Perhaps the old line that rural municipalities are about gravel and gopher poison was never quite true.
But it’s certainly safe to say that Saskatchewan RMs these days are dealing with issues far more complex than that.
Even with fewer and fewer farms in each RM (perhaps a better argument for RM amalgamation than presented by the NDP a decade ago), RMs seem to be suddenly encountering big challenges that go well beyond serving farmers’ basic needs.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised to see this. Tiny though some of them may, it should not be forgotten that RMs are still governments, susceptible to some of same challenges, vulnerabilities and costs as big cities.
However, just how RMs deal with these new, arising issues may be critical to their on-going existence — at least as the rural municipalities we all have come to know.
For example, consider the recent developments in an on-going court case surrounding Saskatchewan Government Insurance’s no-fault automobile insurance plan.
The Supreme Court of Canada recently ruled against hearing a an appeal from the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal in its groundbreaking legal decision in the case of John Acton — a 44-year-old business manager and farmer who was rendered a quadriplegic in a single-vehicle rollover on a road in the RM of Britannia.
In the accident nine years ago that injured Acton, the farmer lost control of his truck on a rain-soaked road near his Lloydminster-area farm and slid sideways into a windrow of road construction material left on the roadway. Acton claimed in his initial suit that the RM of Britannia and Ron Handel Farms — the contractor doing road maintenance for the RM — left the road in “dangerous condition.”
Last year, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal ruled Acton could pursue legal action against the RM and Handel for economic benefits either in addition to or not covered by SGI’s no-fault insurance plan. His suit can now proceed because of the Supreme Court ruling.
Much has been made of the impact this case might have on the government’s no-fault insurance plan brought in by the previous NDP government in 1995. But the case could have an even bigger direct impact on RMs across the province in not only their insurance cost but also on the cost requirements for these small rural governments.
And this is not the only example of how life is getting complex for RMs — especially, those RMs located near growing urban centres.
The City of Regina recently voted in favour of annexing land in the neighbouring Rural Municipality of Sherwood to accommodate a population of 500,000.
“Every city grows … and alters their boundaries to accommodate growth,” said Regina Mayor Michael Fougere. “If we don’t do that, then we’re going to have serious problems of attracting people to live here.”
Similarly, Saskatoon has identified a growth area for a population of just over one million people — equivalent to the entire provincial population right now.
Of course, these are pie-in-the-sky projections that may never come to fruition. But talk of annexation comes at a time when cities and neighbouring RMs are already at loggerheads over development opportunities — especially Regina and Sherwood.
The fighting is already a headache for the province and headache. Government Relations Minister Jim Reiter is now hinting his Saskatchewan Party government may have to use increased provincial powers to resolve such disputes.
“It’s one I’d be perfectly happy if we never had to use,” Reiter told the StarPhoenix’s Joe Couture. “But I think it’s important that we have those tools available if there are instances where growth opportunities are being lost just simply because adjacent municipalities won’t co-operate.”
It may also be a good time for RMs to consider what they really are all about in this increasingly complex Saskatchewan.
Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 22 years.