McMorris talks COVID, autonomy, rural health care

Minister of Government Relations and Indian Head-Milestone MLA Don McMorris knows exactly what he would do if he could snap his fingers and make it so as Saskatchewan’s latest legislative session gets underway.

“I would get another 15 per cent of our province’s population vaccinated,” he said in a recent interview with The Forum. “Never since I have been in politics has there been so many promising economic announcements than there have been in the last six months and yet all of it has been overshadowed by COVID. It is time to be done with this pandemic and start to focus again on the prosperity in this province.”

Among those projects are the Red Leaf Pulp wheat straw facility that is set to begin construction in 2022, Cargill’s canola processing facility that will be added to the growing Global Transportation Hub west of Regina, Ceres Global Ag’s announcement of a canola crushing plant in the southern part of the province and the recent announcement of billions of dollars of investment into the BHP Billiton’s Jansen potash project, which is projected to be the largest potash mine in the world.

Now I realize that we should have put those restrictions in place sooner.

Don McMorris

Increased vaccination rates may be McMorris’ one wish now, but it was not one that he foresaw having. As of the province’s Monday COVID update, 87 per cent of Saskatchewan residents born in 2009 or earlier had received at least their first dose of vaccine and 80 per cent were considered fully vaccinated. Health Canada data last publicly updated Oct. 30 though showed both of Saskatchewan’s vaccination rates to be second-last among the provinces, and the province had reported 201 COVID-related deaths from Oct. 1 through Monday.

“I was really surprised that more people did not get vaccinated at the beginning,” McMorris said. “I had assumed people would have gone right away. It really hasn’t been until we have increased the restrictions that we are seeing an increase in vaccination numbers again. Now I realize we should have put those restrictions in place sooner. I just never thought it was going to be an issue.”

While McMorris says he is in full support of the current provincial COVID-19 restrictions, he also recently voiced concern with municipalities going beyond the provincial regulations.

Nov. 1, McMorris spoke out against the City of Saskatoon’s attempt to mandate a temporary bylaw that would have placed limits on private gatherings for vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals alike, as well as the size of gatherings at weddings, funerals and churches if the event were to not require proof of vaccination.

The draft bylaw was initially supported by a majority of council members but ultimately voted down after the province expressed its disapproval with the city’s proposal.

“The City of Saskatoon wanted to move in an area that is not their jurisdiction. They knew it,” McMorris told the legislative assembly Nov. 1, when questioned as to the province’s rationale.

He expanded on this position in conversation with The Forum. The City of Regina had both similarly attempted to implement stricter gathering limits than prescribed by the province when the pandemic first arrived here in March 2020. The government deemed Regina’s order to be invalid while Sedley’s decree was reversed hours after it was issued without any sign of intervention from the province.

“Municipalities have a large degree of authority within their jurisdiction,” said McMorris. “I am not sure if giving municipalities more authority in the midst of this public health emergency would have been beneficial though. We didn’t want a patchwork of restrictions. It needed to be effective and easy to manage so that the lines weren’t too blurry.”

The province’s decision to cap municipal authority on public health matters came at the same time Saskatchewan is voicing its intentions to gain greater autonomy from the federal government.

During last month’s throne speech Lt. Gov. Russ Mirasty spoke to the government’s desire to “build a stronger, more independent Saskatchewan within Confederation.” And Premier Scott Moe later stated in a Nov. 9 press conference that Saskatchewan will move toward being identified as “a nation within a nation.”

When asked about how these two matters might seem to some to be sending conflicting messages, McMorris replied, “Although I can see how someone could draw that comparison it is important to note that while our public health mandates for COVID are short-term decisions for the pandemic, what we are talking about is long term, affecting generations and a much broader lens.”

While Moe associated the province’s direction with a desire for greater provincial autonomy on issues like immigration and child care, McMorris focused on the financial incentives for the political shift

“The federal government is lobbying internationally right now to shut down 30 per cent of our provincial economy,” he said. “We need to start standing up for ourselves. We are not asking for anything more than what Quebec has.”

On a local level McMorris noted three items that he plans to support and work on within his riding over the coming weeks and months.

The first is a recent announcement of two additional intake dates for Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program (ICIP) funding in February and May. ICIP is a bilateral agreement between the Canadian and Saskatchewan governments that aims to provide more than $900 million towards infrastructure projects in the province.

“This is such an important thing for our municipalities,” said McMorris. “I encourage everyone to apply if they can. If some had applied previously and weren’t successful, please apply again.”

The second is the need for highway maintenance, and McMorris singled out one local road in particular.

“Highway 35 is still on our radar. It is getting better but from the 48 to Francis needs some major work. It is on our priority list.”

Finally, McMorris noted how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted rural health care.

“We need our rural facilities,” he said. “This (pandemic) has shown us how important they are in order to reduce some of the pressure on our major centres. The question is not really if we can re-open some of the rural health facilities that were closed down previously. It is really about attracting people to run them, and in that area there is more work to do.”

This article is one of several selected from our Nov. 25 edition for online publication in full. To receive more content like this on a weekly basis (rather than whatever we decide to post online whenever we get around to it), subscribe to The Forum today.