Government ignoring the north isn’t good for Saskatchewan

NDP backs several Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce report recommendations

The NDP agrees with several of the recommendations made by the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce this week, which says the government’s strategy for development in the north is lacking, as is its understanding of the region.

The report from the Chamber’s Northern Business Task Force calls on the government to provide meaningful investment in northern roads; do more to connect people to career and training opportunities; and provide education for northern children comparable to education in the rest of the province.

The Chamber of Commerce also calls on the premier and cabinet ministers to actually visit the far north, which it says the premier hasn’t done since being elected in 2007.

“This government entirely dismisses the north – its economic potential, its industry contributions and the major challenges northern families are facing,” said Doyle Vermette, the NDP critic for Northern Saskatchewan.

“There is huge economic potential in our natural resources in the north, but the lack of commitment from this government into infrastructure like roads and broadband networks is choking off potential growth. Even greater potential comes from the people of the north. But, people are not connected to training opportunities and the basic education children are receiving is not on par with education students receive in other parts of the province. That’s unacceptable, and it has to change.”

Vermette said the critical issue of the cost of living in the north is a top priority for him, and was pleased to see the concerns also identified by the Chamber of Commerce. But, he says the government just doesn’t seem to understand the realities for northern families.

In addition to the much higher prices for goods and services, including food, in northern communities, the Chamber of Commerce points out that the government is charging northern homes and businesses a higher basic monthly utility fee for power as well as a higher cost per kilowatt hour of electricity. Monthly equalized power bills, according to northern residents, can be $400, or even $1,000 or higher.

“From milk to housing to power bills, northern families are paying so much more, and being forced to make difficult decisions as a result,” said Vermette. “Instead of making it harder to make ends meet, this government should be taking steps to help families get themselves ahead instead of just asking them to pay extra.”

The NDP agrees with the Chamber’s recommendation to charge the same rates for power that urban southern residents pay, as well as with a recommendation to encourage energy conservation. The NDP does not support the recommendation to eliminate the equalized payments option because it could make winter power bills cost-prohibitively high for many.

Vermette agrees with the Chamber’s recommendation for this government to make meaningful increases to the budget for northern highways. The Chamber’s specific recommendation to build an all-weather road to Wollaston Lake where there’s only a winter ice-road now is not news to the government. It made that promise in spring 2008 but, after losing a by-election in Cumberland weeks later, broke the promise and decided not to give residents of the community a safe, all-season road. Six years later, the community still has only the dangerous ice road in the winter and air or boat access the other three seasons.

Vermette also agrees with the recommendation that the premier and cabinet visit the far north – and says the fact that the premier hasn’t been to the far north speaks volumes. He agrees that seeing the communities first-hand could, according to the Chamber of Commerce, “offset the lack of awareness about the realities of living or operating businesses in those places.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” said Vermette, who noted that he has invited cabinet ministers – formally and informally – to the north, but none have followed through. “This government doesn’t understand the entrepreneurial spirit of the north. It doesn’t understand the unique challenges and opportunities of the north. It doesn’t understand the reality for people coping with the lack of housing, high cost of living and lack of services like roads and schools.

“It’s past time for this government to learn that half of this province’s land is north of Prince Albert. It’s beautiful; the people are incredible and the opportunities – economic and social – are just waiting to be unlocked.”

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For more information, contact:
Erin Morrison, NDP caucus