Athabasca MLA calls for more relief spending, lambasts pandemic contingency fund

Buckley Belanger says province letting down northern residents

Buckley Belanger, pictured here during the 2019 NDP convention in Prince Albert, is accusing the province of misusing money in its COVID-19 response and letting down northern residents. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

Athabasca’s NDP MLA Buckley Belanger accused the Saskatchewan Government of “cheaping out” on communities in the north by using northern money to fund pandemic relief efforts. 

Belanger also said that the province hid pre-election modeling indicating that a second wave would be more severe than the first and “pocketed” federal relief funds intended for residents across the province.

“We estimate that the province received from the federal government $440-million related to COVID support. They kept that money and didn’t spend it,” Belanger said. 

“On one hand, they pocketed the $440-million that they got from the federal government to balance their books, where the $200 million contingency fund came from, and they refused to divulge this information. Plus, they also hid the (second wave pandemic) modeling before the election. So on two counts they totally betrayed a lot of Saskatchewan people.”

He said that when it came to the north, the province tapped monies through the Northern Municipal Trust Account (NMTA) instead of using federal funds allocated to the province for pandemic relief.

Belanger stressed that the NMTA is funded through revenue that is generated in the north and is earmarked for covering the capital cost of operating in the region.

“That money forms the basis of what these communities get for their capital grants budget and they used it to backstop some of the money that they would have had to spend on their own if the federal government didn’t step in,” Belanger said. 

“The money is set aside to make sure that these communities have the resources for capital purchases, not for operating because that’s a different cost. What these guys did was they took the money from (the NMTA), money earmarked for capital costs for northern communities, and they gave it back to the communities for COVID-19.”

Ministry of Government Relations spokesperson Dan Palmer said in a written response that the Government, “continues to provide pandemic support to communities across the province.” 

The province said that it “fast tracked” a record amount of municipal revenue sharing — $278 million for the 2020-21 fiscal year. 

“Funding under this long-standing provincial program is stable, consistent, and can be invested as municipalities see fit – no strings attached,” the Ministry said

The Ministry said that in April, the province provided $370,000 in funding through the Northern Municipal Trust Account to help support northern communities.

As well, the government said $350,000 was allocated to New North, Saskatchewan’s northern communities association, to help establish, staff and maintain community checkpoints to help reduce COVID-19. 

The Northern Village of La Loche was allocated $20,000 to support local public safety, food security and educational initiatives organized by the community to encourage physical distancing and self-isolation of residents. 

Allocation of relief funds was debated at the Legislature in Regina on Dec. 1 and Dec. 3. 

On Dec. 3 Betty Nippi-Albright, who is Opposition critic for First Nations and Métis Relations and MLA for Saskatoon Centre, asked for the Government’s plan to deal with the pandemic situation among the Indigenous population.

“Indigenous people in Saskatchewan are at the highest risk of hospitalization or death from virus-related complications,” Nippi-Albright said.

She noted that Saskatchewan First Nation communities have registered nearly 1,200 cases of COVID-19 including 17 active outbreaks and that data shows First Nation and Métis people living in urban centres will be severely impacted by the virus. 

“Throughout this spring and summer, now into the fall, COVID-19 has obviously reached into all corners of Saskatchewan — urban, rural, and of course our far north and into our First Nations communities,” Rural and Remote Health Minister Everett Hindley said.

“We have been consulting with our First Nations partners in leadership throughout this to make sure that we’re providing as many supports as we can.”  

Hindley said that in response to the spike in northern community cases earlier this spring, the Saskatchewan Health Authority collaborated with the province, federal government and northern community leaders “to quickly mobilize resources and supports to the north.”

“This included ensuring that the Northern Integrated Health Incident Command Centre worked closely with local leaders on response planning and emergency management services support,” Hindley said.

“And the SHA… has deployed staff and enhanced ground and air ambulance supports to respond to surges in EMS calls in the north as well.”

On Dec. 1 NDP Leader Ryan Meili had pointed to a contingency fund  that was revealed in the November mid-year report and urged the government to spend it.  

“Now is not the time to be cheap with Saskatchewan people. Now is the time to invest,”  Meili said. 

Premier Scott Moe acknowledged a $200-million contingency in the budget that was augmented at the mid-year update with an additional $100 million revenue offset, should the revenues of the province start to dip due to COVID-19.

“We are backfilling the federal funding in the interim… We are adding to that with our provincial funding and we didn’t wait. We didn’t wait… with respect to supporting the people of this province, supporting jobs in this province, taking that balanced and measured approach to ensure, yes we are curbing the spread of COVID-19, but also to ensure that we are supporting people in communities across this province.” Moe said. 

Moe pointed to more than $50 million invested in the small business emergency program and $2-million early on in the pandemic toward the self-isolation support program, which he said was then backfilled by the federal government to make it continuous across the nation. 

“We’ve partnered with the federal government on a temporary wage supplement. We partnered with the federal government on the Canadian emergency rent assistance program, which has now since been changed to make it much more effective,” Moe said. 

Moe said the challenge is to maintain that balance and curb the spread of COVID-19 across Saskatchewan until there is widespread access to a vaccine. 

Belanger, who himself tested positive for COVID-19 and has recovered, said there’s still a “long way to go” before a vaccine can be relied on to save the day. He said northern communities in particular are being left out of the equation. 

“Île-à-la-Crosse is getting hit, La Loche is getting hit again. There are cases at Canoe Lake First Nation, and the most pressing cases, of course, were in Fond du Lac. It doesn’t matter if they’re First Nations or Métis communities or northern Aboriginal communities. These are Saskatchewan people. And that’s what gets the people in the north so angry,” Belanger said.

“I hope it was worth it for them to play with our lives. And I hope people realize that’s exactly what they did. They hid the cash and they got caught.”