Delegates at Sask. municipalities association convention grill premier on health care, canola
Concerns about mental health support in rural Sask. raised in bear-pit Q&A session at SARM convention
Canola trade issues, the government's confidence in the Chinese communications giant Huawei and health-care concerns dominated the annual Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities convention's cabinet bear-pit session Wednesday.
Cabinet ministers from the Saskatchewan Party took questions and concerns from an audience of rural municipality representatives from across the province at the convention in Saskatoon.
After several questions about health-care access and mental health from the audience, Premier Scott Moe stepped in, telling delegates the province has come a long way. Several years ago, health concerns would have been "the majority" of questions asked, he said.
But the premier may have spoken too soon — those questions still dominated the bear-pit session.
A delegate from the rural municipality of Wolseley raised concerns during the session about staffing at his local hospital, which he said has been unable to provide acute care during the summer for the last few years.
"It has also been done because they don't have people for the lab and X-ray positions."
He said high school counsellors in the area have told him there's a two-year wait list to get into the appropriate program stream for those jobs.
"It's a job in a rural community that would keep our hospitals open," the delegate said.
He also told the cabinet ministers that when his doctor goes on holidays, it's up to him to find a replacement to help with his health-care needs.
A woman stood at the microphone later and identified herself as a member of the Service Employees' International Union-West. She spoke about underpaid care-home workers and support staff turnover in rural communities.
She was quickly shut down by SARM president Ray Orb, who told her that since she is not a SARM delegate, the ministers would be unable to respond.
Other delegates asked about mental health provisions in rural communities.
One man urged the ministers to take a close look at the mental health of rural women and female farmers, and to take it seriously.
He tearfully explained the situation of close friends, a couple where both are ill, who he felt weren't being compensated properly by their insurance plan through Saskatchewan Government Insurance.
Defence of province's approach
When asked about the many concerns delegates raised related to health care, Moe characterized them as "an indication of good counsel coming from the room."
"We still have more work to do when it comes to access to health-care services across the province," he said.
The premier profiled the province's approach in his initial speech to delegates, pointing to several projects already completed by the Saskatchewan government to improve health care for rural communities.
He indicated increases in the number of doctors and nurses working in the province, and mentioned the new provincial psychiatric hospital in North Battleford numerous times.
Health Minister Jim Reiter also hinted at "significant increases" in health-care spending to be included in the upcoming provincial budget.
The province's goal in recent years has been to bring mental health spending up to seven per cent of the government's total spending in health care.
"The problem with the number is it depends how you look at it," Reiter said. "It's very difficult to just segregate spending on mental health and addictions because they're so intertwined in so many cases."
He told reporters that the province is "probably over the seven per cent already," though the government knows more needs to be done.
Concerns about China and canola
In his address prior to the bear pit, Moe also focused some of his speech on China. Since Richardson International, the country's largest canola exporter, was barred from sending its product to the nation, canola producers have been concerned.
"It's disappointing and problematic and we need to engage on all levels," said Moe.
"China is the largest destination for Canadian canola and Saskatchewan is the largest producer and exporter of Canadian canola, so this is an important conversation for this province and the economy of this province."
Moe criticized the federal government several times for its focus on the SNC-Lavalin affair and what he feels is a lack of focus on trade issues affecting Saskatchewan and, by extension, rural municipalities.
He urged the federal Liberals to enter talks with Saskatchewan so ministers can hear concerns and advice "from the farm gate to the province."