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SUMA bear pit focuses on mental health, addictions, water issues

Premier Scott Moe and the cabinet face the questions from municipal delegates at the final day of SUMA convention in Regina.

REGINA - Mental health, addictions, housing and Lake Diefenbaker were among the hot questions posed to cabinet ministers at the bear pit session to close the 2024 Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association convention in Regina.

Premier Scott Moe and members of the cabinet faced questions from municipal delegates for a little over an hour on a range of issues of both provincial and municipal interest. 

While cabinet ministers were perhaps not under the gun to the same extent as in past conventions, there were some pointed questions on a number of topics.

As expected, health care was again a popular topic, with mental health and addictions particularly on delegates’ minds. One councillor from Humboldt asked what the plan was to build addictions treatment and support in rural communities, noting individuals in rural communities lacked transportation and resources that were not in the communities where they live. 

In response, Minister for Mental Health and Addictions Tim McLeod pointed to the Action Plan for Mental Illness announced last October, with plans to add 500 more addiction spaces. He said their plan was to expand those spaces across the whole province and across the continuum of care.

A delegate from Prince Albert pointed to the suffering in his own community due to mental illness and addictions and the lack of access to supports, and asked when will the government “build actual strong communities.”

That prompted a lengthy response from Premier Scott Moe and other ministers who pointed to the $40 million announcement to build supports around homelessness, and the $50 million to mental health and addictions announcement last fall. 

Health Minister Everett Hindley also fielded questions on health issues such as the need for a pediatric gastroenterologist and also concerns about waits for biopsies. 

One delegate still had the COVID-19 pandemic on his mind. He criticized Moe for “bullying” to the non-vaccinated and asked Moe whether he would apologize for “telling us No More Mr. Nice Guy” during the pandemic. He also wanted to know about the next pandemic and “how you’re going to handle it.”

In response, Moe said they “made every effort to find a balance” during the pandemic, saying they were faced with ICU beds being full with COVID-19 patients at the time.

He said they made every effort “in a time when I don’t think anyone had a lot of answers.”

“What I truly hope coming out of the last pandemic is that we don’t have to face those types of questions and that type of situation again.”

There were concerns raised about other issues as well. A delegate from Coronach raised concerns about the SaskPower coal plant, expressing worry it would close before 2030 because of no employees being left to run it, 

That drew a response from Minister for SaskPower Dustin Duncan who once again reiterated the government’s opposition to the federal clean energy regulations. 

“We have to make some very major decisions over the next number of years with a federal law that really is impossible technically from a feasibility perspective, and fiscally impossible for this province. We are going to take an all of the above approach including running our existing generation fleet as long as possible.”

There was also questions raised about the Lake Diefenbaker Irrigation Project, and the impact on downstream communities that rely on drinking water from Buffalo Pound Lake. Councillor Cheryl Stadnichuk of Regina asked what agreements or negotiations would happen with communities to ensure the safe supply of water, and also what environmental impact studies  and climate change modelling would they be looking at.

Minister for the Water Security Agency David Marit responded the agency had been very diligent on water supply, noting Diefenbaker Lake is larger than all the reservoirs in Alberta combined. He also said Diefenbaker Lake is currently over a metre higher than a year ago at this time. Still, Stadnichuk wanted more specifics.

“Basically what the minister said is that we have enough water in Lake Diefenbaker to supply water to 300,000 people for 18 years. That’s based on now. It’s based on current levels,” Stadnichuk said to reporters. 

“What I’m more worried about is have they done any climate change modelling. Have they looked at what’s happening with the glaciers and expected water flow. We know that the snow pack was really low. Alberta is going to be experiencing severe drought. Even though they’re going to ensure that 50 per cent of the flow comes to Saskatchewan, that flow is going to keep on reducing and reducing producing as the glaciers decline. And so do we want to have a project that is pulling water out of Lake Diefenbaker.  It’s not just a question of quantity. It’s also a question of quality because we have to make sure that we’ve got good quality water as well.”

Don McMorris comments on bear pit 

Minister of Government Relations Don McMorris spoke to reporters following the bear pit and said he thought it was a great opportunity.

“I’ve been attending these a long time, 25 years,” McMorris said. “Of course, the first number of years, I was in opposition and I remember them being a little bit more boisterous back then and that may be because I was in opposition. But it was a great opportunity to dialogue and hear what is going on in the urban communities around our province. You know, we have MLAs in every part of the government centre in touch with communities on a regular basis, but to have it all kind of come together in one room today — it was valuable, very valuable.

"Again, as Minister responsible for Government Relations, and that whole infrastructure file, certainly heard a number of questions on that file again, and heard from the organization SUMA before. Certainly lobbied the federal government hard for more infrastructure funding moving forward, because that is a priority across the province, both urban and rural.  Unfortunately, we don’t see it addressed the way that we would like to see it addressed in the recent federal budget, but that certainly was one of the themes that was through the Bear Pit and the dialogue sessions that I attended this morning.”