Chief, mother say 'discriminating' travel bans make Sask. northerners feel like 'caged animals'

Residents of northern Saskatchewan say the way the provincial government has gone about its COVID-19 travel bans and highway checkpoints has led them to feel alienated and like they can't be trusted during the pandemic. 

Premier Moe says government wants to remove highway checkpoints as soon as it's safe

Blockades restricting access to and from Saskatchewan's north have sparked criticisms from both northern and southern residents alike. (Don Somers/CBC)

Residents of northern Saskatchewan say the way the provincial government has gone about its COVID-19 travel bans and highway checkpoints has led them to feel alienated and like they can't be trusted during the pandemic. 

"[My chiefs] are saying it feels like we're two different provinces right now," said Meadow Lake Tribal Council Chief Richard Ben, who represents five communities that have been locked down going on two weeks now. 

"It's been a really frustrating and painful time for the chiefs and the band members," Ben said. "They're feeling very outcast... in a way, like they're not a part of the society right now."

Alexandra MacLean, a pregnant mother of two Cree children living in the northern hamlet of Cole Bay, said she was inspired to write a Facebook post Wednesday after a call with northern leaders was broadcast on local radio.

MacLean wrote that the blockades restricting access to southern Saskatchewan are being enforced in slapdash fashion, with no clarity on who is in charge.

She bristled at the fact that while northern residents are banned from travelling south or going between communities for anything besides groceries and medical appointments, southern Saskatchewan residents in cities like Saskatoon did not face the same level of restrictions when there were several active cases there. 

"Why all of the assumptions that my fellow community members cannot shop safely and properly in Meadow Lake or North Battleford?" MacLean wrote.


The rules are being applied according to a double standard, MacLean concluded.

"Built on the concept that northerners cannot follow the simple safety rules and must be locked away with the virus until it's safe to let us back out," she wrote. 

"We are mothers. We are children. We are fathers and teachers and doctors and cousins and hunters and many things. Caged animals should not be one of them."

Chief Francis Iron of Canoe Lake Cree Nation, which is located 15 kilometres from MacLean's home, agreed. 

"Big time," he said of MacLean's statement. "When I'm on conference calls with the province, I tell them, 'You're discriminating. You're locking us up now. You're showing no trust in us.'"

The government's response

Premier Scott Moe has repeatedly defended the travel bans and blockades as a necessary step toward stemming the coronavirus' spread to other areas of the province. 

On Thursday, he addressed the concerns raised by MacLean and the chiefs.

"It's unfortunate, and I respectfully would disagree with those comments," Moe said. "The checkpoints are in place with the collaborative work that has happened between our public safety agency as well as the local communities."

The goal is to shutter the checkpoints as soon as it's safe to do so, Moe said. 

"We most certainly want to remove those," he said. 

Premier Scott Moe said the goal is to remove the checkpoints, but only when it's safe to do so. Alexandra MacLean of Cole Bay took this photo of a northern checkpoint she had to go through Thursday. (Alexandra MacLean)

Marlo Pritchard, the president of the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency, said the SPSA was having conversations with northern leaders up to Thursday morning.  

"We're working through some, I would say, rub points in regards to freedom of movement and accessing and understanding of the public order restrictions," Pritchard said. "We're hoping to have more consistent messaging at those checkpoints."

Pritchard added that many of the checkpoints are staffed by people who live in northern communities. 

Members denied access to groceries: chief

The tightened northern travel restrictions went into effect on April 30, as part of a revised health order by the province's chief medical health officer.

The updated order outlawed all non-critical travel into and out of the Northern Saskatchewan Administrative District, which covers nearly half of the province but is sparsely populated relative to the rest of Saskatchewan.

The order also required northern residents to remain in their local communities, except for grocery runs and medical appointments.

But Chief Ben said those exceptions aren't being honoured for some of his members.

"They're actually getting turned away if they try to leave the community to go get essentials — foods, medicines or whatever," he said.

Many of Ben's members live in poverty and normally go to southern communities to stretch their dollars at grocery stores like Wal-Mart or Extra Foods, Ben said. 

With the blockades in place, "we're told to go to the nearest grocery store," Ben said. "But — and I've explained this to the minister [Lori Carr, the Minister Responsible for First Nations, Métis and Northern Affairs] — if you go to any of our First Nations grocery stores, the capacity isn't there to fulfill the needs for our community."

Chief Richard Ben of the Meadow Lake Tribal Council said some of his members have not been allowed to travel to get groceries. (Richard Ben's Facebook page)

Ordering milk online

MacLean of Cole Bay said her community started a food bank and she helps with deliveries. She can thankfully afford her own groceries, she said. 

But others cannot, she added. 

"Everybody is aware that the groceries are more expensive and the stores are really doing everything they can to bring prices down and help people be able to afford it," MacLean said. 

"But I have been buying baby milk for families that can't afford it. A tub of baby milk, like a powdered can, may be $25 to $30 at Wal-Mart if you can get there. I've been ordering milk online."

Southerners' comments 'incredibly hurtful'

Resentment toward the blockades has grown among southern residents too in recent days, particularly among people who want to travel to their second homes in the North.

Dean Foster, a business owner in White Fox who has a trailer at a seasonal northern campsite, is organizing a protest next week at a checkpoint on Highway 106, in a northeast part of the province affected by the travel bans. 


"It is time for everyone to step up and inform the powers that be that we will no longer be sheep, herded into submission with these absurd laws," Foster recently wrote in a Facebook post promoting an anti-blockade petition. 

But something about such southern opposition to the blockades rubs northern residents like MacLean and Ben the wrong way.

"It's incredibly hurtful," MacLean said. "There's no care at all, it seems to be, that there are people here who are suffering. But there is a protest because they want to be able to access our space and our land, this beautiful part of the country, for luxury and comfort."

Ben said he's raised the issue with Minister Carr.

"Getting food is essential. Leisure is not essential," he said. "If they want to do their part to combat this pandemic, stay home."

Earlier this week, Moe said that if the number of new daily COVID-19 cases remains low, he will talk with northern leaders about potentially relaxing the restrictions in north-central and northeast Saskatchewan — but not until after the May long weekend.

In advance of the holiday, Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan's top public health doctor, had some advice for people with cabins in the south, where no such restrictions are in place.

"Stay on your property, try to take your supplies with you and minimize traffic to local stores. If you have to go, only go for essential items."


Guy Quenneville

Reporter at CBC Saskatoon

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