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Column: SUMA outcomes point toward emerging need for changes

An opinion piece on SUMA convention outcomes.
SUMA President Randy Goulden.

The Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association convention wrapped up last week with some expected outcomes and some new directions as to what Saskatchewan needs.

Expected top issues and needs discussed were infrastructure and public safety. The other needs discussed, which are not the responsibility of urban municipalities, but sounded loud and clear, are mental health and addictions.

The first two are pretty straightforward. Communities in Saskatchewan, small and big alike, expect high living standards. Even small towns and villages in the province expect to have infrastructure as well as some entertainment available close by.

The higher standards of living are more difficult to achieve in smaller communities, however general lifestyle in rural Saskatchewan is above what is experienced in many other parts of the world. It's expected to change in places where it's not the case, and keep improving everywhere else.

Saskatchewan is growing as a province and communities are growing in their unique directions, so their needs are changing as well. But no matter where we are in Saskatchewan, decent infrastructure with drinking water, wastewater and drainage need to be looked after. The quality-of-life facilities like rinks and pools are no less important.

Public safety was another evident municipal concern to be discussed at the SUMA convention.

While people expect a decent life in any corner of the province, many choose smaller communities over big cities for their safety standings. It's nice to raise kids where you don't need to worry too much at least about safety. But that's been shifting lately with Saskatchewan being rated the highest province in Canada for violent crimes as of the beginning of this year. (You have to keep in mind that statistics are tricky, with one incident changing the picture dramatically for a small community or less-populated province, and dozen such incidents not impacting much for multi-million-person cities.)

I think Estevan is still one of the safer communities, but even here we had two shooting incidents leaving two dead and two injured in less than half a year, which makes it feel different.

The third issue that arose at SUMA wasn't as much of a municipal matter, but rather a global trend which is being addressed more often on all levels in today's world. Mental health and addictions come up in almost any conversation about the well-being of communities. We do have different tools in place to address mental health and addictions, however, it becomes more obvious that what we have is not enough or sometimes not working for the current needs of our communities. And the lack of timely, flexible and problem-oriented approaches in the field affects all other areas.

In a recent example, Saskatoon announced shutting down four of its public libraries for evening hours after intoxicated guests at the Carlyle King Library struck an employee and physically assaulted a security guard. Unfortunately, that wasn't an isolated incident, as Saskatoon libraries experience a rise in such issues.

With support services closing earlier and a lack of appropriate infrastructure to address mental health and addiction needs, libraries become the place for people who have nowhere else to go. But libraries don't have adequate resources for that.

While the province is investing in additional addictions beds, a lot of people who need support wouldn't go for it. (According to Addiction Help data, approximately 40 per cent of people suffering from addiction do not seek treatment because they don't want to stop using). A lot of people can't get timely mental health support due to a lack of resources. While it's getting better, still too often mental health is not taken seriously, which prevents people from seeking appropriate help.

When it comes to mental health and addictions, the list of existing problems is wide. So wide and deep changes are needed on all levels from personal to systematic. And it seems that municipalities are already in the process of finding their place in it as well.

After all, a health-care system in Canada wasn't created the way we know it today. It wasn't until after the Second World War that health care shifted from being privately delivered and funded to a province-wide, universal health-care plan introduced in Saskatchewan in 1947, then picked up by other provinces, followed by federal initiatives, which all led to all the provinces and territories agreeing to provide publicly-funded inpatient hospital and diagnostic services in 1961, and Saskatchewan's provincial medical insurance plan to provide doctors' services to all its residents was introduced in 1962.

Now it seems that we've approached the time of change for mental health and addictions care systems, and it's a positive sign that our municipal governments are on it.