REGINA — For Premier Scott Moe and his Sask. Party government, things look much different at the end of 2022 than in 2021.
“It seems like a lifetime ago for many,” said Moe in speaking to SASKTODAY.ca last week for a year-end interview.
“As we found our way through that a number of things have come to light, some positive, some negative. And some need some work, quite frankly.”
The end of 2021 saw Saskatchewan still in the grips of COVID-19 and pandemic restrictions. Those restrictions have given way in 2022 to new post-lockdown issues such as affordability concerns, as well as staffing shortages impacting health care services in the province.
Premier Moe acknowledged the challenge the province faces in dealing with staffing challenges in their health care facilities.
“That’s why our minister of health put forward our four-point health and human resource plan, which I often said … is the most ambitious plan in Canada to fill some of the challenges that we have in our facilities and ultimately provide some support and relief to those working in our facilities today, all too often shorthanded.”
He also pointed to progress in attracting investment to Saskatchewan, pointing to potash, uranium, copper mining — “the first net zero copper mine is proposed to happen here in the province” — as well as value-added agriculture and in emerging industries such as lithium and rare earth elements opportunities.
“It seems like a lifetime ago in how much has changed in the last 12 months. I would say most certainly that Saskatchewan people, Saskatchewan communities are poised for some strong growth ahead, and its incumbent upon us as a government to ensure that we continue to utilize that growth, so that it truly does work for everyone who lives in our communities whether it be North Battleford, La Loche or Estevan.”
Confidence the health human resource plan will work
Frontline health care shortages were a major issue in communities throughout the SASKTODAY.ca coverage area, with shutdowns in Kamsack and family doctor shortages reported in North Battleford.
Premier Moe said he had confidence the four-point health and human resource plan would make an impact.
“We saw the report from Minister (Paul) Merriman where the SHA, the Saskatchewan Health Authority, made well in excess of 100 offers in their recent mission to the Philippines. That’s a passing number, there’s many more offers that are coming in the weeks ahead as well. Add that to the expansion in nurse training seats that we have, the expansion that we made a number of years ago that are just coming to fruition today at the College of Medicine, in expansion of seats there from 60 to 100 that was made close to a decade ago. In many cases in the province, some of those results are already there and we’re thankful for that.”
He pointed to an increase of 5,000 nurses working across Saskatchewan’s health care system compared to when they formed government in 2007, and 1,000 doctors.
Health care transfers to the province a key issue
The health care issue, and particularly the share of transfers to the provinces, were a topic raised at various premiers’ meetings this year including a meeting of Western premiers in Regina.
It was again the main topic at the most recent virtual premiers’ meeting earlier this month, just before this interview took place.
Provinces have been consistently pressing the federal government to come to the table with a larger share of money for the Canada Health transfer to the provinces. Premier Moe characterizes it as a fork in the road that the federal government must make a choice on.
“The Canadian government is a 22 per cent financial partner in health care, and we’ve asked them to move to their previous share, which is an equivalent of 35 per cent. I would say the first road, the first thing that we need to understand is the provinces are making the investments. We put $60 million into our health human resource plan, we’ve put significant investment — ten of millions of additional dollars — into reducing our surgical wait times that we have in the province, and you are seeing other provinces make similar efforts. We have expanded our training seats yet again, up to just under 1,000 training seats in the province, well over double where it was when we formed government. So, you’re seeing provinces make the necessary investments …
“Here’s where the fork in the road is. It’s where the federal government decides not to answer the calls that have come from the 13 premiers — three territories and 10 provinces — representing collectively all Canadians. It’s likely that the 22 per cent funding level that the federal government is at today is likely to decrease simply because the provinces are investing more in health care today. Thankfully those investments are being made. That would be the first fork that I would suggest the federal government not take.
“The second road, is for that federal government to answer the bell to what the 13 premiers have asked …
“The federal government has a choice to make on whether they’re going to allow their 20 or 22 per cent funding level to continue to decrease and allow the provinces ultimately to fill that gap, or are they going to step up and be a full funding partner like the Canada Health Transfer intended at its inception and at various updates through the last number of decades.
“And so, the choice will be for the federal government. What we’ve been asking for as premiers is to engage with the provinces, and for two and a half years we have not had an answer where the prime minister will engage in a first ministers’ meeting. We’re in the process of putting one together for January. We’re hopeful he will attend, as all of the premiers are planning to travel to Ottawa to meet with the prime minister and it would be our true hope that he would attend, and attend prepared to talk about the funding level in sustainability level of our Canadian health care system going into the future.”
$500 cheques address affordability issues
Rising inflation was another major challenge facing the province’s residents in 2022, but the province was able to offer some much-needed help to address affordability issues.
The province was able to post a budget surplus in 2022 well ahead of schedule, due to strong natural resources revenues filling the province’s coffers. That allowed the government to make some decisions on how to use that money.
Moe pointed to the province being able to pay down $1 billion in debt which “will save us $50 to $70 million in interest costs.”
He also pointed to the direct affordability relief offered through the $500 Saskatchewan Affordability Tax Credit, with those cheques being sent to residents starting in mid-November.
Premier Moe explained further the rationale for the decision to send those out.
“Understanding that it was the strength of the natural resource-based economy that provided us the ability to make a decision like tax affordability relief checks being sent out, and understanding that we felt strongly that all Saskatchewan residents are a shareholder in that resource, that is how we came to the decision to ultimately send $500 out to Saskatchewan people age 18 and over.”
There was considerable talk after the announcement about whether this was the right approach, and if there should have been additional targeted relief aimed at children and their families.
“We discussed different ways to do this as well. Ultimately, where we landed was the quickest and most streamlined way for us to actually land those dollars in families’ bank account, was to just send them out to people 18 and over. (It) catches everybody, everybody’s an equal shareholder in the resource, and it was the most expedient way for us to provide some affordability relief to every family in the province.”
Saskatchewan First Act
A major piece of legislation brought in this fall, and a centrepiece of the government’s legislative agenda, was the Saskatchewan First Act to assert provincial jurisdiction over its natural resources. Premier Moe explained why the province felt the need to take this step.
“The first step that we took this fall, after a number of various consultation efforts that went on throughout the summer, was release a white paper which identified a number of federal policies that are in place, nine of them, and the cost of those policies to Saskatchewan people.”
The white paper identified these would cost Saskatchewan $111 billion up to 2035. The number itself proved controversial among some people who questioned the figure.
“The economic analysis had not been done on these policies previous, and some will say the number is incorrect, it should be higher, it should be lower. The fact of the matter is, it’s the only number out there. And we put it out there, will continue to do economic analysis on various policies that come from the federal government, because we believe that should be part of the conversation.”
The second step Moe pointed to was introduction of the Sask. First Act “which really is there not to expand on the powers, the jurisdictional powers that the province of Saskatchewan has, but to reassert those powers to ensure that the federal government is very clear on where provincial jurisdiction begins, and where federal jurisdiction ends. As we’ve seen — and I think all premiers would agree — a federal government that has been pushing their way into areas of provincial jurisdiction. We’re seeing similar pushback in other provinces as well.”
It is “nothing new, but just again ensuring that the fence between the jurisdictional authority between the federal and provincial authority is well painted, is strong and won’t be crossed.”
There has been concerns expressed from First Nations groups, in particular the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, that the act will infringe on their treaty rights.
“Most certainly that’s not the case,” said Premier Moe. “In no way is this act designed or intended to infringe on any of the treaty rights. In fact, those treaty rights are enshrined in that same constitution that I referenced.”
What the act is there to do, he said, is take up the full scope of jurisdictional authority that the provinces have always had in that constitution. The goal was to provide certainty for investors into those industries in the province, said Moe, who pointed to investments made in the mining and forestry industry and the Indigenous hires that have resulted.
“Ultimately through that investment, it’s all Saskatchewan people, whether Indigenous or otherwise, that are beneficiaries of that investment.”
Greater enforcement measures
Law enforcement in the province came under the spotlight again in the province in the wake of the mass murder rampage on James Smith Cree Nation and at Weldon, which put a new spotlight on the various issues in addressing criminal activity.
Various new measures for enhancing law enforcement were announced in the speech from the throne and were a cornerstone of the fall sitting.
“The goal is safer communities across the province. That is entirely the goal, whether it be a rural community or town or village, or whether it be one of our major centres.”
Moe pointed to the efforts already done, including the province adding more than 400 RCMP officers and close to 150 provincially funded municipal officers in the last decade. He also pointed to the Warrant Enforcement Teams, the Crime Reduction Teams and the PACT (Police and Crisis) teams. But Moe said they are looking to expand even further.
“For example, an increase in the Warrant Enforcement Suppression Team the WEST team in Prince Albert, and the addition of a Crime Reduction Team in North Battleford,” said Moe.
Premier Moe said they are looking to also add two other forms of support. One is community indigenous policing opportunities, similar to what is in place in File Hills.
“That is a model that we are looking to have discussions with a number of other indigenous communities across the province, and that’s why we signed the memorandum of understanding in Prince Albert with our minister of policing, the federal minister of policing and Chief Brian Hardlotte with PAGC who is a signatory to that memorandum of understanding.”
The other major initiative was the Saskatchewan Marshals Service “which is a step into provincial policing — not provincial policing to replace any of the other police forces that are operating today, but a provincial police force to support and augment the work happening today. It would be based in Prince Albert, up to 60 or 70 officers, highly trained specialized officers that would be able to be in Regina one day, be able to be in Lloydminster (the next), to support those police forces where that support is required from time to time.”
There had been some speculation that the marshals might be a step towards a full provincial police force. The indication from Moe is that is not the case.
“There is no intent to replace the working relationship, I would say positive working relationship, that we have between municipal, provincial and RCMP forces today. Actually, the intent is to grow on that relationship that we have to ultimately achieve the goal that we all want to achieve, that is safety for communities for our families that are living in them.”
There has also been suggestions by some critics the money would be better spent directed to the RCMP.
“The RCMP have done some good work over the past year,” he said, pointing in particular to their work during the protests at the border. Moe said the government is supportive of the work that Rhonda Blackmore and the RCMP have done in Saskatchewan, but said a provincial force will bring a “different dynamic.”
“Estevan, Weyburn, Saskatoon, Regina, Prince Albert, they all operate their own municipal police forces, and so for the province to operate a provincial police force is not out of the scope of capability. And quite frankly, I think there’s some opportunity to ensure that we do have that specialized provincial force that is going to provide those services and that support to all of the other police services that are there.
“Take Regina for example, if you have a provincial police force that is able to, if there’s an incident in downtown Regina, a provincial police force that is able to show up in six or eight cruisers deep with folks to support our Regina Police Service for two or three days when there is something that is occurring, you know most certainly that is support that our police forces need. And that same support, that same police support could be in Prince Albert the next day and Yorkton a few days later.”
Ukrainians in Saskatchewan
One of the major stories of 2022 was the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the major involvement of the provincial government in bringing Ukrainians fleeing the conflict to Saskatchewan.
“Looking back, this is an area where I wish we could’ve done even more,” said Moe.
He pointed to the efforts where the province was involved in coordinating humanitarian flights with the charity bringing Ukrainians to Saskatchewan, and then organizing efforts on the ground with “one stop shop” receiving centres to help get Ukrainians settled in the province once they arrive.
“I would just say that is the smallest part of the story. The much larger and more important part of the story is what Saskatchewan people have done in opening up their homes, their wallets essentially, to support our Ukrainian families and friends that have arrived here. Saskatchewan people deserve the credit for once again putting forward their most generous side in supporting people that, through no fault of their own, have been invaded by another nation and their home is unsafe. Thanks go to the people of this province.”