Asian trade office expansion a small step toward increasing Sask. autonomy

After his meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday, Premier Scott Moe promised his government would seek ways to expand Saskatchewan's provincial autonomy.

He told reporters in Ottawa "to wait a couple of days" as he would announce initiatives "to increase our presence around the world."

Two days later, Moe announced a partnership with former prime minister Stephen Harper to help sell Saskatchewan exports in Asia and to establish international trade offices in Japan, India and Singapore.

The hints were there during a press conference Tuesday, following Moe's meeting with Trudeau.

"We have to ensure that Saskatchewan is being well represented not only within the nation of Canada, but we're being well represented around the world," the premier said.

The same week Moe shared his disappointment with Trudeau, he hired the current prime minister's former rival to help sell Saskatchewan to Asian countries.

Harper and Minister of Trade and Export and Jeremy Harrison will be in India over the next seven days to work on expanding the province's exports to the nation of 1.3 billion people. 

Harrison, who was a backbencher under Harper as a Conservative MP from 2004 to 2006, said hiring his former boss "wasn't political."

'Asserting authority that we have'

Moe and Harrison have been critical of Trudeau's role in trade issues with India, such as the 2018 decision to place 100 per cent tariffs on Canadian pulse exports including chickpeas, peas and lentils. In 2016, Saskatchewan accounted for 90 per cent of Canadian chickpea crop land. 

Trudeau's 2018 visit to India was ineffectual, Harrison said.

"I was critical of that mission because it did nothing to advance our trade interests."

He said the move to open the trade offices is an example of the province increasing its autonomy.

"It's asserting authority that we have and asserting economic interests that we have internationally."

He also hinted another example was contained in the province's growth plan released on Thursday, which included a mention of more provincial authority over immigration. The government's north star in its 2030 growth plan is a goal of increasing the population by 225,000 people over 10 years.

"Quebec has a very separate and different immigration plan, and powers associated with that program than other jurisdictions," Harrison said.

"There are a number of areas where as a province, we can assert additional autonomy that is allowed under Section 91 and 92 … in the Constitution [which deals with federal-provincial division of powers], and we're going to be examining those."

Alberta makes moves to expand autonomy

Alberta already has international trade offices, and Premier Jason Kenney has announced a plan to open offices in other provinces.

Kenney also plans to create an advisory panel that will travel the province to consult on decisions, such as whether the province should establish its own revenue agency and police force.

When asked for specifics on whether his Saskatchewan Party government was considering similar measures, Moe said "we haven't discussed specific items as of yet. I would say that all items are on the table."

On Wednesday, Saskatchewan NDP Leader Ryan Meili questioned the premier's position on western separation. Moe said separating was "not the answer."

Meili compared Moe's autonomy pitch to another provincial political party.

"It reminds me of another party that's named after the province that it runs in, and that's the Parti Québécois — a party that has been playing those games of autonomy and anti-Canadianism," Meili said.

"[Moe is] playing those political games and I would hate to see leadership in Saskatchewan — leadership in a province that's been so committed to this federation — start to take us down that road."

'Autonomy isn't free'

Daniel Béland, a professor in the department of political science at McGill University, said Saskatchewan could take a page out of Alberta's book and create what is sometimes referred to as a "firewall."

Béland said some of the measures Alberta is considering — such as opting out of the Canada Pension Plan, or creating a provincial revenue agency or an Alberta police force — would be costly.

"All these measures would increase provincial autonomy, but they would also cost money. And so autonomy isn't free most of the time."

Saskatchewan is spending $4.2 million to establish and operate its three new offices overseas. Its existing Shanghai, China office cost taxpayers $335,180 this year.

The province is paying Harper's firm, Harper and Associates, $240,000 for a one-year contract.

Béland said any substantial moves by Moe to increase autonomy in Saskatchewan as a form of "provincial state-building" would have to be sold to voters.

"This leads to extra spending or new bureaucratic structures that you have to create. It might lead to having more civil servants and having more taxes in Saskatchewan."