REGINA — Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe is heading to his rural home for the holidays and says he looks forward to another family hockey game — even though he's known as Uncle Moe who can't keep up on the ice.
While he's grateful to gather with loved ones in Shellbrook, Sask., he says he realizes not everyone has made it to another holiday year with family and traditions.
"I keep that in my mind each and every day," Moe said in a year-end interview with The Canadian Press.
As the province emerges from a tough year of COVID-19 with a wounded health-care system, Moe is reflecting on the grief shared by many Saskatchewan families, a sadness he, too, has felt.
"I lost some people. They died due to COVID, and that's unfortunate for the community, and really unfortunate for family members and those who knew and loved them," he said.
"That has happened time and time again for far too many Saskatchewan families."
Despite a year in which vaccines offered some hope of beating the virus, a total of 944 people had died of the infection as of Wednesday — an increase of more than 800 deaths over this time last year.
The province also continues to feel the decisions of a Saskatchewan Party government that admits it moved too slow when cases started rising in the fall.
Intensive care beds remain near capacity and more than 35,000 people are waiting for surgery. A staffing shortage means the province's organ donation program is still partially suspended after being shut down entirely in September.
Moe said he wants to do better on behalf of the people he serves.
"You learn from your mistakes and try not to repeat them," he said. "I've made many mistakes in my life, professionally and personally, and you most certainly try to do better each and every time.
"That is what I am still doing throughout this COVID pandemic."
Moe said he carries some burdens, including a decision at one point to restrict visitors at long-term care homes.
"I knew very well that there were going to be seniors in our community — family members that in many cases built communities in our province — who were quite likely going to die. I'll never forget the impact of that particular decision very early on."
Another decision that weighs on him was having to restrict sports and in-class learning for young people. He said he saw how that affected children and young adults — including his own who took university classes from home.
"You can send an old curmudgeon like me home in the evenings and say you shouldn't be going out and visiting people, and I'm quite fine with that. But with our youth and kids, it's very different.
"Those are things that will never be lost on me."
Moe said he leaned on prayer and advice from his father to help him get through the stresses of leading the province through a pandemic. The health crisis has given him the chance to learn more about himself, he added.
"It's been an opportunity to build some character. You start to learn how resilient a person can be."
The biggest take-away was learning the importance of listening, he said.
The Opposition NDP has been critical of the government for not responding to doctors who asked for more public health measures and for failing to act on recommendations from Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer.
"It's important to read the correspondence that comes into the office, and it's important to get back to people ... on a face-to-face basis, not a Facebook Messenger basis," he said.
Moe describes himself as a husband, a father and a friend who takes pride in building communities.
So while he doesn't regret keeping a vaccine passport and mask mandate in place, he feels guilty about the division it has created for some families.
Like others, he has seen friendships end over debates on government policy or after people have been uninvited to Christmas dinners.
"I refuse to allow this virus to remove one friend, one lifelong friend, from my life. It's not going to."
Moe knows the emergence of the Omicron variant in Saskatchewan presents a new challenge to face with a more transmissible variant.
Now, he said, is the time to come together as families and to learn to adapt to different health policies that could change every few months.
"I don't want those policies dividing our friends, families and communities," Moe said. "We're going through this together. We're learning together."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 23, 2021.
Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press