Little thought for people
While protestors gathered outside the Legislative Building to protest both the catastrophic impacts of the province’s new welfare program and to counterprotest against public health measures, the new session of the legislative assembly opened with the Saskatchewan Party government claiming to have an ambitious plan to create a better Saskatchewan.
“This Throne Speech outlines an ambitious agenda for a strong and growing province,” said premier Scott Moe, whose leadership through the pandemic has seen more than 850 people, including three children, die of COVID-19. “Saskatchewan people know that our province’s best days are still ahead, and our government will continue to work hard every day to reflect that optimism and confidence.”
The throne speech took place the afternoon of Wednesday, October 27, welcoming visitors back into the legislative assembly for the first time in more than a year. The central theme was, unsurprisingly, COVID-19 and how Saskatchewan will become a more prosperous and independent province by conquering the pandemic.
Conquering the pandemic seems like a distant dream considering that there are so many new infections that the province’s ICUs can’t keep up and patients have been shipped to Ontario for treatment. Criticism has come from the NDP calling on Moe to enforce more restrictions to reduce transmission rates. While many are concerned about the hospital overload, others are resistant to vaccination mandates and vaccine passports. Anti-vaccination mandate protestors awaited government officials on the steps of the Legislative Building on Wednesday to “open the debate,” on COVID-19 restrictions. In response to protests outside hospitals earlier this year, the government has proposed new legislation to restrict where people can protest. However, there are reasonable concerns that this legislation may be used to prevent healthcare workers from picketing their working conditions at hospitals as well.
Many hints toward expanding the budget for Saskatchewan’s 79 bed ICU units were involved, including more efforts into contact tracing and opening more positions within ICUs. The enormous stress the pandemic has put on the healthcare system has resulted in backlogs for surgeries and procedures, as hospital beds are being filled by COVID-19 patients. A rigorous game of catch-up will call on the help of more healthcare professionals aiding the healthcare system. However, by the time services are restored, many people who have had necessary surgeries delayed due to the province’s mishandling of the pandemic may already be dead.
Helping those with addictions was prioritized in the throne speech, with the government saying they will add 150 new addiction treatment beds to the province within the next three years. The current state of the drug toxicity crisis in Saskatchewan is bleak, with the numbers of dead continuing to climb throughout 2021. 2020 brought a record-breaking 339 overdoses. 2021 is close to surpassing those numbers with 269 overdoses calculated as far as September 6, 2021. New drug treatment beds will do nothing to protect drug users from toxic batches, nor do they address the underlying causes of addiction like trauma, poverty, and mental illness.
The government also said there will be no changes to social assistance programs. The failed roll-out of the Saskatchewan Income Support program (SIS) which was introduced in August has ultimately resulted in the mass homelessness in Regina and Saskatoon. Camp Marjorie, a tent city erected in October currently has over 60 residents who have been evicted from their homes and are living on the ground in Pepsi Park. As the months grow colder, there is no solution from the government to get residents effective housing. A second protest, The SIS-tem is Broken, advocated for changes reverting to the original social assistance program, the Saskatchewan Assistance Program (SAP).
A huge amount of the throne speech went into policies and budgeting for policing programs. The Government of Saskatchewan is further committing to add 60 new policing positions. Four Crime Reduction Teams are being added to Meadow Lake, La Rouge, Lloydminster, and Moose Jaw. The Seizure of Criminal Property Act will be amended to encourage the end to money laundering through illegal activities. The speech introduced a Saskatchewan Trafficking Response Team (STRT) which will stop the transportation of illegal drugs and weapons.
A large portion of the Throne Speech was dedicated to new budgets and legislation for Truth and Reconciliation, something that is wonderful to see but long overdue. It is only to assume that this became a priority after the tragic discovery of unmarked graves in Cowessess First Nation and across Saskatchewan. $2 million has been funded into the continued search for unmarked and unidentified gravesites at previous residential school properties. A memorial is going to be built in recognition of Indigenous residential school survivors and those who died because of genocide practices. The memorial will be outside Government House in Regina. Additionally, Cowessess First Nation will assume the rights over the child welfare system for all involved on the reserve. This agreement is the first of its kind in Canada where a First Nation will have the right to care for community members as it sees fit, rather than have the Canadian state remove children from their communities. There will also be an implementation of culturally appropriate welfare system practices for First Nation families. Culturally appropriate welfare system practices come with expansion of the Opikinawasowin program. There will also be signs implemented on the highway to identify different treaty territories. While these all seem like excellent steps to continuing with Truth and Reconciliation, it is important to keep consulting Indigenous people on how to improve and advance policies.
As Moe likes to emphasize, Saskatchewan has been thriving economically throughout the pandemic; although again, the province’s economic well-being doesn’t necessarily translate into strong personal finances for residents, many of whom continue to struggle with un- and underemployment and poverty. Major investments and the creation of thousands of jobs have aided the province in difficult times. Among many investments, a new potash mine, three canola crushing plants, and Canada’s first wheat straw pulp facility are new additions. Revitalizations to the Prince Albert Pulp Mill and upgraded sawmills have seen maintenance and are ready for action.
While Moe places success on economic achievements within Saskatchewan, many other social programming issues are needed to be dealt with. Opposition leader Ryan Meili was frustrated after the throne speech:
“We all want to focus on the future. That starts with getting the present right,” Meili said in an interview with CBC. “If Scott Moe doesn’t get the fourth wave under control, too many Saskatchewan people will no longer be able to participate in that future.”