Indigenous leaders and members of the federal government spoke virtually on Monday to discuss the challenges Northern Saskatchewan residents face due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
They also discussed plans for distributing the $18-billion in spending that the federal government committed as part of their 2021-22 budget. Those funds were designated to help close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in housing and other key areas.
Minister Jim Carr, the government’s special representatives for the prairies, spoke with Northern Saskatchewan leaders for roughly one hour on Monday. Carr called the roundtable discussion “moving and impactful” and vowed the federal government would work to help North Saskatchewan residents with renewed determination.
“We’re talking about major gaps in infrastructure, in housing, (and) in education, all of which will be met, I think, in new and impressive ways as we work together down the path to reconciliation,” Carr said during press conference after the meeting.
The $18-billion promised in the federal budget will be delivered over the next five years. Carr said Canada entered the COVID-19 pandemic in a strong fiscal position, which will allow them to make significant investments that address shortfalls in Indigenous housing, mental health and education.
He said COVID-19 has created the steepest and fastest economic contraction since the great depression, and that’s widened the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.
Northern leaders said they were pleased with what they heard on the call, but emphasized the investment must be delivered in a timely fashion to have an impact.
Lac La Ronge Indian Band Chief Tammy Cook-Searson said the federal government has been very responsive to problems caused by COVID-19 over the past year. She said that trend needs to continue to help address some of the challenges that have only become worse during the pandemic.
“We do have overcrowding, houses that need renovations, and investments into water and sewer, schools, culture, language, so those are the things that we’ll continue to work on,” she explained.
Former NDP MLA and Liberal MP Joan Beatty moderated Monday’s discussion. Beatty said Northern Saskatchewan has a very young population, and they face a unique set of challenges compared to previous generations.
Like Cook-Searson, Beatty emphasized the importance of getting the investment from the government and into local communities in a timely manner.
“The question for me is, ‘how do we get that to the ground level—to the community level—so that it’s meaningful, so that it’s real to these young people, so that we don’t have to wait two or three more years again?’” she said during the press conference. “We have to look at different delivery mechanisms (and) partners at the community level to make it real.”
Beatty said northern residents are working hard and making the best of it they can during the pandemic. She viewed the meeting as an opportunity to make connections, and help the federal government understand their difficulties.
“Today, when you compare the way I grew up, the challenges that the young people face today, it’s just totally different,” she said.
A representative from the Prince Albert Grand Council also participated in Monday’s discussion. The Daily Herald was unable to get in contact with the PAGC representative for an interview.
Northern Saskatchewan is represented in parliament by Conservative MP Gary Vidal, who defeated Cook-Searson (Liberal) and incumbent Georgina Jolibois (NDP) to win the constituency of Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River in 2019. Vidal’s parliamentary and constituency offices did not reply to emails requesting an interview.