As we start to see the economic light at the end of the COVID tunnel, there has been a lot of
talk on how to grow the economy and how to grow Saskatoon. Important growth projects
have received significant attention, for example: a new library, the downtown entertainment
district and growing the tech sector.
Every time the Downtown Event & Entertainment District gets mentioned, a flurry of media
coverage follows. Where will it be built? When? Who’s going to pay for it? And so on. All great
questions, all prompting healthy debate and discussion.
But in the midst of those discussions, we are at risk of losing sight of the biggest barrier to
growing our city – and that is to address the lack of racial equality in the economy.
It’s perhaps an inconvenient truth that Saskatoon’s growth has been – and will be – held back if
we can’t create a more inclusive economy that drives opportunity for all. Indigenous
participation in the economy needs to be at the forefront of that discussion, and ideally at the
forefront of our minds. This is Saskatoon’s best way to grow.
Building buildings is great, but creating a more inclusive economy is the proverbial skyscraper of
how we can build our economy – downtown, across the city and across the province.
According to the US Center for Assessment and Policy Development, racial equity is “the
condition that would be achieved if one’s racial identity no longer predicted, in a statistical
sense, how one fares.” In reality, analysis shows that racial identity is a measurable, significant
and persistent predictor of how a person fares economically.
When you stop to think about that, the moral issue is clear: why should racial identity be
statistically correlated with your likelihood of being employed and/or how much you are paid?
This bias is particularly evident with regards to the Indigenous peoples of Treaty 6 (and beyond)
and particularly disappointing given the Treaties contained a commitment to good economic
livelihood, amongst other important terms, in exchange for land for the settlers. However, what
followed was purposeful exclusion of Indigenous people from the economy through policies
and practices designed to produce an unequal distribution of wealth.
Setting aside the clear moral need for a moment, there are many economic drivers behind this
need. For example, let’s look at increasing consumer spending – surely a good thing for all
businesses – spending often being linked to employment and population growth.
Indigenous peoples represent 16.3% of Saskatchewan’s population, which will continue to grow
over the coming years. Imagine the economic growth that would occur if more Indigenous
people were involved in the economy, in Saskatoon.
How about unemployment? The unemployment rate for Indigenous people is 14.7% vs. 8.5%
for the total population (2020). Imagine the new workers, the new spending, the new growth
that would come from closing this gap. Lowering the unemployment rate would help all ships
rise, in Saskatoon.
What about reducing the high cost of social programs? In Saskatchewan, Indigenous people
account for about 70% of total prison population, more than twice the national average of
30%. It’s a case of jobs vs. jails. It does not take an economist to imagine how that shift would
grow the economy in Saskatoon.
We must also do more to close the Indigenous education gap. Indigenous students have high
school educational or equivalent attainment of 57.2% vs. total population 76.7%. There is a
direct correlation between education level and lifetime earning potential. Imagine what kind of
“smart city” we could be if we closed this gap, in Saskatoon.
My point being, the need to address racial economic inequality should be getting the same – if
not more – attention than buildings, or other growth opportunities. Yes, we have to keep
building bridges so to speak, but we also need to break down barriers, including barriers based
It’s about addressing what I call Saskracenomics: the impact of racism on economic growth in
Saskatchewan. We must tackle this issue if we are to grow.
As Jody Wilson-Raybould said:
“Lofty rhetoric and mournful platitudes will not change the laws, policies, and practices of governments that have resulted in the violation of the human rights of Indigenous peoples in the past and continues to do so today. We need deliberate, coherent and intentional action”.
It’s time to build a more inclusive economy – and not in a far-off land, but right here, in
Imagine if, to borrow from a well-known speech, we were to build a province where
all students, all job seekers, all shoppers, were never judged by the color of their skin, but by
their character and hard work, in Saskatoon. That would be real growth.
How do we do this? Well, it will require a multifaceted approach, with no quick fix, but one tool
is to increase focus on TRC Call to Action 92 and in particular 92.ii: “Ensure that Aboriginal
peoples have equitable access to jobs, training, and education opportunities in the corporate
sector, and that Aboriginal communities gain long-term sustainable benefits from economic
For its part, SREDA for the first time in its 25-year history recently created an Indigenous Economic
Development Committee of the Board. We’re committed to fulfilling our corporate objective to
“provide leadership and advocacy for economic reconciliation – and to implement or
recommend policy changes that address this call to action.”
And although we’re late to the game, we’re trying hard to do what we can. SREDA’s SOAR
program has provided grants of up to $10,000 to numerous Indigenous entrepreneurs and
small businesses. Our Learning Together program provides employees with two hours per
month to mentor Indigenous students in Saskatoon. Just one way of developing relationships
and opportunities for both the mentor and mentee. We’re asking more and more companies to
implement a Learning Together program. We can do more, and are striving to do so – one
program at a time.
So, let’s build that city of buildings – but also a city that can bravely and boldly build a better
economy, one brick at a time – for everyone. To do so, we must continue to recognize, discuss
and decrease economic racism in Saskatoon. Leaders need to rise to the challenge of creating
more diverse teams, more inclusive businesses, more opportunities for more people of all
That’s the blueprint for the biggest economic growth Saskatoon has ever seen.
Alex Fallon, CEO, Saskatoon Regional Economic Development Authority (SREDA) and the
SREDA Indigenous Economic Development Committee: Steve Danners, Candace Wasacase-
Lafferty and Brad Darbyshire.
I would like to acknowledge and express my gratitude for the feedback several mentors and peers within the Indigenous community and race relations field provided to me for this article.