Travel in northeast Sask. welcomed with caution
Government lifted non-essential travel ban on Tuesday
Chief Peter Beatty says travelling freely and getting out — especially out onto the land — is important for peoples' mental and physical health.
That's why he welcomes the Saskatchewan's move to reopen travel to the northeastern part of the province. The province had barred all non-essential travel to the vast Northern Saskatchewan Administrative District in April amid a COVID-19 outbreak in the northwest.
"We're really appreciative of the fact that the road restrictions were lifted," said Beatty, Chief of Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation, which represents nine communities in the northeast Saskatchewan. "But we're also cognizant of the still ongoing risk of transmission."
Seven people have died in Saskatchewan after being diagnosed with COVID-19 since it was first detected in March and 120 cases were active in the province as of Wednesday.
Overcrowding cause for concern
Beatty said this opening of travel is positive for people who need to do business, who want to travel or who need more options for groceries and services. However, checkpoints will remain in place on access roads to communities like Deschambault Lake, Sandy Bay and Pelican Narrows.
"The reason why we're protecting our communities is because of the situation with our overcrowded houses that we have on reserve," he said.
For example, he said Pelican Narrows has close to 4,000 band members and that many homes on reserve are overcrowded.
"It would be very difficult to isolate a person at home, especially when there is 15 to 20 people in a house."
There are concerns for vulnerable people with health conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart problems. Beatty said the pandemic has brought longstanding problems like overcrowding on reserves across the country to head.
"If we had proper housing, if we had one family per unit, I think it would mitigate [the risk]," he said. "We would be able to contain it a lot quicker, we'd be able to contact trace a lot better."
For now, he said local health centres in the communities are still preparing for the virus to emerge. He is hopeful travellers will follow health guidelines to minimize the risk to northern communities.
Province doesn't understand north: outfitter
Ric Driediger welcomed the change in restrictions, but also said he doesn't understand why they were implemented in the first place for where he lives. He's operated Churchill River Canoe Outfitters north of La Ronge for decades.
"Finally we're treated like the rest of the province now, which feels kind of nice," he said.
Driediger said the government's blanket restriction showed it doesn't understand distinct regions in the north. The restriction came after leaders in the northwest accused the province of inaction.
For Driediger, it seemed like "very much a political move: we're showing that we're protecting the north by shutting down the north, even though we really felt like we didn't need protecting," he said.
Driediger said direct travel between the northeast and northwest is not common, because both areas go south for supplies.
"Why were we closed, why were we not allowed to travel north or south? It didn't seem right," he said, adding it was like if the province shut down Rosthern for an outbreak in Assiniboia.
He said it was if his community were "second class citizens."
Now that he's "finally free to have customers again," he's focusing on how to operate his business as safely as possible after a dismal May Long weekend.
"It feels really good to at least now have the potential of having a customer."
Protest planner says people 'ecstatic'
Dean Foster, the owner of Buddha's Bait Shop in White Fox, Sask., said he believes "common sense prevailed" with the easing of restrictions. He had been planning a protest on Highway 106 just south of a checkpoint near Smeaton, Sask.
"Not allowing people to go to their own properties, it just wasn't fair, it wasn't right," he said, adding it also put small businesses at risk. "This idea was terrible."
Last week, Premier Scott Moe defended the blanket ban on travel, saying "there was nervousness that [COVID] was spreading not only throughout the north but also into southern communities in the province."
Foster was critical of the province, saying his concerns about the restrictions went unheard by the government.
"Our local MLA and the Saskatchewan Party, they didn't want anything to do with us. They wouldn't return our phone calls," he said. "Tensions were starting to climb a little. People just couldn't accept that there would be kept away from their own property."
Foster said people who were upset by the ban are now "ecstatic."