Province says northern travel restrictions could be removed if COVID-19 cases continue to fall

The number of active cases in the far north has fallen by 70 per cent in recent days — to 46 cases on May 28 compared to 156 on May 10.

Premier Scott Moe says talks to lift restrictions could start this week

Chief of the Clearwater River Dene Nation, Teddy Clark, can be seen with his 12-year-old daughter Traya Clark, in this photo submitted to CBC. He says the fact his community has gotten down to zero active cases of COVID-19 is important, but says people still need to remain diligent to prevent the spread of the virus. (Chief Teddy Clark/Facebook)

As the province prepares to start talks about unrestricted travel in the northwest, leaders in area say there is hope on the horizon for the region as the number of COVID-19 cases being recorded in the area has slowed substantially. 

The province's north was one of the areas hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic, as of Saskatchewan's total 645 cases, 368 of them — roughly 57 per cent — were recorded in the area, despite it being home to less than 4 per cent of the province's population.

The Clearwater River Dene Nation is just one of the communities in the north that has been making progress, as on May 28, health officials confirmed there were no new cases in the community with all 31 recorded considered recovered. 

Zero active cases in Clearwater River 

"It definitely is a relief," said Teddy Clark, chief of the Clearwater River Dene Nation, as he commended his community, the community of La Loche and the Metis Nation-Saskatchewan for their hard work during the pandemic.

"Us leaders, in the leadership role, we lay things out and set the direction, but if we don't have the people's support or we don't have the people's help, that direction can go sideways pretty quick, but in this case, it's proven to be positive. It's proven to work." 

He said while there were some hardships in the north during the pandemic, he said people and communities stood strong together, saying the partnership his community formed with La Loche was critical in their response.

Clark said when some people were pushing back on the restrictions, northern leaders stood their ground, as the priority was protecting the masses. 

"A couple of times I was told that making decisions like this will probably cost me my political career, but I said, you know what, I'm not really worried about my political career right now, I'm worried about safeguarding my people and making sure everybody comes out of this OK." 

Chief Clark said since the restrictions have been in place, many people in the community have extended their thanks. 

"I always say to them: 'No. You should be thanking yourself, because you helped do this. Not just me, not just me and the council,'" he said. "You guys held the magic wand on this one." 

He said some in the community, like those who were suffering with issues around alcoholism or substance abuse, are doing better than they were prior to the pandemic. This is because two stores that sold alcohol in the area were temporarily shuttered to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

A Managed Alcohol Program (MAP) was initiated in the community to help those with a dependence on alcohol. Chief Clark recalled at least one person dealing with alcoholism who has started on a path to sobriety as a result of the support they were offered during the pandemic.

"That shows you that it's made a big difference in a lot of people," he said.

Northern travel restrictions may soon be lifted

Last week, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe thanked the people of the north, leadership, healthcare staff, public safety officers and everyone involved in pandemic response in the region, as the situation in La Loche and other northern communities is continuing to improve. 

Scott Moe, premier of Saskatchewan, speaks at a COVID-19 news update at the Legislative Building in Regina on March 18, 2020. Earlier this week, Moe said the downward trend in the north continues, the province will start discussions around removing restrictions in the province's northwest. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press)

In fact, Moe said the number of active cases in the far north has fallen by 70 per cent in recent days, to 36 cases on May 28 compared to 156 on May 10. 

"If this trend continues, we are quite hopeful that by next week we will be able to start looking at removing the travel restrictions in Northwest Saskatchewan, like we have for many of the other communities throughout the north," he said.

Travel restrictions have been in place since April 24 and have gradually been loosened over the last few weeks,except for parts of the northwest, and some are looking forward to seeing the remaining restrictions removed. 

12-day streak of no new cases in Beauval 

Nick Daigneault is the mayor of the Northern Village of Beauval.

An outbreak of COVID-19 was declared in the northern community on May 1, but he said as of Saturday morning, the community had gone 12 days without a new case of COVID-19 and he says the streak is a positive sign. 

"I think we've seen the peak of most of it," he said. "I do see some hope for lesser precautions, lesser restrictions and we're actually coming up with our own plan to see what that looks like here in the next month." 

Nick Daigneault, mayor of the Northern Village of Beauval, says he's hopeful the community's outbreak will be declared over soon, because as of Saturday morning, the community has gone 12 days without recording a new case. (Nick Daigneault/Supplied)

He said it's important that the community is working with health officials toward a target date to end the outbreak, as it gives people something to look forward to.

Daigneault said while people in the community understand the restrictions are in place for good reason, there have been some feelings of isolation due to the fact most are restricted to staying inside the community. 

"You get those targets in place and it at least gives people a sense of hope," he said. 

Daigneault said the outbreak has also started a community-wide initiative to spruce up their yards and and properties, with many in the community taking part, something he called "a beautiful sight." 

"It's just nice to see that the community has come together regardless of whether or not we can gather together," he said. 

Premier Moe said any further loosening of restrictions in the north will be done in close consultation with leadership in the community, noting the province is meeting with leadership weekly. 

However, all leaders stressed while the hard work has been helping, it must continue to ensure numbers stay low and the virus is contained.