Cliché-ridden Minister’s speech can’t hide north’s fiscal woes

Even as a Mathematics teacher, governmental budgets are hard to interpret. However, having read a goodly portion of its contents on the provincial web site, I was at least ready to listen as to what points the Minister of Coin, Donna Harpauer, would stress at the Prince Albert and District Chamber of Commerce Luncheon. I might as well have brought the entire document to the luncheon, just so I could check off the points Ms. Harpauer cherry-picked from its contents. When it came to prioritizing concerns for the Prince Albert region and northern Saskatchewan, precise figures were buried in accolades of self-congratulation, such as “growth that works for everyone” – that is, for everyone living south of Saskatchewan’s revised northernmost border, vaguely located somewhere just south of Duck Lake.

No one in the Chamber of Commerce who read my column would have been particularly surprised that when it came time to ask the Minister questions, my particular offering was most likely going to be critical – which wouldn’t have had to be, if she’d at least laid off the usage of so many cliches and questionable tidbits of “fact”.

For instance, when you mention that the Ministry of Health’s budget has increased by some 6.7 per cent over the 2021 figure, then say that much of that increase will be going to try and recruit and/or train more health care workers and doctors, as well as their upgrading of qualifications, but you just fail to mention that the average inflationary factor affecting the purchase of goods and services to run our health care institutions is just over 6%, this means only one thing – health care funding has been CUT. That’s despite the fact that there are still major health concerns in measuring waste water content to show that whatever the public might believe regarding the Covid pandemic, that virus is still creating ill effects within the community. The same can be said for the $161.4 million in funding the three school divisions in Prince Albert, where Saskatchewan Rivers has already been forced to cut back services.

At this point, you might be asking yourself, “didn’t the provinces just get a 10% boost in federal funding to address health care concerns, particularly with respect to the fact that more than a quarter of our population does not have a family physician?” Apparently, these funds have somehow managed to find their way down the rabbit hole that the $400 million the federal government gave the province to clean up abandoned oil drilling sites – that is, unless there’s been another major development on one of Regina’s Jean Drapeau Bypass’s on/off ramps that swallowed another half a billion dollars or so. 

However, the point that finally blew it for me was when the Minister talked about product being shipped to market “increasing” by some 120% in 2022. Consider that in 2021 we were in the midst of a Covid pandemic in which this province’s death per 100,000 population was the worst in Canada and such movement was plagued by manpower shortages and health mandate measures. Just how does that figure compare with 2019? To me, without such a comparison, her even mentioning such questionable “fact” reeks of the Minister simply “blowing smoke”, and hoping we aren’t asthmatic.

My question to the Minister was fairly straightforward, and given by the adverse publicity they’d received since the last provincial election, it should have been obvious. But even then her answers became hesitant, even to the point of asking Premier Moe to clarify aspects of the budget pertaining to road infrastructure in the north. Most of these monies are marked in the budget as being for gravel roads to assist future aggressive forestry harvesting truck movement. Does this mean that Wollaston Lake is still going to have to wait before finally getting its now-promised 24 / 7 / 365 all-weather road finally completed so that the community can resurrect its plans to export fish product to Europe? It DEFINITELY means that La Loche should not be expecting Highway 155 improvements any time soon, much less a road into the new mine sites so that those desperately seeking work in that northern region from Green Lake upward can actually drive to work and come home on their own once their shifts are completed.

And when, pray tell, can Prince Albert expect that BOTH bridges that are now needed to move a more active and heavily freighted product through our northern gateway to aid the increased and properly supported infrastructural need do their jobs in helping this province restore its economic health?

The conclusion of this event was equally farcical, particularly when it came to answering the question posed by one of the more quiet individuals attending the luncheon, that being “When is Prince Albert going to get a member of Cabinet in caucus?”

Irrespective of what Ms. Harpauer might say, Mr. Hargrave’s role when he was a member of Cabinet now appears to have been a strategically placed barrier to criticism with the Chamber. As for Ms. Ross, her particular areas of expertise, social services, are among the most underfunded, and Nicole Rancourt, the former NDP holder of her seat, is again considered to be the best politician capable of doing the tasks assigned them.

Last but not least, I have to worry about Mayor Greg Dionne, kowtowing to the bleating annoyances of the city’s voters as to crime rates within the city, and “keeping track of the postal codes of persons detained by the Prince Albert Police Service.” For the record, he knows full well that the implication of his remarks to me spell out the “reality” that many, even most likely most such records originate from reserve locations. The Mayor fully knows that these communities, including the one in which I live (Muskoday), have the SAME concerns about personal safety as do residents of Prince Albert—that being the increasing proliferation of crystal meth and cocaine derivative trafficking due to a well organized and out-of-province controlled criminal element. 

As a member of the Police Commission, both the Mayor and Chief Jon Bergen might themselves be able to swing this disturbing trend in an opposite direction were they, along with the leaders of reserve and town communities around Prince Albert to form a joint task force so as to provide a more reasonable strategy to eradicating this problem, as opposed to the province’s “solution” to form their “Marshall Service” of provincial officers, who would be useless to act as part of that task force’s policing community, for the simple reason that they have to be FEDERAL officers in order to enter reserve lands. In short, these are the inherent weaknesses of the current budget, at least as I see them. Some members of the Chamber may disagree, and that’s fine; however, instead of continuing to support a government desperate to turn the economy around without even considering the 17% of the population that ultimately has a major effect upon that destiny, stop whining about Justin and the need for Bill 88, when what’s really needed in this time of crisis is the ability of people in power to think of resolutions outside what has become an irritating box of many words.