its carbon-storage value, which research has shown to be far superior to other prairie land uses in retaining carbon, biodiversity and soil health

Indigenous groups, environmentalists and the Municipalities of Saskatchewan have called on the government to protect our wetlands with regulations comparable to policies in Manitoba and Alberta. While the Saskatchewan Water Security Agency insists it is developing a policy, agricultural drainage that is eliminating sloughs and potholes — and damaging our rivers, lakes and streams — continues unabated.

Last year saw the provincial government using climate change resiliency and food security to justify its $4 billion dream of expanding irrigation out of the South Saskatchewan River. Critics, however, point out that while withdrawing more water for irrigation may improve crops for a small number of farmers, it would place more pressure on a river that this year received very little runoff from the southern Rockies because of high upstream water usage in Alberta. 

The Saskatchewan Environmental Society and the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, among others, are concerned the project would contaminate soil, degrade water quality and destroy habitat for fish and other wildlife supporting Indigenous people in North America’s largest inland delta, the Saskatchewan River Delta, which stores untold volumes of carbon in muskeg and is already being dried out by the management of hydro dams upstream. 

It may no longer be politically acceptable for our leaders to openly deny the existence of anthropogenic climate change, but Saskatchewan’s weak response to the climate emergency amounts to an implicit denial nonetheless. 

The provincial government is clinging to the wrong side of history by failing to meaningfully collaborate with people in Saskatchewan — both Indigenous and non-Indigenous — and take corrective action. Its allegiance to colonial relationships and an extractive economy is taking us to the brink, saddling our youth and future generations with an unjust burden.

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