Charlie Clark reflects on the booms and gloom of two decades in Saskatoon

20 Years | Gregory Beatty | Sept. 29, 2022

When Planet S started publishing in September 2002, Charlie Clark was finishing up his graduate thesis in environmental studies at York University. He was also working with Quint Development in Saskatoon on a Core Neighbourhood Council project and with Saskatoon Community Mediation Services.

Now, Planet S is 20 years old! And Charlie Clark is mayor of Saskatoon! That’s a lot of water under the proverbial bridge — for both of us.

Clark first ran for office in 2006 — four years after we started publishing. After three terms as Ward Six’s councillor representing the downtown and the Nutana/University district, he was elected mayor in 2016.

Now midway through his second term, Clark has had a front row seat as Saskatoon has grown and evolved over the two decades we’ve been around.

He remembers the early days well.

“When I decided to run for council it was at a time when there was a strong feeling in Saskatoon that all the young people, after they finished high school or university, were leaving,” Clark said in a recent phone interview.

“My wife Sarah and I had a young family, and we’d determined that this was a place we wanted to raise a family and live,” he says. “But it was just a short time later that our economy really took off, and we saw a massive shift in that migration with many young people moving back and other people coming from all over the world.”

The economic boom, which was fuelled by a “commodity supercycle” driven by voracious global demand for oil, natural gas, potash and other resources, was basically a lottery win for Saskatchewan. It created opportunities. But there was work that needed to be done, too.

“Another thing that was going on was the Stonechild inquiry,” says Clark. “The report had been released, and there was very low trust between the Indigenous population and police service.

“The city felt like it was quite divided, with feelings of racism and marginalization in the Indigenous community, so it was a daunting time to get involved in city politics,” says Clark.

There was also the matter of a growing city. In Ward Six itself, Clark recalls, there was ongoing debate on what to do with the south section of downtown, as well as controversy over a city hall proposal to divert a portion of library taxes to help build an overpass to a new neighbourhood called Stonebridge.

“Stonebridge was just lines on a map then, and the first thing that was going to be built was a Walmart,” says Clark. “There was a real debate around suburban sprawl. Things were very charged in our city, with a lot of polarized thinking on issues, and I was very interested in finding common ground so we didn’t resort to ‘us vs. them’ thinking to solve the issues.”

A Surging City

Population boom is probably overstating it, but not by much.  In the 20 years Planet S has been publishing, Saskatoon has grown from 228,000 residents in 2002 to 337,000 today. And the effect on the city has been profound, says Clark.

“Saskatoon has undergone a huge amount of demographic change,” he says. “Really, the face of the city changed as we saw so many people moving here from all over the world, and all over the province. And Ward Six, in so many ways, was at the heart of that action.”

While the “Saskaboom” eventually fizzled, Saskatoon’s economy has continued to steam along reasonably well. Clark cites a shift to more research and development and value added activities in bio-tech, agri-food and other areas as one big driver. There’s also the emergence of a so-called Silicon Prairie, with start-ups including Vendasta, 7Shifts and Coconut becoming leading Canadian tech companies.

“We’ve also had an expansion in our urban reserves, and the investment brought to our city by First Nations has played a big role,” says Clark. “We’re up to seven urban reserves which is one of the largest numbers for any city in Canada. And we’ve had a massive rise and growth in companies that were developed and are run by newcomers.

“The university has been another driver with organizations like the Light Source Synchrotron, Global Institutes for Water and Food Security and VIDO-InterVac that have built clusters of opportunity in the health sciences,” he says.

“It’s been an exciting time to see all that, and now with the expansion of the potash industry and establishment of Nutrien here as a global company, it does seem we have gone through a lot of change and growth,” says Clark.

The Inequality Crisis

Not all the change and growth over the past two decades has been positive, though.

“I’m very concerned that we have too many neighbourhoods that are really struggling, with too many people living in housing that is crowded and unsafe, or who don’t even have housing,” says Clark. “This rise in homelessness, which we’ve seen in cities across North America, is deeply concerning.

“There’s too many children going to school without food in their bellies, and too many people who struggle with addiction, mental health and homelessness — or simple poverty and a lack of opportunity — because of not having the training they need to enter the work force,” he says. “A lot of work needs to be done to deal with inequality.”

In far too many cases, Clark says, the people facing those struggles are Indigenous.

“They’re carrying the traumas of residential schools and growing up in a society that has been so shaped by a colonial relationship with them. We’re in many ways on the frontlines of that in Canada, and we’re seeing some incredible leaders emerge in the Indigenous community to play important roles in our city, province and country which is really great to see.”

To break out of that colonial mindset, says Clark, the city has established a protocol agreement with Saskatoon Tribal Council. It also has memorandums of understanding and partnerships with Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies and Gabriel Dumont Institute — and is in similar talks with the Métis Nation.

“I think we’re really coming to terms with what it means to be a city on Treaty Six territory, where we work government-to-government with First Nations and Métis partners to address challenges and seize opportunities to build a strong future,” says Clark. ‘We have employment agreements, education agreements, programming partnerships, and the urban reserves; they’re all transforming our understanding of how we can work together.”

Destination: Downtown

Another transformation that Clark is excited about (as are we) is downtown revitalization.

“The downtown is critical to the future of our city,” says Clark. “We want to be an attractive place for people and companies to move to. And the sense of energy in a city, the heartbeat, so much of it comes from the downtown.”

A key driver there has been the development of River Landing as a cultural and recreational hub. In the past 15 years, Persephone Theatre and Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan moved into new facilities. Remai Modern opened in 2017. New outdoor festival and farmers’ market spaces are next up, and a new downtown library and arena/convention centre are on the horizon, along with several high-rise residential towers, a downtown grocer and an upgraded transit system to service the downtown efficiently.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a downtown events and entertainment district,” says Clark. “We see this as a critical piece to make sure that Saskatoon is an attractive place, not just for our city, but that creates concert, sports and other urban experiences for people from all over Saskatchewan.”

Hot Topic

While Saskatoon’s future looks promising, any talk of the future these days comes with a giant caveat: climate change and the overall health of the environment could turn everything upside down.

It’s a reality that Clark and his colleagues on council are aware of, and recognize the need to address, he says.

“We live in a province that has among the highest GHG emissions per capita of anywhere in the world. Over time, that’s increasingly becoming a liability that we need to address. First, to lessen the risks of climate change. But also, because more and more we’re hearing about people and companies wanting to live in areas where sustainability issues are being addressed.”

Developing density in the downtown will help curb urban sprawl and promote sustainability. Other steps Saskatoon has taken, says Clark, include working with home builders to set new standards for net zero homes, and developing plans to build a large solar field in the city to produce renewable energy.

“With our transit system, we’re buying electric buses to replace diesel buses,” he adds. “It’s not just better for the environment, but also cost effective over the lifetime of the bus. These are all things that are going to be very important for us if we’re to play our part to address climate change and to continue to be an attractive destination so we don’t get left behind as the world changes.” ■


City and Country: Saskatoon needs the power to fix problems

Anniversaries are great for looking back. But they also offer an opportunity to look ahead to the future.

And when Saskatoon mayor Charlie Clark does that, he sees one big challenge looming.

In technical terms, it’s a constitutional one. And while that sounds arcane and inconsequential, it’s having real-world impacts.

It starts with the British North America Act, which founded Canada in 1867. Canada, at that time, was largely rural, so cities, not surprisingly, were more or less an afterthought. In fact, they don’t even have constitutional standing. Instead, provinces have absolute jurisdiction over cities under s.92 of the act.

That may have served Canada’s interest in 1867, but now, with fully three-quarters of the Canadian population living in cities, it’s a big problem, says Clark.

“This is a fundamental issue in Canada,” he says “When you look at challenges such as homelessness, addictions and mental health, they’re under provincial or federal jurisdiction, but they’re occurring in cities. And municipalities do not have the tools to address them on our own. We’re in a hierarchical relationship where, in many ways, we’re at the mercy of provincial and federal legislation and governments.”

As Canada’s urban population has grown, cities have become major economic hubs. Here again, their sad-sack constitutional standing hinders their ability to maximize their potential.

That’s not good for the cities, and it’s not good for Canada, says Clark.

“When the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and Big City Mayors come to the table, we say city-building is nation-building,” says Clark. “We’re closest to the ground so we see in real-time how these provincial and national issues play out.

“Having a role for cities to be more directly involved in shaping how we work these issues out is important.”

Formal recognition is probably a bridge too far given Canada’s convoluted constitutional structure, but Clark says municipalities will continue to make the argument that it’s in everyone’s best interest to get cities more involved in government.

“What we talk about is a four-corner table that has the federal, provincial and municipal government, along with Indigenous governments,” says Clark. “We’re going to keep working toward that vision, and we feel it is essential if we are to build a nation that can address the challenges that we’re seeing now — and those challenges are significant.” ■