What is the future of rural Canada?

Welcome to the Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation's examination of the State of Rural Canada in 2015


Heather Hall and Rose Olfert

Download Saskatchewan Chapter as PDF


Over the last decade, Saskatchewan has seen a significant economic and demographic departure from its decades of decline1. Driven by a commodity price boom, the provincial population grew to just over a million in 2011, an increase of about 5.5% from 20012. This recent growth has been largely concentrated in and near urban areas like Saskatoon and Regina, while rural Saskatchewan reveals a more nuanced reality of growth and decline. This chapter is divided into five key sections: an overview of rural local governments; a description of rural demographics; the rural economy; rural programs and support; a summary of the major rural Saskatchewan issues; and a short discussion of policy implications.

Rural Local Governments in Saskatchewan

There are 781 incorporated municipalities in Saskatchewan. This includes 461 urban municipalities (16 cities, 146 towns, 259 villages and 40 resort villages), 296 rural municipalities, and 24 incorporated municipalities in Northern Saskatchewan (2 northern towns, 11 northern villages, and 11 northern hamlets)3. While the majority of the population resides in “urban” municipalities (82%)4, about 150 of the villages and towns have fewer than 100 residents5. Rural municipalities were the only municipality type that experienced population decline between 2006 and 20116. Saskatchewan has the largest number of municipal governments per capita among the provinces. With 781 governments for a population of just over 1 million, there is a municipal government for every 1,323 people. Ontario with a provincial population of almost 13 times that of Saskatchewan has 444 municipal governments, or one for every 28,800 people.

Rural Demographics

While the provincial population has hovered near one million since 1931, the rural population as a percentage of the total has declined steadily from 84% in the 1901 Census (see Table 1). The rural population has also declined consistently in absolute terms since 1931, except for 2006-20112. Historically, the population switched from being majority rural to majority urban between 1966 and 1971. The remaining high percentage of rural at 33% is exceeded by only the four Atlantic Provinces. The age distribution of the rural population reflects age-selective out-migration. The 20-44 age group accounts for only 27% of the rural population in 2011, compared with 36% in urban areas5. The rural population is also older, with 16% in the 65+ age group compared with 13% in urban areas. The vast majority (94%) of the small immigrant population in the province (6%) resides in urban areas5. As provincial and national economic activity concentrates in and near urban areas, the population redistribution is likely to continue, with implications for the types of government services and economic activity that can be supported in rural areas (e.g., more seniors’ centres and fewer schools). The Aboriginal population of Saskatchewan (roughly 160,000) represents 16% of the provincial population7. Elliott7 reports that the average annual population growth rate, 2006-11, was 2.1%, compared with 0.9% for the non-Aboriginal population. Aboriginal people are also younger (34% compared with 17% under age 15), have less education (67% versus 87% completed high school), have lower employment rates (58% versus 84%) and have lower average annual income ($23,606 versus $41,230). Elliott7 distinguishes: On-Reserve (approximately 35% of the Aboriginal population); Off-reserve in rural and small urban areas (<10,000) (8%); and large (>10,000) urban (57%). Without exception the socioeconomic status of On-Reserve First Nation population is lower than that of the Off-Reserve population7. While there is already ongoing rural-to-urban and On- to Off-Reserve population redistribution, better access to Off-Reserve/urban opportunities would improve socio-economic outcomes of the Aboriginal population, especially given their rapid growth8.

Rural Economy

Saskatchewan has always been, and remains, heavily dependent on exports—in 2010 it had the highest per capita exports in Canada9. Historically an agriculture-based province, the economy has transitioned to a broader dependence on natural resources, including potash, oil, gas, and uranium10,9. In both rural and urban areas the services sector is gaining prominence as is evident from GDP and employment data. While separate rural and urban data are not readily available, a somewhat dated translation of the industry structure into rural and urban for 2006 by the Canada West Foundation (see Figure 1) provides some indication of the rural share of GDP (see Table 2) and employment (see Table 3).

Well established patterns of urbanization in the province are the result of centralization of both private and public sector economic activity, leaving many rural communities with populations that fall below the threshold levels required to support these activities11. Increasingly, access to urban areas, with their services and employment opportunities, is the most important determinant of the economic success of rural communities12. As a result, development options for remote rural communities will rely on taking advantage of local niche market activities in a variety of sectors including services and natural resource activity.

Rural Programs & Support

Few provincial government rural-specific programs remain in Saskatchewan. The Ministry of Agriculture serves that industry, and there is a Minister responsible for Rural and Remote Health. Within the Ministry of Highways there is a Rural Highways Strategy in the Ministry of Highways13 while SaskTel has an explicit strategy for improving internet access in rural areas14. The absence of a dedicated rural development Ministry or program stands in contrast to the 1980s and 1990s when there was a Department of Rural Development, and also Rural Development Corporations15,16. From 1992-2009, 28 Regional Economic Development Authorities (REDAs) promoted a grassroots or community driven approach to economic development17. Funding for the subsequent 16 enterprise regions was ended in 201218. For the north, the previous Department of Northern Affairs has been replaced by Northern Engagement within the Ministry of Government Relations, and there is a unit called First Nation, Métis and Northern Economics Development within the Ministry of the Economy. These changes reflect a shift in political and economic circumstances over the last decade. However, the demise of these programs removed the regional focus to economic development and financial support that is needed given the socio-economic challenges and other issues facing rural and northern communities19. Federally, 13 Community Futures organizations offer support for rural community economic and business development20. Western Economic Diversification (federal) provides assistance for innovation, business development and community economic development. There are also a number of federal infrastructure programs accessible by rural areas in the including the Municipal Rural Infrastructure Fund and the Small Communities Fund in the Provincial-Territorial Infrastructure Component (PTIC)21. However, the program criteria for small communities includes municipalities with fewer than 100,000 people, which may mean rural and northern communities are competing against urban centres for funding. Rural municipalities are represented by the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities (SARM), which describes itself as “The Voice of Rural Saskatchewan” and assists municipalities with: – Interpreting provincial and federal legislation; – Reviewing legislation that affects rural municipalities; – Lobbying government to bring about changes to legislation; and – Communicating important political developments to members. In Northern Saskatchewan, New North is a municipal organization dedicated to improving the lives of people through advocacy and capacity building. New North has worked extensively to address housing issues through forums and other initiatives22,23. The Northern Municipal Trust Account disburses revenue from property that becomes vested to the Minister24. In addition, a Northern Labour Market Committee focuses on labour market and economic development issues in the region25. All municipalities in Saskatchewan have access to the provincial municipal revenue sharing program (1% point of the 5% provincial sales tax) to support the delivery of community services. In 2014-2015 rural municipalities will receive $72.61 million and northern communities $19.16 million26. Northern municipalities can also apply to the provincial northern capital grants program and the northern water and sewer program27.

Rural Issues

Key issues facing rural areas include infrastructure maintenance and upgrade (including access to drinking water), access to quality health care and education, demographic trends, and appropriate access to decision-making. Saskatchewan has roughly 190,000 kilometers of rural roads, the most per capita in any jurisdiction in the world28. There is evidence, however, that rural roads and bridges are deteriorating across the province29. Increased traffic in recent years, especially industry traffic on roads designed to move people and products is a particular challenge30. Access, connectivity, and distances between communities are particularly challenging in northern Saskatchewan, especially for communities dependent on fly-in/fly-out access and winter roads. The cost of living in far north communities is extremely high—a 2litre carton of milk can easily cost $12.00. Also concerning is the number of communities that lack access to potable water. According to Health Canada31, as of April 30, 2015 at least 27 First Nations are under drinking water advisories. The rural-to-urban population redistribution is expected to persist. For communities outside the influence zone of urban centres, this implies an aging population and low or negative rates of population growth10. School closures and the loss of other public (e.g., health care) and private sector services will accompany population decline. Access to quality health care and education is dependent on threshold size populations to support those services. Complicating matters is the very large number of rural municipalities making cooperation in economic development efforts difficult—competition is more common. The young and rapidly growing Aboriginal population is a tremendous resource as well as a challenge in terms of full participation in the economy. Finally, both rural and northern communities often perceive they are not adequately included in what is seen as centralized provincial decision-making. Consultation with only with key stakeholders instead of widespread community consultations is a common practice. There is a fear that policies are created with limited understanding of the unique challenges and opportunities facing rural and northern regions22.

Policy Implications

The future of rural Saskatchewan depends first on accurately assessing the challenges and opportunities. Long term trends in the urbanization and concentration of economic activity, and the resulting population redistribution, will continue. The fabric of rural Saskatchewan that characterized the period of growth through the first half of the 20th century will not be recaptured. Instead rural opportunities lie in good and efficient government for the rural population, providing broad-based (not sector specific) support to encourage local entrepreneurship, and ensuring transportation and communication access to economic opportunities, globally as well as locally. The very large numbers and small sized governments, originating before WWI, now largely preside over areas that are much too small for meaningful economic development activity. Further, the large numbers result in very high transactions costs of cooperation for mutual benefit. Some real or de facto municipal government amalgamation is long overdue. The vast rural road network must be rationalized through upgrading some roads and abandoning others; broadband access is of key importance for both population and business retention. New technologies to deliver education and health services to a small and dispersed population will improve quality and reduce costs. A sustained effort to improve education, health and social outcomes for the Aboriginal population, both On- and Off-Reserve is likely to have high payoffs. Policies and programs need to ensure that rural and northern communities participate fully in the province’s economic growth.


  1. Friesen, J. and Curry, B. 2012. Canada’s future is in the West: 2011 Census. The Globe and Mail, February 8: online.
  2. Statistics Canada. 2011. “Population, urban and rural, by province and territory (Saskatchewan).” Available at: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/tables-tableaux/sum-som/l01/cst01/demo62i-eng.htm. Accessed May 12, 2015.
  3. Government of Saskatchewan 2015a. “About the Saskatchewan Municipal System.”  Types of Municipalities. Available at: https://www.saskatchewan.ca/live/housing-municipal-planning-and-public-works/your-local-government/about-the-saskatchewan-municipal-system.  (Accessed June 12, 2015).
  4. SUMA (Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association). 2015. SUMA Facts. Available at:
    http://www.suma.org/index.php?p=SUMA%20Facts. Accessed June 24, 2015.
  5. Moazzami, Bakhtiar. 2015. “Strengthening Rural Canada: Fewer & Older: Population and Demographic Crossroads in Rural Saskatchewan.” A paper prepared for the Strengthening Rural Canada initiative on behalf of Essential Skills Ontario and the Saskatchewan Literacy Network. Available at: http://strengtheningruralcanada.ca/file/Strengthening-Rural-Canada-Fewer-and-Older-Population-and-Demographic-Crossroads-in-Saskatchewan.pdf. (Accessed May 9, 2015)
  6. Government of Saskatchewan. 2012. “Saskatchewan Population Report – 2011 Census of Canada.” Saskatchewan Bureau of Statistics. Available at:  http://www.stats.gov.sk.ca/stats/population/Censuspop2011.pdf.  (Accessed June 2, 2015).
  7. Elliott, Doug. 2014. “The Demographic and Economic Characteristics of the Aboriginal Population in Saskatchewan.” A statistical profile prepared for the Strategic Initiatives and Program Support Branch, Saskatchewan Ministry of Justice. SaskTrends Monitor, August 2014. Available at: http://www.justice.gov.sk.ca/demographic-economic-characteristics-aboriginal-population (Accessed May 22, 2015).
  8. Lashley, Phillip and M. Rose Olfert. 2013. Off-Reserve Employment Options for Reserve Populations in Canada. Submitted to Journal of Aboriginal Economic Development 8(2): 112-127.
  9. Saskatchewan Trade and Export Partnership. 2011. Saskatchewan State of Trade. STEP. Available at: http://www.sasktrade.com/ckfinder/userfiles/files/Saskatchewan%20State%20of%20Trade.pdf. Accessed May 20, 2015.
  10. Elliott, Doug, Jim Marshall and Rose Olfert. 2013. The State of Saskatchewan Cities: Recent Social, Demographic and Economic Statistics. Saskatoon: Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy.
  11. Stabler, Jack C. and M. Rose Olfert. 2002. Saskatchewan’s Communities in the 21st Century:
    From Places to Regions
    . Regina: Canadian Plains Research Centre.
  12. Partridge, Mark D. and M. Rose Olfert. 2011. The Winners’ Choice: Sustainable Economic Strategies for Successful 21st Century Regions. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy 33(2): 143-78.
  13. Government of Saskatchewan. 2013. “Major Policies and Planning Initiatives”. Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure. http://www.highways.gov.sk.ca/major-initiatives/ (Accessed June 2, 2015).
  14. Styles, Ron. 2011. “SaskTel Rural Strategy: Building a Broadband Infrastructure.” SaskTel, 2011 Preview. Available at:http://sarm.ca/+pub/File/Resources-Publications/Workshop%20Notes/Sasktel%20Rural%20Strategy.pdf. Accessed September 12, 2015.
  15. Ofosuhene, Maxwell. 1997. “A Comparison of Rural Community Development Strategies in Saskatchewan and North Dakota.” MA Thesis, Department of Geography. Regina: University of Regina.
  16. Fernandes, Neville. 2003. Saskatchewan’s Regional Economic Development Authorities:
    A Background Document
    . Saskatoon: Community-University Institute for Social Research.
  17. Cecil, Ben and Randall, James, E. 2007. “An Economy in Transition.” In Bernand D. Thraves, M.L. Lewry, Janis E. Dale and Hansgeorf Schlichtmann, Saskatchewan: Geographic Perspectives (pp.405-423). University of Regina: Canadian Plains Research Centre.
  18. Ambroziak, Phil. 2012. “Future of Enterprise Regions in Question. Northern Pride April 3. Available at: http://northernprideml.com/2012/04/03/future-of-enterprise-regions-in-question/ (Accessed May 15, 2015).
  19. Wills, Ashley. 1998. “Concerns for the future of rural enterprise regions.” NewsTalk 980. Available at: http://newstalk980.com/story/concerns-future-rural-enterprise-regions/49930. Accessed July 23, 2015.
  20. Community Futures Saskatchewan. 2014. “Community Futures Saskatchewan.”  Available at: http://cfsask.ca/. (Accessed May 12, 2015).
  21. Government of Canada 2014. “New Building Canada Fund: Provincial-Territorial Infrastructure Component National and Regional Projects.” Infrastructure Canada. Available at: http://www.infrastructure.gc.ca/plan/nrp-pnr-prog-eng.php. (Accessed June 12, 2015).
  22. New North. 2015. “Plan for 2015-2016.” New North. Available at: http://www.newnorthsask.org/.  (Accessed June 12, 2015).
  23. Prairie Wild Consulting. 2013. “Northern Housing Summit: Summary of Findings.” Planning and Partnerships for Progress – Facilitators Report. Prince Albert June 12-13. Available:
    http://www.newnorthsask.org/#!northern-housing-summit/c1kiq.  (Accessed June 12, 2015).
  24. Government of Saskatchewan. 2010. “The Northern Municipalities Act, 2010.” Statutes of Saskatchewan.
  25. KCDC. 2015. “Northern Labour Market Committee.” Keewatin Career Development Corporation. Available at: http://career.kcdc.ca/index.php/labour-market.  (Accessed June 12, 2015).
  26. Government of Saskatchewan. 2015b. “Municipal Revenue Sharing.” Available at: http://www.saskatchewan.ca/government/municipal-administration/funding/programs/municipal-revenue-sharing. (Accessed June 12, 2015).
  27. Government of Saskatchewan. 2015c. “Municipal Funding Programs.” Available at:
    (Accessed June 12, 2015).
  28. Stewart, Ian. 2006. “Municipal Road Network.” In Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan. Available at: http://esask.uregina.ca/entry/municipal_road_network.html (Accessed May 9, 2015).
  29. CBC News. 2015. “Horrid highways in rural areas not built to last: Province.” CBC News April 7. Available at: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/horrid-highways-in-rural-areas-not-built-to-last-province-1.3024024 (Accessed May 20, 2015).
  30. SARM. 2014. “2015 Provincial Budget Request.” Submitted by the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities.
  31. Government of Canada. 2015. “Drinking Water Advisories in First Nations Communities – Saskatchewan.” Health Canada. Available at: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fniah-spnia/promotion/public-publique/water-dwa-eau-aqep-eng.php. (Accessed June 12, 2015).


Heather Hall, PhD is a Postdoctoral fellow with the International Centre for Northern Governance and Development. Her research focuses on innovation in the northern resource sectors, regional development in the Provincial North, and labour market development in the mining sector.

Rose Olfert is a Professor at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan, specializing in regional and rural economics.