Regina – Grants for small farmers, as well as for those farmers who are working to preserve biodiversity, natural grassland and water preservation are part of the Saskatchewan Green Party’s rural strategies in this election.
Saskatchewan Green Party Leader Naomi Hunter spoke of these grants, as well as improving health care in rural areas, infrastructure and rural connectivity in response to a series of questions on rural issues in this election.
Between Oct. 16 and Oct 19, all six party leaders were asked the same set of five questions focusing on issues facing rural Saskatchewan. Hunter responded by phone from Regina on Oct. 16.
Asked about the infrastructure deficit facing rural municipalities and towns, given depopulation is a continuing trend, Hunter said, “As far as I'm concerned, the federal transfer payments that come through and go to the province and then over to the municipalities are so incredibly low Saskatchewan should be embarrassed.
“Ten per cent is what normally goes to municipalities, and yet they are stuck with 100 per cent of the cost of any new infrastructure. As we all know, especially new water treatment plants are extremely expensive. Right now, that's not all the municipalities are held accountable for, I would immediately up the federal transfer payments to at least 40 per cent. I think this is something that I've talked on often and feel very passionately about as well.”
While she recognizes transfer payments principally go for social programs like health, she added, “Our municipalities are absolutely drastically underfunded and the results are especially in rural Saskatchewan. I am a farmer. I farm every summer. I was born in rural Saskatchewan. And right now, the heavy emphasis by most of our political parties on our urban centres, means that rural areas are neglected.”
Hunter added that mass transportation, parks, clean energy, are all key Green issues best implemented at the municipal level.
Keeping agriculture a priority
With the continuing trend toward fewer rural residents, what will they do, if elected, to ensure agriculture remains a priority for the government? Hunter responded, “As a small family farmer. This is something that has affected me and my life personally my, my father and I run up haskap orchard together in northern Saskatchewan near birch hills Saskatchewan just south of Prince Albert.
“I wish to set up grants to help small independent farmers to remain active and viable on their family farms. I want to set up legislation that encourages local grocery stores. Local food security is an issue we saw with the COVID-19 pandemic that Saskatchewan’s food security, within a short of a time period, is four to five days, and can be severely compromised at this point in time, for a province that calls itself the breadbasket of Canada. This is incomprehensible to me, we are capable of producing all of our own products, and there are local producers that are eager to do this, but we need help.”
She said she’s spoken to the Minister of Agriculture, the Ministry, without much success.
“What is happening in rural Saskatchewan, to a large degree, is that in order to make a go of it, farmers are leasing out larger and larger amounts of land. I want to set up a Homestead Act. I want to set up grants to help small farmers to remain and actually be able to have more help developing their products.”
Bolstering rural healthcare
With regards to keeping rural emergency rooms open and having sufficient doctors in rural facilities, like Preeceville, Hunter said, “I absolutely feel that our rural Saskatchewan hospitals, need to be reopened.”
Her party is proposing free dental care.
“I would like to see it for all ages actually but definitely school children first. And I think that having that good start and good dental health is something that can really help give people a leg up out of poverty. I want to see universal pharmacare this is something that was introduced federally as a proposal but hasn't come through yet provincially Saskatchewan is awesome and the place where innovative programs start,” she said.
“I also know that, trying to find enough doctors in rural Saskatchewan can be a real problem, and keeping the hospitals open in Birch Hills where my permit. We need to time any injuries, we might have for Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, between the hours of two and five. My staff and I find that hard to do,” she said, noting severely restricted hours of service to see doctors there.
Shutting down STC also impacted rural patients’ access to health care, she noted.
Mental health services are also needed for rural people, especially since suicide, in rural Saskatchewan, and particularly in the north, according to Hunter.
With internet access still painfully slow in for substantial portions of rural Saskatchewan, amplified by the need of children to do school work from home during the pandemic, how would the Green Party improve rural connectivity?
Hunter said rural connectivity is a major issue for the Greens, noting, “As a rural person myself. I've experienced extreme difficulty. My father and I have switched from one phone plan to another, attempting to make sure that we had good connection while out at the farm.”
Their crops’ freezers require regular reporting of temperature monitoring, and that has been problematic.
She said, “Many people are now choosing their children to go to school from home and rural children do not have the same opportunity for learning because of the connectivity problems that urban children do.
“As well, just making sure that people in rural areas, as people work from home, it's actually possible for people to do jobs that didn't used to be possible in rural community. People are working from home, but we need that connectivity to make those kinds of switches happen. And this will be good for the economy, people able to do the kind of high tech jobs and management jobs that can now be accomplished from their computers. People still have the opportunity to live wherever they want, not just in urban centers and do those jobs.”
“My plan is to ensure that we have the towers, that we have the capability possible for rural Saskatchewan, and that if needed, we would have incentive programs for people to set up their own micro systems for improving connectivity as well,” Hunter said.
Improving rural environment and water quality
Hunter said the Green Party is concerned with toxicity levels in our water system.
“And people often blanketly blame farmers and say farmers don't care about these. I would say instead that farmers want real solutions presented to them. Farmers aren’t bad people who are operating in a way that creates chemical runoff because they just don't care. They completely care about their children and the future of the planet, and they want good solutions presented to them by the government.
She said, “The provincial government has put in a series of drainage ditch programs, which cause the water to run off in a way that is actually increasing the amount of nitrogen is ending up in our waterways ,which creates a lot of these algae blooms. Instead, we need to work with a system of swales and water movement that actually go more with the natural lay of the land.”
As Saskatchewan is a drought-prone province, she said, “We would put in, policies, immediately, that would protect our southern waterways, that would ensure that our marsh lands, which are incredible carbon sinks, which are needed to produce to preserve the biodiversity of birds, especially in our rural area.
“We would put (in) grants and incentive programs for farmers who are working in ways on their farms and ranches that would actually help with biodiversity and natural grassland and water preservation.”