When did Manitoba become a laggard?
There was a time when the Keystone province embraced bold visions, naysayers be damned.
Duff Roblin’s response to the 1950 flood is an excellent example of this lost glory. Roblin, a Progressive Conservative, assumed the role of premier in the late spring of 1958, and before long he was proposing a titanic undertaking — the Red River Floodway.
Construction began November 27, 1962 and was finished — on time and under budget, it should be noted — in March 1968. During that time 2.75 billion cubic feet of earth was excavated, behind only the Panama Canal.
Total cost of the project at that time was $63 million, equivalent to a half-billion dollars today.
Roblin was pilloried at the time, and critics declared it a folly and dubbed it “Duff’s Ditch.” Time, however, exonerated Roblin’s leadership on this file, and it is estimated to have saved the province $40 billion in damages since it opened.
A Manitoba Historical Society article on the project sums it up well, noting the floodway was pressed into service quickly in the years following its completion:
“In 1969, 1970, 1974, and 1979, substantial flooding was experienced in the upper Red River Valley south of Winnipeg, costing millions of dollars in damage; yet Winnipeg escaped virtually unscathed with the Red River Floodway in operation.”
This isn’t the only example of Manitoba’s past vision and fortitude bearing fruit. Another sterling example is the province’s development of its vast hydroelectric resources.
The first hydroelectric plant operated north of Brandon on what was then the Minnedosa River (now the Little Saskatchewan River) from 1901 to 1924, where private investors built a 261-foot earth-fill dam.
By 1906, Winnipeg Electric Street Railway had constructed a hydroelectric plant on the Winnipeg River near Pinawa. The now-abandoned dam and generating station is preserved as a provincial park.
In 1949 the province set up a new utility, the Manitoba Hydro Electric Board, tasked with bringing electric power to the rural parts of Manitoba, a task which took until around 1956 to substantially complete. In 1961 the MHEB merged with the Manitoba Power Commission, to form the Crown corporation Manitoba Hydro.
That organization now operates a network of 15 interconnected generating stations, has a generating capacity of 5700 MW, annual revenues of $2.8 billion, the lowest domestic electricity rates in North America, and a robust and growing export market to neighbouring provinces and states.
But sadly in recent years this provincial get-up-and-go seems to have got up and gone. Now the province can’t even agree to pick up ‘free’ money for its producers from the federal-provincial table in a timely manner.
As our Alexis Stockford reports for our June 11 issue, the province has finally agreed, with a metaphorical sigh and eye roll, that yes, it will participate in AgriRecovery, but only weeks after the other Prairie provinces signed on.
That’s frankly not good enough for the province’s producers who deserve to know they’ll be on an equal footing with their fellow farmers. Farming is a hard enough game to play without wondering if the province is going to have the sector’s back.
And while fiscal reality is an ever-present burden, we’re not even talking about a lot of money here. Saskatchewan estimates it’s going to cost that province $15 million. It’s likely less for Manitoba, but for argument’s sake, let’s use that figure. For a province with an annual budget of over $15 billion, that’s one-tenth of one per cent of the Manitoba budget, and for only a single year.
This lack of clarity and commitment is beginning to hobble the agriculture sector in Manitoba. Take the cattle sector as a very clear example of this. As Geralyn Wichers reports in our front-page story, a price insurance program aimed at the livestock sector has few interested producer participants.
The criticisms of the program are many, but one of the biggest of them is its expense. Those few producers who have chosen to participate say they were shocked to discover their insurance bill had become their second-highest expense, after only feed.
One reason is because, unlike the crops sector, livestock producers are paying the full freight. They pay premiums high enough to fund the indemnities paid out to producers. The only government support involved is covering the cost of program development and administration, and a willingness to provide “deficit financing.”
By contrast crops producers pay just 40 per cent of the premium for most crop insurance in Manitoba. The federal government picks up 36 per cent, and the provincial government the remaining 24 per cent.
The provincial government needs some Duff Roblin-style foresight to secure a stable future for its cattle sector.