Northern Saskatchewan leaders want COVID checkpoint confusion sorted out

REGINA — Leaders in northwestern Saskatchewan are asking the province to clear up confusion about checkpoints that are restricting travel in the region during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Premier Scott Moe announced last month that non-essential movement into the area and between its communities would be limited to help contain the novel coronavirus.

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The virus was brought in via travel from an oilsands work camp in northern Alberta.

A letter from northern leaders to the province's chief medical health officer outlines their concerns over a lack of consultation about the travel restrictions and confusion over how to interpret them.

It says there are no Indigenous language speakers at the checkpoints and staff are not honouring notes from chiefs and councils that authorize certain people to travel.

"What we find insulting is the absolute lack of consultation or discussion about the interpretation of the Public Health Order," writes Rick Laliberte, commander of the North West Communities Incident Command Centre, which is comprised of different northern leaders.

"The North West cannot be perceived as a jail."

The letter, posted online and sent to the government, says the province hasn't addressed food security or how the lockdown means people can't make a trip south for groceries.

The president of the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency, which is handling the checkpoints, says he's heard concerns about northerners being stopped from travelling to food shop or for other necessary reasons.

"The way the order is worded is it's to get essential services or groceries at a location closet to their home address," Marlo Pritchard said Monday.

"Information that I'm getting is where they want to go farther than the local community ... they're being encouraged to go to that community or back."

Northern leaders say what's missing is a discussion about how the public health order on travel is being carried out.

"We can understand the temptation to blame us for complex issues in the northwest," reads the letter.

"Many people in the province are expressing this attitude, and this is not only deeply painful to us, but also dangerously divisive to the social fabric of our province."

During his regular briefing Monday, Premier Scott Moe said officials are looking into individual concerns and the government is talking to leaders, but at the end of the day restricting travel is how to cut off the spread of COVID-19.

"There are essential reasons why people would need to leave their community, but those checkpoints are there to limit the spread of this virus and they're there for a reason."

Of Saskatchewan's 568 reported COVID-19 cases, 197 of them are in the far north.

A community-run Facebook page says the Dene village of La Loche, 600 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon, is where most of the cases are concentrated and had a total of 143 infections as of the weekend.

Health officials on Monday reported only four new cases of COVID-19 from in and around the community after days of double-digit increases.

Moe says it's too soon to tell if that's a trend, but he believes efforts on the ground — people staying home and health-care workers aggressively testing — are working.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 11, 2020

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