New North enters the New Year with fresh eyes

·6 min read

Saskatchewan’s association of northern communities is moving into the New Year with fresh eyes after general elections with four new members on its executive. Out of five executive seats on New North, only Creighton Mayor Bruce Fidler retained his position as chair and representative for the northeast.

“Outgoing leaders did a great job for their communities and for the north. Sometimes it’s sad to see them go but, I mean, that’s what democracy is… new faces bring new ideas,” Fidler said.

La Loche Mayor Georgina Jolibios became deputy chair, replacing Robert St. Pierre as the northwest sector representative. Councillor Jordan McPhail of La Ronge is the new elected treasurer and representative for the central region replacing the former long-time mayor of Air Ronge, Gordon Stomp.

Stony Rapids Mayor Daniel Powder is replacing Keith Laprise as far north sector representative and Pelican Narrows Mayor Ovide Michel replaces Pinehouse Mayor Mike Natomagan as member at large.

McPhail said that he’s looking forward to bringing that new perspective forward in the New Year.

“We’ve got some new fresh faces on this board and we’re going to make sure that we reach out to our sectors making sure that all the villages, hamlets and towns throughout the north are going to be well represented by a board that is going to put northern communities first and make sure that we can deliver on some of the common denominators for our issues in the north,” McPhail said.

He said access to housing and suicide prevention are two of his key issues.

“We have an issue with being able to find affordable housing or even just safe housing for our northern communities. We’re looking into some housing initiatives as well as potentially looking into a suicide prevention strategy and crisis intervention units that can be deployed to these areas when there are suicide outbreaks in certain communities.”

First on its agenda, New North is pushing for the province to reintroduce critical incident and crisis intervention teams in northern Saskatchewan in the New Year.

The motion to that effect was unanimously supported at New North’s annual general meeting on Dec. 11 in Prince Albert.

Northern health regions previously had teams in place to mobilize resources for mental health support to young people following a traumatic event, but New North says that these teams aren’t funded or staffed on an on-going basis.

Beauval Mayor Nick Daigneault tabled the motion arguing that such teams play a crucial role in mitigating the impacts of trauma on communities following “serious critical events,” such as suicides and motor vehicle accidents.

In speaking to the resolution, Daigneault said that volunteers in his community often play this role but are becoming overwhelmed by the emotional toll.

The resolution says that youth can often turn to substances as a way to deal with or process traumatic events, perpetuating a cycle of trauma if left unchecked.

New North cites statistics provided by Northern Population Health stating that injuries are the leading cause of death in most age groups in the north; followed by intentional self-harm, motor vehicle traffic crashes, assault, and accidental poisonings.

“There are a lot of issues that have been around for years but with the Covid situation and things like that they’ve gotten more profound and more intensified,” Fidler said.

“There are a lot of mental health issues coming up from people… Getting mental health programs and support increased in the north is a big one.”

Fidler also called on the province to prioritize access to COVID-19 vaccination in remote northern communities that do not have easy access to health care.

“I would really like to see the elders and the vulnerable in the north, especially in the really remote communities be moved up on the priority list because of the lack of available medical services throughout the north.

I hope that they would look at that and put some of the northern people higher on the list; the elders and people who already have medical issues,” Fidler said. “There are remote communities out there that have no medical services in the community whatsoever so if they get sick they don’t have anyone to turn to.”

Fidler said that those communities are those very vulnerable to this virus since it thrives in places where people are crowded in homes and where the social determinants of health are adverse.

High rates of health issues related to the lungs and diseases like diabetes in the north elevate the risks of people developing serious complications, he said.

New North is also rolling out a program to help communities balance their books as the province will enforce rules that require municipalities to keep their accounts up to date in order to access funds through the Northern Municipal Trust Account (NMTA).

Fidler said that since meeting those requirements can be hard for smaller communities that are short on staff and know-how, New North will be helping with training and balancing their books.

“When it comes to the revenue sharing, some of the communities are behind on their audits and their financials and different things like that. So, to be eligible to get all of your revenue sharing there’s a number of different items that the municipalities have to be up to date on,” Fidler said. “

That is part of what New North is working toward. We’re working to help communities all get to the point where any dollars that are available to them, they will have access to.”

Jolibois said in an interview after winning municipal elections that in order to prosper there needs to be an equal seat at the table for the north in Saskatchewan.

“First of all, the government really should acknowledge that northern Saskatchewan is part of Saskatchewan. And show us that you really do mean working with us by providing us with the appropriate resources. To be at the standard of the rest of Saskatchewan,” Jolibois said.

“It’s important for northern Saskatchewan to have voices, and to speak to issues, Indigenous issues and other issues. It’s important that our language and culture is protected. Our cultural identity and being Cree or Dene or Métis, First Nation or Inuit. It is important that truth and reconciliation happens for all of us. It’s important for all of us to work toward betterment in our communities.”

Fidler said that while it’s sad to see some of his former colleagues go, he’s looking forward to the fresh perspective that new faces bring to the table. And he said New North’s core mandate remains the same as always.

“We lobby and advocate on behalf of all northern municipalities. And so we have that direction in the back of our mind at all times,” Fidler said.

Michael Bramadat-Willcock, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Northern Advocate