Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and Finance Minister Donna Harpauer addressed a pair of local priorities during a post-budget luncheon stop in Prince Albert Tuesday.
The luncheon was originally planned for the week following the provincial budget, but as Harpauer is the MLA for Humboldt, she cancelled her public speaking engagements while dealing with fallout from the tragic Humboldt Broncos bus crash.
During her speech, Harpauer heralded funding increases, including those that will impact people in Prince Albert, including increased funding for school divisions, a measure promised by Moe in response to backlash from the last budget’s $54 million cut to school division operational funding.
But in responding to questions from attendees and journalists following the event, Harpauer and Moe addressed a pair of priorities brought up by interested parties recently: A new hospital and targeted funding for mental health supports in schools.
Moe campaigned during the leadership race on building a new, fully funded hospital for Prince Albert once the budget was back to balance. While the government is still committed to building a new hospital for Prince Albert and the region, the timeline has become a bit fuzzy.
“The timeline will be when we can afford it,” Moe told reporters after the event.
“With respect to our infrastructure investment, we have a number of … projects coming to fruition.”
Moe cited the Jim Pattison Children’s Hospital and the new psychiatric facility in North Battleford. He also said the government has directed infrastructure dollars to highways, roads and new schools.
“We do always have projects coming off and projects that will be going on that are determined each budget,” he said.
“We’ve committed to not only the funding of the Prince Albert hospital, but to the full funding of the Prince Albert hospital, the understanding that it is a northern service to people not only in the surrounding area of Prince Albert, but across the north as well, and it’s a valued service to the province. As we continue on our path to balance, I won’t give a date on when we will be moving forward, but as we balance the budget here in the province, that is one of the projects of highest priority.”
Prince Albert Northcote MLA Nicole Rancourt, a member of the official opposition, was also in attendance Tuesday. She expressed disappointment that the original timeline had changed.
“There was no funding put in place or even a plan put in place on seeing a new hospital in Prince Albert,” she said. “I’d like to see an actual plan being put forward.”
Harpauer emphasized that in terms of health infrastructure, a new hospital for Prince Albert is the priority.
“I believe P.A. is most likely the next major capital project in health care,” she said. Harpauer also explained why that project wasn’t specifically included in capital spending projections in this budget.
“The capital plan will just be a capital commitment,” she explained. “All of our capital is included. It isn’t sectioned out. It would be too difficult to project years in advance in that manner.”
She also responded to concerns raised by a group of social work students from First Nations University calling on a dedicated funding envelope for mental health supports in schools.
The students were concerned after seeing the Catholic school division in Prince Albert eliminate a contract with Catholic Family Services to provide in-school mental health counsellors at the elementary level. The cut was due to budget constraints.
“That was on our radar already midyear in the previous budget,” she said.
“There were talks of different school divisions making staff cuts. That’s why in the third quarter of our previous budget we put a $7.5 million injection into (education) so school divisions that were having pressures could maintain staffing they felt were critical.”
Harpauer emphasized the autonomy of school divisions to spend that money how they think is best. She also highlighted the increased funding in the health care budget for mental health supports, including a pilot project for mental health supports in schools based on a similar project in Alberta.
The social work students, in their letter, had praised improvements like the pilot program, but had asked for something longer-term and sustained.
Rancourt would also like to see dedicated funding for mental health supports in schools.
“Families are saying that there are continued long wait times and children aren’t getting the services,” she said.
“We know that there used to be services within our schools, especially in Prince Albert, but due to the lack of funding for the health region and the school system, those services are no longer available. We have to ensure we have services available for children and youth where they can access it and where it will be most applicable. Our suicide rates are unreal. Our children are dying. This government needs to start making a real priority.”
Moe: Rural crime prevention programs to roll out soon
While speaking to media after the Finance Minister’s speech and question and answer session, Moe also spoke briefly about the province’s rural crime prevention plans. He said work is underway to roll out the Provincial Response Team, which consists of conservation officers, highway officers and additional RCMP officers. He said that team is just the first step in an ongoing plan.
“The RCMP are just unable to be everywhere,” Moe said.
“The provincial Response Team is one of the first and early steps you’ll see come into force as we speak over the next number of weeks and months.”
He said the conversation surrounding rural crime will continue.
“We need to … go further in the way of rural crime watches, organizing those, and in the way of what opportunities we have to incorporate some of the technology sector in addressing rural crime and protecting our properties. The response team is a start, and we need to continue to have the conversation with our residents across the province of Saskatchewan and continue to address what is a serious issue for all of us.”