This might be the last column you ever read from me.
Might be, because it’s impossible to know anything about the future as an absolute.
Last, because today’s daily is the last with me at the helm of the Prince Albert Daily Herald.
Yes — after four and a half years in the editor’s chair, the time has come for me to say goodbye.
Four weeks ago I took an opportunity to join a new online-only outlet that’s just starting up — AllSaskatchewan.com. It’s a business-only subscription-based news source. The Saskatchewan product is an expansion of their existing Maritime publications. AllSaskatchewan is being headed up by former StarPhoenix reporter Alex MacPherson, someone whose work I’ve long looked up to.
Leading the Herald has been a dream come true. I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished over the past five or so years. We’ve shone light in some dark areas, uncovered difficult truths and told amazing stories about amazing people.
We’ve come through some stormy waters, but now there’s clear ocean ahead of us. This ship, known as the Prince Albert Daily Herald, has been bashed and battered by the storm. But it’s emerged stronger. Now it’s time for a new captain to steer this ship.
It’s in experienced, capable hands. Longtime Herald reporter Jason Kerr has taken the reins. He’s long been the right hand guy here, and I’ve long trusted him and his judgement inherently. I have the utmost faith in Jason and in the rest of the Herald team that they’ll keep telling stories with the depth of reporting and focus on community that has led to so much success.
I’ve loved working here, and would do it all over again in a heartbeat. I’ve grown so much as a person and as a reporter. I’m so grateful for all the opportunities Prince Albert, and the herald have given me.
That said, managing the responsibilities of a daily newspaper is a huge task. A year and a half ago, I met an amazing woman. She’s smart, caring, funny, wise, beautiful and helps me to see the world through new eyes. She, and her energetic young son, make my life better daily.
But balancing work’s demands with life’s obligations was no longer possible. It was best for me, my family, and the paper, if I stepped aside.
It’s a great job — but it’s one you have to be 100 per cent committed to every day. When you can’t guarantee you can do it anymore, it’s time to step aside.
My predecessor, Tyler Clarke, wrote that his main goal as editor was to foster a greater public understanding and acceptance of all people. He also told me to maintain a blunt honesty with a finger firmly on the pulse of opposing viewpoints. He told me that people can tell when you’re not being genuine. It’s good advice, and it bears repeating.
My main goal was to keep telling stories that reflect the community in which we live. Prince Albert is incredibly diverse. It has wonderful people doing wonderful things, but it also has its challenges. I’ve intended to show both — you can’t fix a problem without acknowledging you have one — but the doom and gloom is hardly the whole picture.
It’s this focus on people, and the amazing relationships I built while working here, along with the incredible stories I heard and helped tell along the way, that I will take with me as I move on to my next adventure.
Prince Albert is an amazing place full of potential. It needs to tap on its greatest resource — its people — if it wants to build a better future.
People may disagree, but when they pull together, incredible things happen. I think of examples like the Rose Garden Hospice, or the support for the Raiders during their championship run, or of the tight-knit supportive arts community, or the way people came together during the recent Cloverdale fire.
Keep supporting your local paper, your local businesses and your local people.
It’s when we forget this and begin to point and place blame elsewhere that we lose the ability to create great things.
There is so much work to do, and so much good that is already happening. I’m excited for where the city, and the paper, goes from here.
A journalist I used to work with had one response when asked what would happen: “who’s to say.”
But there is one sure thing. People, and their ability to open their hearts and to help. It’s what makes a community, a community.
It’s what happens when we see Prince Albert the good.
Through these difficult times, thank you all so much for reading, for subscribing, and for all of your support. None of what we’ve done would have been possible without.
Keep lending that support to Jason and to the rest of the incredible Daily Herald staff. This is a strong team of reporters and they will continue to do the excellent work they’ve been producing.
New faces will come along, but with the strength and leadership that’s already here, I have no doubt they will only continue to bring what readers have come to expect from this 125-year-old-plus institution.
It’s time for a new adventure.
Thank you to everyone who trusted me to tell your stories.
Olivia Woytiuk couldn’t believe her eyes as the numbers came in.
It had been five years since Wild Rose 4-H out of the Shellbrook area had hosted the charity steer, and they weren’t quite sure what to expect.
Their previous charity steer had raised about $27,000.
“Because it was a COVID year, we didn’t know if we would get way less because businesses were struggling, or way more,” Woytiuk said.
The club sold tickets ahead of the auction, meaning they had a rough estimate of what would happen but weren’t prepared for how much would come in.
The final total was $49,930. Donations had come in from across Saskatchewan and Alberta to help the club reach the landmark amount.
“It was crazy getting all the support from communities across Western Canada,” Woytiuk said. “I was speechless.”
The cause is one that’s important to her heart. Woytiuk’s dad has cancer. Another parent in their 4-H group is also fighting cancer right now.
“I wanted to do something around cancer to help other families like mine, “ Woytiuk said.
The club likes to keep the donations local, so they settled on the Cancer Foundation of Saskatchewan, which is currently raising funds to install a 4D CT simulator for cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy in Saskatoon. The simulator is used to determine the exact location, shape and size of the tumour to be treated.
While one exists in Regina, the hope is to bring one to Saskatoon as well.
Wild Rose 4-H got a boost to its efforts to raise money for the CT scanner. Malcolm Jenkins agreed to match the total raised from the charity steer, bringing the initial contribution to $99,860.
Jenkins, whose wife Melba passed away due to cancer, spoke at the auction about why he was matching the donation.
“It was really touching,” Woytiuk said.
A few days later, the club got an unexpected surprise. JGL group of companies, which had donated the charity steer, also agreed to match the dollar amount raised by the 4-H club bringing the total donation to just shy of $150,000.
Alan Jackson, cattle buyer for JGL in Prince Albert, attended the event and called his head office in Moose Jaw to tell them how well it had gone.
“It was a huge success,” he said.
“(Head office) was quite inspired that this 4-H club was able to raise so much money, and the fact that Malcolm Jenkins stepped up and matched the donation. They thought it was the right thing to do.”
Jackson said he had a talk with the company’s CEO.
“He was all in and hoped it would motivate more businesses to do the same.”
In just a week, he said, the cancer foundation is $150,000 closer to their goal.
‘It’s pretty impressive,” he said.
Jackson, who has been in the Prince Albert area for about 15 years, is always impressed by the local 4-H clubs.
“These kids really enjoy looking after those animals,” he said. “It was a little more special this year because last year they couldn’t have their show and sale. This year everyone was excited. It was a really good atmosphere. I know most of these kids, known most of their names and know their parents well. It’s really neat to see these kids doing what they love to do.”
For Woytiuk, having so many people support their project has been truly special.
“4-H really loves to give back to the community,” she said. ‘We appreciate all the businesses and people who support (4-H) as a whole and the ag groups and the charity steer. It was really touching for people to come forward and say ‘I support your cause so much.’” It’s really breathtaking.”
Ava Bear’s heart filled with emotions as she gently tied a tiny pair of moccasins and bundle of sage to the Muskoday Bridge Monday afternoon.
Bear, the Chief of Muskoday First Nation, was one of the dozens of community members who came to the bridge to tie a pair of kids’ shoes against the fence in honour of the 215 children found in an unmarked grave at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops. The 215 pairs of shoes, accompanied by neon orange ribbons blowing in the breeze, stretched from one end of the bridge to the other, accompanied by a series of signs:
“A small voice whispers. They found us.”
Ronalda Vandale was brought to tears as she crossed the bridge. She was the one who spearheaded the collection of the 215 pairs of shoes. But it wasn’t a project she took on alone.
“It was amazing seeing the community support this morning that came out. We got here at 11 and had all of the shoes hung by 12:15,” she said.
The display sends an important message.
“I wanted to do this to raise awareness of the true history of residential schools in Canada,” she said. I didn’t think people realize the true atrocities that happened.”
The first nation held a ceremony on Saturday that several community members came out to as well. On Monday, which was National Indigenous Peoples’ Day, they hung the shoes.
“As a small child, I remember hearing stories that there were bodies at the schools, but there was nothing concrete. Now we have something concrete. That’s what I wanted to bring awareness to — the truth.”
The message will be hard to miss for any of the dozens of cars who pass over that bridge daily. Muskoday Bridge takes drivers on Highway 3 across the South Saskatchewan River. It’s located about 15 minutes south of Prince Albert and is a major traffic route.
Chief Bear hopes that all the non-Indigenous people who drive across the bridge reflect on what the shoes mean.
“For years we’ve been telling people what happened. This brings the proof,” she said.
“I’m hoping there’s a better understanding amongst everyone, and there’s some funding available for the mental health that’s triggered.”
Vandale said the shoes are hung just steps away from where a former chief’s mother would hear the drum.
Elders would gather amongst the willows to hide from the Indian agent, the ministers and the school teachers. That was the only way they could keep their ceremonies.
After a while, even those drums stopped.
The residential school system operated in Canada for more than a century, with the last schools closing in 1997. About 150,000 Indigenous children were removed and separated from their families and communities to attend the schools. About 20 operated in Saskatchewan.
Many of the children never returned home. Those who did suffered physical and sexual abuse, and were taught to be ashamed of their heritage and their culture. The intergenerational trauma from those schools persists today.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission called it cultural genocide.
The commission also identified several sites where they believed more unmarked graves to be located. They asked for funding to continue their fact-finding. They were denied.
Now, though, federal and provincial governments are pledging funds to continue that work. Last week, the provincial government gave $2 million to the FSIN to start their research, involving survivors, elders, protocol and ceremony, to research undocumented deaths and burials on formerly federally-operated residential school locations.
The news, and the stories, have opened lots of old wounds in survivors and their families. Supports are available, but as the FSIN said, there isn’t enough manpower to help everyone who’s struggling.
The FSIN said some supports are
“I know there’s going to be more,” Chief Bear said Monday.
“Once we start looking, there are going to be more.”
As she walked the bridge, tying up shoes as she went, she thought about a child that could have worn those shoes, but who never returned home.
“It’s emotional. I’m really glad we had an opportunity to do this today.”
With COVID-19 subsiding, and the bodies found at residential schools across the continent providing a stark reminder of the horrors of colonization, Vandale hopes her people’s culture can continue to grow stronger.
“I hope we can come together as a community,” Vandale said. “It’s through these gatherings and through our culture, history, traditions and ceremonies that we heal.”
Children who missed out on those ceremonies, and who missed out on their culture, struggled.
“I hope our culture becomes stronger and we get our language back,” she said.
It’s through those ceremonies that “we can slowly start to regain what makes us First nations,” Vandale said. ‘What makes us Indigenous.”
The Province of Saskatchewan is providing $2 million to help the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) research undocumented deaths and burials on formerly federally-operated residential school locations in the process.
The FSIN research is being led by elders, knowledge keepers, survivors, their descendants and First Nations communities. The process is expected to take years to complete with proper ceremony and protocol followed at every site.
The province and FSIN are calling on the federal government to meet or exceed the province’s $2 million contributions.
Following the confirmation of 215 undocumented and unmarked remains at the site of a former residential school near Kamloops, the federal government pledged $27 million for First Nations to research possible other sites where similar findings could be made. Already, the number has grown from 215 to over 500.
“We don’t really have a clear signal from the federal government as to what they will be putting in This is the first tranche that we have committed to as far as discovery and research into possible burial sites that are unknown or unmarked,” provincial First Nations, Métis and Northern Affairs Minister Don McMorris said Friday.
“If you look at the proportionate number of residential schools here in Saskatchewan to the rest of Canada, we would expect the lion’s share of those funds coming to Saskatchewan. But on this first piece, just on the identification and discovery, we’d expect them to at least match what we have, if not more, and then more to come.
“Thi is unprecedented work. It is top of mind for so many right now. There have been many stories, but never the spotlight that we’re seeing right now. We want to make sure we’re there as a provincial government. We want to be there … as partners to walk this very difficult road that we see in front of us.”
FSIN has already identified the former residential schools of Muskowekwan, Onion Lake St. Anthony’s, Beauval, Guy Hill, Lebret and Sturgeon Landing as possible sites for research, but said that the list of locations t investigate could increase. The funding announced Friday will be used to support research into identified and future sites.
While some of the funding will go towards the use of ground-penetrating radar to look for remains on the sites identified, FSIn Chief Bobby Cameron said a big portion will go to talking to survivors and receiving their input on where to start.
“Protocols and ceremonies have to continue,” he said. The survivors will have a big voice too.”
He said holistic healing, gatherings, input and a lot of dialogue have to happen before, during and after the research process.
“This is going to continue for quite some time,” he said. It may take many, many years.”
Including the guidance of the survivors of the system is important “because they have lived it,” Cameron said.
“they have breathed the witness. They’ve experienced it. It’s still fresh in their minds. That’s why it’s so crucial and critical that they’re fully involved every step of the way. When you hear these stories from their survivors, they’re retelling it like it was yesterday. Their minds are still sharp, their memories are still sharp and their voices are very strong.”
While the seemingly sudden revelation of the scale of loss from residential schools has roused settler Canada into action, for many survivors and Indigenous communities, the presence of undocumented deaths and unmarked graves has long been acknowledged and understood. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission asked for funding to explore sites where there were suspected unmarked and mass graves. The funding was denied.
“We want to thank all of those survivors and their descendants for what they’ve done for us, for many, many decades telling these stories. Now people are believing them, now we’re in 2021.”
Cameron said the research will help bring home some kids who never returned, but that many more will never be found.
“Those ones will have escaped those institutions, and were lost in the bushes and the country and perished due to the elements. We will never find those ones.”
McMorris said the province walks with FSIN and owes it to those “who were lost to this residential school system and those who continue to suffer from those effects.
“To this day, it remains unclear just how many children may have been laid to rest away from their families and loved ones without cultural ceremonies at residential school sites across the country.”
As more discoveries have been made, more old wounds have been reopened among residential school survivors and their descendants. Helplines and counselling have been offered, “but there’s not enough manpower to reach every survivor,” Cameron said.
“We encourage each and every one of them to reach out or try to connect and let us know how we can help during this emotional time. It’s about healing. It’s about moving forward.”
Prince Albert elder Liz Settee, who traces her roots back to Cumberland House in northern Saskatchewan and Peguis First Nation in Manitoba, said the news has led to a lot of hurt felt by a lot of people.
“The discovery of these bodies, there’s a lot of hurt out there,” Settee said during an interview Friday.
She encouraged anyone struggling to come forward. She doesn’t have all the answers, but Settee said that sometimes, it helps just to talk.
She said many Indigenous people who were disconnected from their heritage or who are otherwise marginalized have long been treated in a way that made them feel ashamed of who they are. Now, “they’re ashamed and hurt.
“Scars from people that have gone to residential school, they’re opened up again. We’re a strong resilient people. We have to stick together. We have to support each other during this time. There are so many of us that didn’t make it through. But those of us that did — we have a place here and we need to claim it.”
The residential school system in Canada operated for more than a century. About 150,000 Indigenous children were removed and separated from their families and communities to attend the schools. About 20 operated in Saskatchewan from the 1880s to the 1990s. Many never returned home. Many more suffered physical and sexual abuse, and were taught to be ashamed of their heritage and of their culture. They were taught that their culture was wrong.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission called it a cultural genocide.
With so many potential sites to search, Cameron said work will begin right away. Some locations have had protocols and ceremonies already and the searches themselves can start.
“I cannot stress enough the importance of that healing journey,” he said.
“There are still survivors out there who don’t know where their loved one is, they’ve never seen them. They have disappeared,” he said.
“We hear the stories at every single residential school. ‘I haven’t found my little brother. I haven’t seen my little sister. I don’t know where they went They disappeared. The priest or a nun beat them to a pulp. We’ve never seen them again.”
Elder Liz Settee knows the importance of connecting to one’s culture.
The Prince Albert elder and active community supporter is known in Prince Albert for helping others to connect to theirs. It’s become her life passion. She’s always teaching.
“I can’t say it’s one culture fits all. I’m not saying my way is the right way,” Settee said.
“This is the way I was taught. These are the teachings that were given to me. Even with the powwow, many young people — it’ something in them. They want to learn.”
Settee, works as an Elder with Prince Albert Outreach but also advises the Prince Albert Police, Saskatchewan Rivers School Division, Community Building Youth Futures, Heart of the Youth Powwow, Mann Art Gallery, YWCA and Saskatchewan Impaired Treatment Centre. She knows discovering your connection to your culture isn’t a straightforward conversation. Rather, she says, it’s more of a lifelong journey.
It’s a journey she’s eager to share herself.
“I share that with my youth. Students in the classroom — they don’t see their teacher as maybe having a mortgage to pay, a husband and kids, all the other stuff. They’re a teacher, and that’s it,” she said.
“They don’t know how they got to become a teacher. It’s (also) true for elders. I share ‘ I came over from the other side, but this is what changed me. Part of that is just being able to help them when they’re in those dark times.”
Liz Settee’s ancestral roots are in Peguis First Nation, Manitoba. Her father was born in Cumberland House in Northern Saskatchewan. His dad, Liz’s grandfather, passed before he was born.
Liz’s dad spent his first six years in Cumberland House. His mom —Liz’s gran — got to know Mr. Deschambeault, who ran the paddle boat that ran back and forth between Prince Albert and Cumberland House. They got together and moved to Prince Albert.
Settee’s dad was sent to Residential School. He returned, but left for Europe to fight in the Second World War.
At that time, he was “enfranchised” — a legal process where a person’s Indian status was terminated, and they were given Canadian citizenship. According to UBC, it was a key feature of federal assimilation policies regarding Indigenous peoples, it was introduced in 1857 under the assumption that people would be willing to surrender their legal and ancestral identities to gain full citizenship and assimilate into Canadian society.
In the Indian Act of 1867, enfranchisement became legally compulsory for serving in the armed forces, gaining a university education or leaving reserves for long periods, such as for employment. Aboriginal women were enfranchised if they married non-Indian men or if their husbands died or abandoned them.
“My dad’s status was stolen by the country he was fighting for,” Settee said.
Once someone was “enfranchised” and their status lost, so too was that of their spouse and children.
While fighting in Europe, Liz’s dad met her mom in Dundee, Scotland. They wrote back and forth for 11 years. They didn’t become engaged until the death of Liz’s maternal grandfather.
They got married in 1956. One year later, Liz was born.
She grew up in her father’s home in Prince Albert, at 932 First Street East. The home is no longer there.
Liz attended Connaught School in Prince Albert, located between River Street and First Street and 10th and 11th Avenues East. It was built in 1913, the same time as Queen Mary and King George Schools, but was demolished in 1978. Connaught Village Housing Cooperative now stands in its place.
As someone with a darker complexion, Liz said she was picked on, and called a “half-breed.”
She wasn’t raised with her traditional, Indigenous culture.
“We were never taken to powwows,” she said. ‘We were never introduced to our culture.”
Liz said she was “forced” to attend church each Sunday. Her family to attended St. George’s Anglican Church, which was then located at Ninth Ave and First Street East.
Her mom had her first stroke when she was 15. Liz got married to the first guy she went out with. “I got married too young,” she says in hindsight.
Unhappy with her perceived responsibilities of doing housework, cleaning and cooking, Settee fell down a dark path, using alcohol and drugs.
She ended up in Vancouver. She working at the bar in the early 90s when she got a call from her brother.
Changes made in 1985 to the Indian Act meant that some who lost their status could get it back again.
Liz said her dad was reapplying for his status, which meant that she would get hers back, too.
“I was sitting on Robson and Granville one day, and there was a group of natives that were blocking the intersection and they were drumming,” Settee said.
“It was such an epiphany, because I remember sitting there going, ‘ I want to apply for my status cared, and I don’t even know what the issues are.’ It didn’t sit well with me.”
Settee decided that if she was going to get her status card, she had to give something back. She decided to go back to school, and applied at the Native Education Centre for their criminal justice program.
“I wanted to work with youth in trouble with the law,” Settee recalled. “That was my passion, right from where I applied at school.”
She was pushed to go into social work, but stood fast that she needed to take criminology, because she couldn’t manage the court system if she didn’t know anything about it.
“I ended up getting my certificate,” Settee said. “I was going to save the world.”
Vancouver’s Native Education Centre, now known as the Native Education College, was established in 1967 as a project to meet the educational needs of Indigenous people who relocated to Vancouver from their First Nations community. It became a private college in 1979, operated and controlled by First Nations. In addition to helping adult learners receive academic and life skills they need, it focused on cultural activities to provide a more supportive environment for Indigenous learners.
Settee, who was just beginning her journey to rediscover her culture, said each day would start with a smudging ceremony, a cultural and spiritual practice in many Indigenous cultures used to purify or cleanse the soul and to pray.
“The first smudge I had sparked my spirit,” Settee said.
“It lit a fire in me The more I learned, the less I knew.”
It made her want to learn more about her culture.
Today, working with youth who are in trouble with the law, Settee has found that many also have little connection to their culture.
“A lot of drummers have said that the drum saved their life from drugs and alcohol. I want our youth to grow up knowing about their culture.
She said this year, she met a youth through the powwow who wants to learn how to dance. She wants to learn the jingle dress dance “because she wants to heal the people in the land,” Settee said.
“Just sparking that is why I do what I do. I feel that if (youth) can find that spark, or that passion — or me, it was life-changing.”
It’s not just youth. While working on a project with Cheryl Ring and Tammy Leonard, Settee was approached by an Indigenous lady who was bout 50 years old, who asked her what smudging was all about.
“She left and came back half an hour later with another man. They both smudged. I got to sit and talk to them about my journey, and how I was taught, and what it meant. Anybody that wants to learn about their culture. Reach out. Don’t be scared to find somebody to talk to. Something’s got to change in this world.
That’s especially true right now, Settee said, as it’s a difficult time for Indigenous peoples in Canada. As more remains of more children are found at the sites of former residential schools, Settee said a lot of scars of shame and hurt have opened up again.
While non-Indigenous leaders seem more receptive to the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report now than they did when it was first released, Settee doesn’t think the country is really engaging in the real , and that today’s so-called reconciliation is anything more than skin-deep.
“This is the hard part. Yes, it’s all good, surface-y reconciliation,” she said;
“But what about our people that are in jail. Or our people that are still in the streets? Oh they’re lazy, why don’t they get a job? Once they start taking those people for human beings, and stop blaming them for their situating or where they are, that’s where the reconciliation is really going to start to begin.”
Canadian data shows that Indigenous peoples make up 30.6 per cent of the youth homeless population, and more than 30 per cent of the Canadian prison population, even though they account for about five per cent of the country’s population.
Reconciliation may be starting, but much more work needs to be done to reverse years of a concerted effort to assimilate Canada’s Indigenous peoples, and to strip away Indigenous cultures and practices.
Reconciliation, Settee said, “is a nice word. But I’m not sure that were even close to what true reconciliation looks like.”
The country may just be taking the first baby steps towards the level of reconciliation Settee says is needed, but Settee does hold onto hope that helping other youth reconnect with their culture can help redirect them from the same dark path of drugs and alcohol that she fell down.
Settee knows what the difference is between herself more than 30 years ago, and her life as the Elder and spiritual adviser now.
“What’s the difference?” I have a soul. I have a spirit. I didn’t feel that before,” she said.
“There’s a connection to something bigger than myself. Just having the privilege of being able to be in ceremony, different ceremonies. The lightness that I have felt.”
Settee says she sees miracles in the little things.
“I have a belief that everything in this world is connected as we as people are connected. I’ve always tried to be a positive person, and in my darker days, when I was a the first part of my journey, I didn’t have hope, and I didn’t have belief.”
She said it could be a picture, or a cloud that represent something, or finding a feather or a special stone.
“There are some people that won’t get this — some people will — but those are signs that somebody is walking with me.”
Settee hopes that in her work, she can help other youth, and adults, find that connection before they go down that same dark path.
“I do work with older people and families, and that’s just to be there for support or to help them through the times that they’re hurting,” she said.
“This residential school — the finding of those children — there are a lot of people hurting from that. Just to have somebody to talk to. I’m not saying I can fix everything or anything. Quite often that’s all we need, is somebody to talk to and listen. The big thing is the listening.”
Even if Settee can’t guide them back onto the light path, she believes that her journey, her message and ultimately that connection to culture, can start to nudge someone towards the right way.
“I’m not saying they’re going to automatically stop what they’re doing,” Settee says.
“They might not think of it today, or next week, or next month, but maybe a year down the road, it’s going to kick in and they’ll start thinking about it.
“Plant the seeds. That’s what I see myself as, a seed planter.”
A Daily Herald analysis of data provided by the Saskatchewan Health Authority shows vaccination rates for the Far North West, Far North Central and Far North East lagging behind the rest of the province.
Using publicly-reported first and second dose information along with population totals for each zone, the Herald calculated the percentage of first and second doses in each of the 13 zones by a proportion of overall population. That differs from the provincial approach, which tracks vaccinations by eligible residents. Residents under the age of 12 aren’t eligible for the vaccine and aren’t counted in vaccine rates reported by the province.
The data shows that while 58 per cent of Saskatchewan as a whole has at least one dose of vaccine in their arms, and 21 per cent are fully vaccinated, none of the far north health zones exceed 40 per cent for even a first shot. Less than 20 per cent of each of the far north zones have received a second dose of vaccine.
The Far North West trails in both counts, with only 36.37 per cent of its population having received even one dose of vaccine, and 15.42 per cent having received both doses. That’s despite earlier access to vaccines for all eligible residents. The age limit restrictions for the far north were lifted much sooner than for the rest of the province, as rural, remote and Indigenous populations were prioritized by the federal government’s vaccination plan.
The NDP is launching a series of radio ads aimed at encouraging residents in Saskatchewan’s far north to get vaccinated.
The official opposition announced the initiative Friday. It comes as English River First Nation (ERFN) has declared an outbreak in the Patuanak area, with nine confirmed positive cases, including a handful of variants of concern.
In a press release, the NDP said that while vaccine uptake is stalling across the province, northern MLAs Doyle Vermette and Buckley Belanger are particularly concerned about their regions.
“We need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to get as many folks vaccinated as possible. That’s why we’re launching this campaign,” said Vermette in a press release. “For your own safety, for the safety of your family, for the safety of your community, if you haven’t already, please go get vaccinated.”
The radio announcements will begin Monday and run for the next several weeks in English, Cree and Dene.
Belanger credited northern leaders for doing their part to encourage vaccine uptake but called on the province to do more to dispel myths that might be giving some residents pause when it comes to deciding whether to receive a vaccination.
“It just takes one really bad story of somebody getting vaccinated and having adverse reactions, and rumours tend to spread like wildfire,” Belanger said.
“That’s what we’re grappling with in northern Saskatchewan.”
Belanger said what he and Vermette are trying to do is inform residents that the vaccines do work, and that the message from the vast majority of doctors, nurses and health educators is to get vaccinated.
“We want to assist the health professionals and those people that work to bring this pandemic under control. It was the health professionals, and in some instances, the leadership in concert with the health professionals, that made significant difference,” he said.
“What we are telling folks is that there are many, many more advantages to being vaccinated than there are to not be vaccinated.”
The NDP isn’t the first to launch advertisements in the region. The province did launch a series of radio ads and social media messages of its own, including ads in Cree and Dene, to encourage people to get vaccinated. It also chose vaccine champions from all parts of the province to promote the importance of getting vaccinated.
The risks of not getting vaccinated are escalating as variants of concern begin to drive the spread of COVID-19.
ERFN said only 30 per cent of its population is vaccinated.
The Northern Inter Tribal Health Authority reported 15 cases in the Far North West as of Friday morning. Of those, nine are variants of concern.
“Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority (NITHA) public health officials are advising northern residents that COVID-19 variants of concern (VOC) are increasing in northern Saskatchewan,” they wrote on Facebook.
“These VOCs are 30-70 percent more transmissible, meaning they spread more easily thus it’s more important than ever before to follow the Public Health Order. Getting tested, knowing your COVID-19 status, getting your COVID-19 vaccine shot and following the safety guidelines can help protect yourself, your family and your community.”
In a late Thursday Facebook update, ERFN said the variants “making the situation far more critical because the virus is spreading easier and faster,” the community said.
“It also hits suddenly and can hit younger people harder. We are trying to get this situation contained to prevent others from getting sick. We do NOT want to see anyone succumb to this virus.”
Belanger goes back to what the health professionals have said.
“We have heard the advice on many occasions. When they tell us we have to be vigilant against COVID-19, this is an example of what they mean. When we as northern leaders are asking questions, we turn around and seek advice from as many people as we can. The vast majority of the advice we received on this front is from health professionals, and every single one of them is telling us to get vaccinated as quickly as you can,” he said.
“I think everyone in the north wants normalcy. If we want to have normal lives that we enjoyed before, I think part of the responsibility we have to undertake is to make sure we get vaccinated.”
A curfew has been imposed and visiting banned on English River First Nation after a COVID-19 outbreak was declared.
According to a public notice dated June 17, the First Nations’ emergency management team has learned of “several” new positive COVID-19 cases in the community of Wapachewunak IR 192D, also known as ERFN-Patuanak. As of Wednesday, there were no positive cases in the Hamlet of Patuanak or in ERFN-La Plonge.
An update posted late Thursday said there are also active cases in La Loche (10), Beauval, Ile-a-la-Crosse and Buffalo Narrows, which each have five or fewer active cases. Birch Narrows/Turnor Lake has one active case, as does Canoe Lake Cree Nation. The update said there are no reports available from any other communities.
Nine people have tested positive and one has recovered. The cases were confirmed to have been from a variant of concern. People who tested positive have been isolated and contact tracing is ongoing. The notice was sent to all English River First Nation/ Patuanak residents Thursday.
The Northern Inter Tribal Health Authority reported 15 cases in the Far North West as of Friday morning. Of those, nine are variants of concern.
“Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority (NITHA) public health officials are advising northern residents that COVID-19 variants of concern (VOC) are increasing in northern Saskatchewan. These VOCs are 30-70 percent more transmissible, meaning they spread more easily thus it’s more important than ever before to follow the Public Health Order. Getting tested, knowing your COVID-19 status, getting your COVID-19 vaccine shot and following the safety guidelines can help protect yourself, your family and your community.”
A full 48-hour lockdown was put into place as of 2 p.m. to allow for the completion of contact tracing. Anyone required to isolate can contact the emergency management COVID response team to arrange for supplies.
Community members have been asked to closely monitor for symptoms and to isolate immediately if any develop.
The band office has been closed and the health centre is by emergency only until further notice. Local radio will be posting updates.
All gatherings and events, including food sales, have been postponed, no visiting or inter-household visits are allowed, a curfew is in effect for everyone from 10:30 p.m.. until 7 a.m. and road monitoring and travel restrictions will be put unto place for two weeks.
Thursday’s public notice warns that enforcement measures are being taken for those who do not follow public health orders.
“Please remember that there is a surge in COVID-19 variants of concern everywhere,” the notice said.
“We must all do our part in ensuring the safety of our community, and especially our vulnerable community members.”
In the Thursday night update, the community urged anyone who was a close contact to a positive case to stay isolated.
The variants are “making the situation far more critical because the virus is spreading easier and faster,” the community said.
“It also hits suddenly and can hit younger people harder. We are trying to get this situation contained to prevent others from getting sick. We do NOT want to see anyone succumb to this virus.”
A post from earlier this week indicated the community is targeting a 70 per cent vaccination rate, but right now, only about 30 per cent of the community is vaccinated.
The Far North West zone as a whole has a population just shy of 30,000. Only about 4,500, or 15 per cent, of the population is fully vaccinated. Only about 35 per cent of the population has received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
English River First Nation is located in the province’s far northwest health zone, 325 km northwest of Prince Albert.
The provincial government is refocusing its efforts on reaching more younger residents with first vaccine doses as the uptake rate among those under the age of 40 continues to lag.
The announcement was made during a press conference Tuesday, the same day Saskatchewan announced that it would not require asymptomatic individuals who are fully vaccinated to self-isolate if they’re identified as a close contact of a known COVID-19 case. Only unvaccinated and partially-vaccinated residents and anyone with symptoms would still be required to isolate for 14 days if they are identified as a close contact of a known case.
“Over the past 15 months, many of us have had to isolate,” Premier Scott Moe said.
“I was fortunate. I was able to work from home Some people don’t have that option. Being required to self-isolate has been a tremendous hardship for many in this province.”
Moe also renewed his call for the federal government to remove quarantine orders for citizens returning from international travel who have both their first and second COVID-19 vaccine doses.
“This is one more personal freedom that can be restored in short order,” Moe said.
Even as Moe praised those who have received one and two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, the province was acknowledging that it is changing direction slightly to ensure more residents can receive their first, and eventually second, dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. The province won’t move into the third stage of its reopening plan until at least 70 per cent of residents over the age of 18 have received at least one vaccine dose and three weeks have passed. As of Tuesday morning, that mark remained at 69 per cent.
Uptake has been much higher in older age groups than in younger ones. According to Tuesday’s numbers, Over 90 per cent of residents aged 70 and up have received at least one dose, with second dose vaccination rates in the oldest age groups also exceeding the 70 per cent mark.
The percentage of residents with their first dose remains high for the 60-69 age group at 85 per cent of that population. It dips to 73 per cent for residents in their 50s and 68 per cent of those in their 40s. Only 57 per cent of residents in their 30s have at least one dose in their arms and only half of those aged 18-29.
Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) officials said Tuesday that the issue isn’t one of confidence but rather complacency and convenience.
That means younger residents don’t have too many concerns about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine, yet haven’t received one for other reasons.
The SHA wants to change that.
“Today we’re going to mark another pivot in our vaccination campaign,” said SHA CEO Scott Livingstone.
“Our goal has always been to make it as convenient as possible … so we can get back to normal.”
A high vaccine uptake, SHA said, isn’t just to reopen the province, but also to sustain that reopening by mitigating the risk of variants spreading.
“We are going to really focus on the younger age groups, which we know have a lower uptake than older populations,” said Derek Miller, SHA operations director.
That means opening pop-up clinics in malls and pedestrian areas, big-box grocery stores and neighbourhood clinics. It also means converting school clinics to family clinics where possible, so entire families can attend to receive their COVID-19 vaccination.
The province also highlighted dedicated first dose appointments and mobile clinics heading to workplaces such as hog barns and mine sites. Clinics could also come to flag football, softball and golf events, lakes where people gather on the weekend, waterparks and recreation areas and through a partnership with the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
The SHA will also begin opening fast pass, or bypass lanes, at drive-thru clinics for first doses only, so younger people who might be busy or who can’t wait in long lineups can get their doses faster.
At the same time, the province will work on decreasing complacency by highlighting the health risk of not getting vaccinated, with messaging aimed at a younger demographic. The goal, Miller said, is to ensure a seamless process and “make it as easy as possible” to get a first dose of the vaccine.
“Unvaccinated people are exponentially more likely to get sick, require hospitalization and die,” Miiller said.
“Saskatchewan people need relief for the restrictions on their lives, their livelihoods and freedoms. Saskatchewan residents deserve a summer free from fear of COVID.”
Premier Moe said while the focus will shift to making first doses easier, the province will also still be dedicated to distributing second doses, which are needed to protect against some of the more aggressive variants of the novel coronavirus.
He also ruled out a lottery or other incentive to help encourage more people to get their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine.
“In this part of the world, you’re already winning by just getting vaccinated,” Moe said.
“You get to protect yourself from COVID. You get to protect your family, your friends, your loved ones and everyone around you.”
Moe said 92 per cent of new COVID-19 cases in Saskatchewan are in unvaccinated individuals, and 82 per cent of those who are hospitalized aren’t vaccinated. He stressed that the only way to return to life as it was before the pandemic is to go and get vaccinated.
“Health, peace of mind, a safer province and a return to things as we once knew them, those are pretty great prizes in my mind,” Moe said.
‘We’ve already had nearly 700,000 very lucky winners. We did all that without a lottery and still have vaccines left.”
Moe also stressed the importance of receiving a second shot, highlighting variants, such as the Delta, which still turn up in people with only one of their two doses of a COIVD-19 vaccine.
“Some of the variants are being contracted by people who have only received their first dose, but transmission is low among those who are fully vaccinated,” he said.
He said the goal is for 80 per cent of the population to receive both doses by the late summer.
A successful vaccination program means Saskatchewan will soon have to learn how to live with COVID-19 as the virus’s presence in the province decreases while the pandemic continues around the world.
Saskatchewan’s Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said it’s unlikely that the virus will ever be gone for good, but will pop up at endemic levels and in local outbreaks from time to time.
“We can’t stay in a pandemic forever,” Shahab said. “We are reaching a point where we have to start having gatherings in a way, that for vaccinated people, is going to be very safe. There will always remain a risk of COVID, moreso if you’re unvaccinated.”
Shahab said other viruses prevented through vaccination also still lead to local outbreaks, viruses such as measles, mumps and pertussis (whooping cough). The key will be to keep monitoring symptoms and testing people for the virus when they’re sick.
He also said that it’s still possible that once the province opens up and removes remaining restrictions, which could happen as early as July 11, Saskatchewan could still face local outbreaks or clusters.
It’s not uncommon, he said, if a measles outbreak happens, that unvaccinated individuals are ordered to stay home from work or school. Shahab said it would likely be the same for cases of COVID-19.
“There will still be the need to monitor and respond as we do with other illnesses,” he said.
“When we have an outbreak we will have to take steps that mean some restrictions on some people.”
Premier Scott Moe also talked about what it might look like once the remaining restrictions on mask use and gathering sizes might lift.
He speculated as to what a Saskatchewan Roughrider game might look like in a few months.
Saskatchewan hits the 70 per cent mark for vaccines in people over the age of 18.
A Rider game at Mosaic Stadium “will look like what Saskatchewan people will want it to look like,” he said.
“They likely could, and likely will be able to fill the stadium in Regina. I am going to go to the opening game … and cheer on the greatest football team in this country and likely the world as they embark on the season to return the Grey Cup to its rightful home here in Saskatchewan. It’s been in Winnipeg for way too long ….. which is a travesty.”
Moe said some things may still be different. Some people might choose to wear a mask in large crowds if they’re uncomfortable. Others may not feel comfortable attending at all. Moe expects the increased presence of hand sanitizing stations and handwashing stations to continue.
“That environment has changed,” Moe said.
“I expect some of those changes will be extended for the foreseeable future. Maybe not forever, but for an extended period of time.”
The same could be said for other businesses.
According to results from a recent survey done by the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce, about one in four Saskatchewan businesses believe the province is moving too fast with its reopening plan, and 70 per cent plan to continue enforcing all or some COVID-19 protocols, such as physical distancing, mask-wearing or sanitizing, after restrictions are lifted.
The data was released Tuesday and comes from a survey conducted through InputSask, a business-focused input community the chamber says provides “timely and accurate” insight into key issues affecting Saskatchewan businesses.
Methodology, the number surveyed and margins of error were not available.
The survey found that 49 per cent of respondents believe July 11 is an appropriate date to lift all restrictions, and that 68 per cent feel their business is fully prepared for all provincial health orders to be lifted. Just less than half (47 per cent) expect their business to fully recover, while 25 per cent don’t and 21 per cent are unsure.
“As the provincial chamber of commerce, it’s important we continually engage with and listen to the voices of the Saskatchewan business community, especially now that we are welcoming more employees back to the workplace and restrictions are soon being lifted,” said Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce CEO, Steve McLellan in a press release.
“It’s no secret that many businesses have been impacted significantly by the pandemic and it’s going to take some time until things return to normal. For many organizations, a return to pre-pandemic ways is simply not possible and employers need to continue to adapt to accommodate a transformed workforce returning to the workplace.”
Moe said everyone will have a different comfort level, and that those who don’t feel comfortable attending large events, or who choose to wear a mask, should be respected for their choices.
“As we go to our first CFL game, I think, in fairness, things will be somewhat different. I’m certain that there will be some people wearing masks and it won’t be required. That should be normalized.”
He stressed the importance of getting vaccinated to ensure people and province remain safe. He said recent data shows that as vaccinations go up, cases go down and that the vast majority of new cases and new hospitalizations from COVID-19 are in people who haven’t been vaccinated.
“If enough of us get vaccinated, we get to go back to doing things in our community hat, at one point, we took for granted,” he said.
“I don’t think we’ll take them for granted for a long time now.
Two more residents have died after testing positive for COVID-19.
The province reported Wednesday that a person over the age of 80 from the north west and someone in their 70s from the central east zone. In all, 562 Saskatchewan residents diagnosed with COVID-19 have died since the pandemic hit the province last March.
There are 92 people with COVID-19 in the hospital. Of those, 80 are receiving inpatient care and 12 are in the ICU. North Central has eight inpatient COVID patients and one COVID patient in the ICU.
There were 74 new cases reported Wednesday. The seven-day average of new cases is 72 per day, or 5.7 per 100,000 population.
Prince Albert currently has 35 active cases of COVID-19. Three of the north central’s five new cases reported Wednesday were in the city.
Currently, 726 cases of COVID-19 are considered active across Saskatchewan. The province reported lineage results for five new variants of concern Wednesday. Four were of the alpha (UK) variant and one was a Delta (Indian) variant.
An additional 12,013 doses of COVID-19 vaccine were administered Tuesday. Almost 10,000 of those new doses were second shots. In all, 69 per cent of the province’s population above the age of 18 has at least one dose in their arm. For the province’s third phase of reopening to occur, that needs to rise to 70 per cent. Phase three will remove most remaining public health orders, including restrictions on masking and gathering sizes.
Starting Thursday, all residents aged 45 or older will be eligible for their second dose of vaccine, as will anyone vaccinated on or before April 15.
While one dose of vaccine provides some protection against COVID-19, two doses are required for protection against some of the tougher variants, such as the Delta variant, which was first detected in India. Residents are asked to receive their second doses as soon as possible and to maintain all public health measures until two weeks have passed since their second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Vaccines will be available at the Senator Allen Bird Memorial Centre at a walk-in clinic set to run from 9 a.. until 5 p.m. Thursday. A fast track lane will be available for those getting their first dose of the vaccine.