The third session of the 27th legislative session opened in Regina last week with the Speech from the Throne.
The speech highlighted a number of specific changes the provincial government will be making, and the emphasis was on managing growth in the province.
This past summer, the province’s population surpassed 1.1 million, and the throne speech discussed concerns about the growth’s impact on education, infrastructure, health care, and highways.
A primary issue that was raised by the opposition was seniors care.
The leader of the opposition, Cam Broten, says the government so far has taken a “band-aid” approach to seniors care issues.
“Seniors care issues are throughout the province but especially in rural Saskatchewan, and what I’ve heard in communities from both families and workers that there’s chronic shortstaffing,” Broten says, “I’ve been advocating for more staff in facilities to ensure our loved ones are getting the care they need.”
After reports arose of issues in care homes, the government conducted a review of long-term care facilities and responded by establishing a $10 million Urgent Issues Action Fund to deal with immediate issues. They also announced that the Personal Care Homes Act will be amended to allow for public disclosure of inspection reports of all care homes.
Broten says more needs to be done.
“First of all, the government didn’t want to release the report, but we pushed them into doing so, but the response has still been very meagre, and works out to a small amount that doesn’t address short staffing,” he says. “The response from this government doesn’t cut it because it doesn’t address that staffing issue, so we’ll be zeroing in on their approach to seniors care.”
Other changes to improve seniors care and rural health care that were announced in the speech included a new house call system which would allow seniors with long term health issues to receive house calls from physicians and nurse practitioners, the addition of four collaborative emergency centres in Shaunavon, Spiritwood, Wakaw, and Canora to accompany the one recently opened in Maidstone.
Another issue of growth that was addressed was the growing demand on the education system. The government announced that nine joint-use schools will be built in Saskatchewan using a public-private partnership (P3) approach.
Broten says the government must take a lesson from failed P3 projects in other provinces when considering this approach.
“While we’re making spending decisions on schools, we have to spend that money in the smartest way. We’ve seen a P3 approach with schools in other provinces really cause some problems,” Broten says. “Yes, our kids need new schools and repaired schools, but it has to be done in a common-sense way that supports communities.”
Following the throne speech, Premier Brad Wall addressed that concern, and said, “This is about getting schools does at a significantly lower cost to taxpayers and getting them done in a timely way ... there’s a benefit to not being the first place to do this, it’s frankly good to have learned from others both what hasn’t worked and maybe what has.”
Moosomin MLA Don Toth says the P3 approach is the only way to properly fund the building of schools.
“The fact is, the province is growing, and the economy is growing, but oil prices haven’t jumped through the roof, and the revenues haven’t really changed in oil and potash, so we’re realistic that if we want to balance the budget, we’re going to have to be careful about where we put the money available to us.”
Toth adds, “When it comes to building schools, we are going to look at the P3 approach to address the shortfall in capital funding for schools—if we totally relied on the dollars that are available to us as a government, we would be continuing to fall behind, and we need to move forward, and this is an avenue available to us to do.
“If it has worked for others, why won’t it work here?”
Toth added that of special interest to addressing growth in Southeast Saskatchewan is the addition of more seats in the Adult Basic Education (ABE) Program which provides basic high school education.
“Moosomin has a pretty sound ABE program, and I can only see it continuing to grow,” he says. “It certainly is important in enabling people to receive the education they need to fill the jobs Saskatchewan has.”
This year, 700 new spots will be added to the ABE program to address the backlog of applications, bringing the number of seats to 8,580.
Other announcements in the throne speech intended to increase education and training include the addition of 1,000 training seats across the province, a plan to bring on-reserve driver training to more First Nations--as currently, only 30 per cent of First Nations have driver training programs in schools, as well as better access to internet in remote and northern communities.
Another issue of growth particularly in oil and mining regions of the province is highway traffic. The government has said it will spend more than $500 million on highway construction this year, and the focus this year will be on twinning high traffic highways, particularly highway 39 between Estevan and Bienfait.
The speech also announced a few changes for agriculture, namely continued work in developing the Western Canadian Livestock Price Insurance Program, which will allow cattle and hogs to be insured.
“It’s no different from crop insurance, and livestock producers in Saskatchewan haven’t had that before.
“The goal is to provide livestock producers in Saskatchewan the same opportunity that livestock producers have in Alberta, there they have this insurance.”
Other additional announcements in the throne speech include a “hot-spotting” pilot project to help high-risk and high-use users of emergency rooms before they end up in hospital, plans for consultations to implement an anti-bullying campaign, harsher penalties for drinking and driving, expanding the Headstart on a Home program to encourage the development of low-income rental units, a new Life Lease program that will allow seniors on the edge of being eligible for low income subsidies to receive lower monthly payments, and amendments to The Saskatchewan Employment Act to include the province’s essential services law.
“I think this throne speech highlights-or I hope it highlights-that this government is working hard to get the big things right, the general things right, but that we also have some specific plans to meet the challenges of growth, and I also hope it’s an indication that we’re going to work hard at getting the specific things right.”