Saskatchewan

'They gambled': Northern crisis worker says Sask. too slow on travel restrictions

Northern leaders say the province is not providing the necessary support amid a COVID-19 outbreak, despite the premier’s reassurances that dialogue and support are “ongoing.”

Clarence Natomagan said the north has long been asking for restrictions to no avail

Crisis management workers in the north say Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe is not doing enough during a COVID-19 outbreak in the region. (Michael Bell/Canadian Press)

Clarence Natomagan said the governments' restrictions on travel to northern Saskatchewan are too little, too late, as at least two dozen people are infected with COVID-19.

"They gambled," he said, adding if nothing did happen in the north the province would have been"off the hook.

"But if something does happen then they're going to react." 

The province's far north is experiencing an outbreak, with 25 combined active cases in the communities of La Loche, Clearwater River Dene Nation and English River First Nation. 

The province said Friday afternoon it was "taking action to control the spread of COVID-19 in the north," with chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab signing a public health order restricting all non-critical travel to the Northern Saskatchewan Administration District (NSAD).

The NSAD is north of areas such as Cumberland House, Prince Albert National Park and Green Lake. 

The first positive case in the La Loche area was identified on April 15 and was linked to Alberta travel. Since then, two of the cases have been related to the long-term care home and one RCMP civilian officer has tested positive for the virus.

"Why did the province wait that long, when the controls we were trying to put in place would likely have prevented the spread of the virus into the north?" Natomagan said.

This map from the province illustrates the NSAD:

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Controlling the roads 

The Northwest Incident Command Centre (NWICC), which represents 24 northern communities, has been setting up information check stops along Highway 155.

Natomagan said the group had been asking the province to shut down the roads leading to the north. He said the check stops were just to inform and that they never had the right to actually send people away. 

Concerns were raised about anglers, outfitters and travellers from the south as the province "reopens."

Premier Scott Moe said exemptions will be provided for services such as fuel or grocery delivery, medical treatments, and Indigenous people engaging in traditional activities.

The move to restrict travel is positive, he said, but it could have happened sooner. 

Natomagan said he's been continuously frustrated and disappointed by the government's response to calls for support.

"Premier Moe can say we're working with them, there's no refuting that, but working and doing something are two entirely different processes," said Natomagan. "It's sad to be honest, because they sit at the table for a matter of minutes and say we're committed to helping you but we haven't seen any results."

On Thursday, Rick Laliberte, the head of the NIWCC spoke out about a lack of support from the province. The province insisted both the premier and Minister of Government Relations Lori Carr had consistent communication with northern leaders.

Natomagan said requests for financial resources and proposals for support have been shut down without any real justification. He said NWICC members asked for money to fund check stops and PPE resources. 

He said a common response was: "'Yes we're trying to help. Yes I understand. It's such a placating response from the province and there's nothing that they're doing.'" 

The province has also pointed to the provision of rapid testing machines for the area, but Natomagan said that's not extra help, rather it's help that would be directed to any region with an outbreak.

This map shows a breakdown of reported COVID-19 cases in Saskatchewan by region. (CBC)

On Thursday, the Saskatchewan NDP and northern mayors called on the province to put $10 million in direct financial assistance to the north. NDP Leader Ryan Meili called for the province to work more closely with the region. 

"We have repeatedly called on the province to do more to address the unique challenges that make northern communities particularly vulnerable to COVID-19," Meili said in a news release. "Their failure to act sooner has cost us valuable time."

Right now, there is only a recommendation in place that says people shouldn't travel between northern communities. Moe said that might change if the outbreak grows.

Do restrictions create a division? 

Some experts say the move to restrict travel may create a divide and put the north more at risk. 

"I think this decision is contrary to the message that Premier Moe gave that we work together as a province," said Dr. Anne Huang, a former deputy medical health officer with the province of Saskatchewan.

"This means that we're putting the northern region, which already has a challenging time accessing health-care services and other essential services, into a even more difficult position when they require more resources." 

She said the travel restrictions could potentially create division within the province.

"The premier chooses to lock-down the north to enable the rest of the province to function, but the north depends on major centres," she said.

Huang said this lack of access is a concern from a health equity perspective, but will also create significant risk to cohesiveness.

Northern communities like a beehive 

Natomagan said the provincial response time means it doesn't understand how northern communities are. He likened them to a beehive.

"If there's anything invasive the one bee brings into a beehive, the entire beehive gets destroyed. The entire colony dies."

He said COVID-19 in the north could be the same, which is why the region needs more support.

"We're so intrinsically intertwined," he said. "The risk level is so much higher for us to deal with." 

Community leaders are working hard to do what they can. Martha Morin said everyone was hoping the virus wouldn't hit them — but they knew the odds were high. 

"I know our community is scared. A lot of people are doing their best to try to follow the recommendations," said Morin, who has just been designated the emergency operations centre director in La Loche.

Four government emergency service officers sent to help the community set up an operation centre in La Loche. However, they have since left. Moe said two are expected to return. 

A lot of fear

Morin said La Loche and Clearwater River Dene Nation began planning for the "what-ifs" in March. 

"One of the major concerns we have is continuing to try to limit spread,"she said. "But also how do we take care of those who are in isolation."

Some can't practice physical distancing properly because they don't have anywhere to go, she said, adding homelessness has been a challenge in the community for decades.

The community is now setting up comfortable and secure isolation units for people living in crowded homes and a temporary place for homeless people to go.

Morin said they are also working closely with SHA officials to try to control the spread. 

"They're telling us they have a good plan in place to do contact tracing," she said. "They said they had it under control, and we just need to support that." 

A team of five SHA workers is in the community doing contact tracing. As of Thursday they had done more than 130 tests.

One challenge for people in the area, Morin said, is not knowing who has the virus due to the province's privacy restrictions and protocols.

"There's a lot of fear," she said. "In our community people are very scared not knowing if they've come into contact with someone who's been positive."

About the Author

Kendall Latimer

Journalist

Kendall Latimer has shared compelling stories, photos, audio and video with CBC Saskatchewan since 2016. She loves a good yarn and is always open to chat: kendall.latimer@cbc.ca.