‘Could have been a whole lot worse’: New North reacts to this year’s budget

"It’s a large provincial budget and quite small comparatively for the north."

A new elementary school to replace Ducharme Elementary School in La Loche and a new K-12 school to replace Blaine Lake Composite School are in the works. Photo courtesy of Métis Nation Saskatchewan

“Overall it could be better but it could have been a whole lot worse, too,” Creighton Mayor Bruce Fidler said of this year’s provincial budget that rolled out in April.  

“There is some good news there regarding some of the health and social services programs and La Ronge is getting a good chunk of money to go toward their long-term care facility.  There is some good stuff in the provincial budget but there is some lacking as well,” Fidler said. 

Mental health and addictions will increase $23.4 million with $7.2 million labelled as ‘suicide prevention.’ The La Ronge long-term care facility was allocated 7.6 million to continue construction. 

Fidler, who chairs New North and represents the eastern region, was glad to see funding go to mental health and addictions services along with schooling and incentives for Indigenous business — but he said infrastructure investments were lacking compared to the rest of the province. Crumbling highways, he said, are of particular concern.

Northern revenue sharing is up $175,000 to around $20.579 million with set aside $67.7 million to build, operate and maintain highways and airports in the north. Fidler said he’s glad for the increase in revenue sharing, but disappointed in the infrastructure side of things.

“It’s a large provincial budget and quite small comparatively for the north. We would still like to see quite a bit more done to the north, because there’s a lot of resources that are brought out of the north for revenue to the province — but the roads aren’t getting the attention that they need to support that as far as highways goes,” Fidler said.

“There is support for health programs and for educational programs. I would still like to see the NORTEP program for northern teachers brought back but unfortunately, that’s not there yet. There’s a fair amount of funding for First Nations and Metis programs so that’s good news.”

Fidler also lauded a $11 million increase in funding to clean up the Gunnar Mine site near Uranium City after some pandemic-related delays to the project due to the pandemic.

A $719,000 investment toward remediation of the abandoned Newcor mine near Creighton, with $8 million put aside for Indigenous-owned companies to participate in the Accelerated Site Closure Program is especially helpful for his community.

“It’s really good to see that they’re addressing these issues,” Fidler said.

“For the attention to be brought to this site close to Creighton is going to be a real environmental benefit. Once they’re cleaned up people can make use of these areas for recreational things. That work is very good.  We do appreciate that.  And for the province to involve Indigenous companies and businesses to work on these as well. I think that’s great.”

The province allocated around $5.1 million to education and employment for First Nations and Métis Peoples.

 A new elementary school to replace Ducharme Elementary School in La Loche and a new K-12 school to replace Blaine Lake Composite School are in the works. 

La Loche Mayor Georgina Jolibois said her community is glad for the new elementary school. As New North vice-chair and representative for the northwest region, she said in times of COVID what students really need is internet access.

“It would have been helpful to know what the broadband internet plan would have been. To improve internet and broadband would really assist northern communities. Especially right now with COVID many children are doing their work online. But it’s rather difficult to do online work when we do not have access to efficient internet in our communities. That has been a consistent concern throughout for a number of years, especially now,” Jolibois said.

“SaskTel is a great crown corporation, and they need assistance to expand the efficiency of the internet in our communities.”

Jolibois also said Highway 155 that connects La Loche and Buffalo Narrows with the rest of the province is crumbling and needs urgent attention. 

“This has always been a concern and it continues to be a concern, because there are so many potholes and broken pavement. It’s beyond silly — because road maintenance doesn’t get the attention that it should,” Jolibois said.

“Highway 155 going south is a well used highway — especially for residents on the northwest side. Food security is part of that too, because our food is delivered in trucks — then it could affect the delivery of food and groceries and other products.”

She said municipalities need more support and collaboration from the province to deal with the pandemic and vaccine rollout. There “really isn’t much happening” as far as sharing information with municipalities, she said.

“We just never know what COVID will bring. It’s kind of hard to partner with the province when we aren’t aware of the real picture on the community level as municipalities.”

Following Their Voices, a First Nations and Métis student achievement initiative, will see $2.1 million in support. Another $300,000 is allocated to help prekindergarten and kindergarten students with interactive programs — to improve math and oral language skills.

Just under $1 million in resource sharing grants go to the Pahkisimon Nuye?áh Library System. The province will spend $28 million for First Nations and Métis career training, $18.6 million for post secondary programs, $17.3 million for on-reserve policing and $3.4 million to support the Métis Addictions Council of Saskatchewan.

Jolibois, who is a member of the Clearwater River Dene Nation, would like to see some funding for municipalities to help Indigenous residents, too.

“In our area over half of the band membership live in municipalities it would be very helpful for municipalities to receive resources to assist in those initiatives.” 

La Ronge town councillor and New North central region representative Jordan McPhail said he hopes the province will be forward-looking in its approach to northern investments.

With the economy suffering due to the pandemic McPhail said there could be a decrease in revenue sharing on a “two year lag.”

“Northern municipalities are extremely resilient because they’ve had to be. We need to make sure that we are being supported in a proper way,” McPhail said.

He said there is “plenty of time” for the province to plan around that and make sure that municipalities still have the funding that they need to keep infrastructure and community development projects afloat for there to be progress in northern Saskatchewan.

“We would hope that this is recognized on an ongoing basis by the provincial and federal governments to make sure that when COVID-19 has come and gone that we are supported,:” McPhail said.

“And through the process of fighting COVID-19, that we continually are supported in northern Saskatchewan. That comes down to municipal enhancement projects, mental health, and ongoing and consistent growth in revenue sharing.”