REGINA — One of Canada’s most high-profile premiers who rose to national prominence for his down-to-earth style, sharp wit and, more recently, his willingness to lock horns with Ottawa is retiring from politics after a decade in office.
Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall, who is 51, said he made the decision at the end of June after talking it over with his wife Tami.
“I think renewal will be good for the province. I think renewal and a different perspective will be good for the government. I think renewal will be good for my party as well,” he said Thursday.
“Whatever I do after this — and I currently have no leads or prospects — this job will be the honour of my working life.”
Wall said he will stay on as premier and Swift Current member of the legislature until his successor is chosen in a leadership race.
Wall and his Saskatchewan Party have won three consecutive provincial elections, taking more than half of the popular vote each time. The party, which formed 20 years ago out of an alliance of disaffected Tories and Liberals, swept 51 of 61 seats in 2016.
Wall routinely places high in opinion polls ranking the country’s most popular premiers and his knack for the zinger soundbite has made him a national political figure.
“I hesitate to use the term cult of personality, but certainly when you think of the Sask. Party today, you automatically go to Mr. Wall,” said University of Saskatchewan political scientist Charles Smith.
“He is the face of the party.”
His fierce opposition to Anglo-Australian mining giant BHP Billiton’s hostile takeover bid for Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan in 2010 made him a folk hero of sorts. More recently, he has been an ardent champion of pipeline projects that would connect Canada’s crude oil to global markets.
He has also clashed with Ottawa over the Liberal government’s plan to force provinces to put a price on carbon — pledging to fight the move in court if necessary.
Despite their differences, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called working with Wall a privilege and praised him for his service.
“Premier Wall has worked tirelessly to promote Canada and Canadian exports with our international trading partners,” he said in a statement Thursday. “His efforts will benefit the people of Saskatchewan for years to come.”
Wall has faced headwinds at home in recent months, especially after this spring’s austerity budget.
With a bottom line battered by low resource prices, the budget cut library and education funding, as well as grants to municipalities, although cash for libraries was later restored.
It raised the provincial sales tax and added it to things that were previously exempt, such as children’s clothing and restaurant meals. The government also shut down the provincial bus company to help tackle a $1.3-billion deficit.
In May, a Mainstreet Research poll suggested Wall’s party had dropped steeply in voter support and had fallen nine points behind the leaderless Opposition New Democrats. But in June, an Angus Reid poll had the Saskatchewan Party up by seven points across the province.
University of Regina public policy professor Ken Rasmussen said Wall has benefited from a mixture of well-honed political instincts and the good fortune of booming resources in earlier years.
“Aside from the real partisans, he will be seen as one of the great contemporary premiers of the province,” said Rasmussen.
Potential leadership candidates include Energy and Resources Minister Dustin Duncan, Finance Minister Kevin Doherty and Tim McMillan — a former Saskatchewan cabinet minister who now leads the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers — as well as Justice Minister Gordon Wyant and Health Minister Jim Reiter.
But Rasmussen said there’s no heir-apparent.
“The rest of the people who are vying for his job will really seem ordinary in comparison,” said Rasmussen. “I think the Sask. Party’s in for a rough road ahead without him at the helm.”
Wall’s retirement comes while the province’s Opposition New Democrats are in the throes of a leadership race of their own.
Interim Leader Nicole Sarauer commended Wall for his dedication to public service and wished him well, but vowed to keep fighting his party.
“Even with a new leader, this is still the same Sask. Party that is hurting our kids and loved ones with cuts to our schools and hospitals, making it harder for Saskatchewan families to make ends meet,” she said in a statement.
Saskatchewan Party executive director Patrick Bundrock said a leadership convention is being organized, with a replacement to be chosen through a one-member, one-vote election. Its provincial council will meet within the next month to work out the details.
“And until then, there’s still a lot of work to do,” Wall said.
“This was such a difficult decision to make … but it is time.”
— By Lauren Krugel in Calgary, with files from Jennifer Graham
The Canadian Press