Perhaps one of the biggest highlights of the annual Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities convention is the bear pit session, where the Cabinet ministers from the provincial government field a variety of questions from the delegates at the convention. The questions cover anything and everything, at times putting ministers on the spot to answer difficult questions.

The bear pit session for this year’s convention was held Thursday afternoon, and the questions ranged from changes to crop insurance to the current labour dispute with the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation, healthcare, and to landfills. The questions were also asked from representatives throughout the province, including ones from the Weyburn area.

Allan Tytslandvik, a councillor for the R.M. of Laurier, asked the Minister of Rural Health, Tim McLeod, about an ambulance in the community.

“We have an ambulance that is owned by the community, paid for by the community, and SHA said we could not operate that ambulance without being under SHA, and they quoted insurance reasons,” Tytslandvik asked. “We did all the diligent work, got all the insurance we needed. SHA came back and said nope, not doing it. You have to sign this ambulance over to SHA. So now, it’s signed over to SHA and my question is: They can move that bus anytime they want, they can take it away from our community, that was totally funded by our community. How is that right?”

McLeod did note he wasn’t aware of the specifics of the situation but noted he would make sure the CEO of the Saskatchewan Health Authority would be able to find more information about it. He also discussed the specific healthcare situation in Radville.

“Certainly, restoring services and stabilizing services to Radville and so many of our rural communities is a priority for our government,” McLeod said. “It’s not something we’re looking at reducing or taking away by any stretch of the imagination.”

Weyburn-Big Muddy MLA Dustin Duncan, the Minister Responsible for SaskEnergy, would field a question from the R.M. of Cymri. Councillor Dallas Tolles asked about natural gas, and how the cost of the service in rural areas.

“We’re very fortunate to be resource-rich, and one of our resources is natural gas,” Tolles stated. “I believe the government can agree with that, as we’re slowly converting our power plants over into natural gas because it’s green and it’s, you know, cost-effective. However, in rural communities, access to the existing underground infrastructure is not really financially viable. On my farm, the nearest gas line is about 1200 metres away, and the proposed cost estimate I got was $63,000. If gas is green, and the product is to be affordable to consumers, can the government consider reintroducing a subsidy to make access to these natural gas lines financially viable?”

SARM had previously passed a resolution in 2022 calling on the province to cap the cost to access and install natural gas lines at no more than $7,500. The Minister Responsible for SaskEnergy at the time, Don Morgan, stated then that capping the cost was not feasible, due to issues such as easements, navigating roadways and waterways, as well as environmental and heritage surveys.

Duncan did not specifically address the concern raised by Tolles but did mention the amount of natural gas which could be required on a farm.

“SaskEnergy works with a lot of customers,” Duncan answered. “I think one of the challenges that we do have is that today’s grain dryers, in some cases, they’re using as much gas as a small community, and so there are certainly a number of costs that will go into that.”

Local governance was a common topic throughout the meeting, with a few delegates noting they would like to have certain responsibilities downloaded to the rural municipalities instead of them remaining a provincial responsibility. Blair Andrew, a councillor from the R.M. of Moose Mountain, referenced healthcare in asking his question about local governance.

“We have way too much bureaucratic BS getting in the way of the frontline worker, and that is a prime example,” Andrew said, harkening to the question about the ambulance in Radville. “Assiniboia has done some great things, you know, with their rink complex and all that, with the government being proactive and working in that way. I watch with great interest what’s going on in Estevan with the MRI, and it’s way above my pay grade, but what’s going on? When you look at the local people, when they get involved and you let them, when you take the shackles off, the local people, they’ll get things done. Premier Moe talked about how great these people are, we’re the backbone of this province, but yet we get our hands tied when we want to fix a problem. That’s a problem at the local level.”

Andrew asked, “When can we get the bureaucrats out of the way and let the local people run the communities.”

The question would be fielded by Health Minister Everett Hindley, who had noted he had spoken with Andrew about it earlier on the convention floor.

“We want to ensure that we continue to work very closely with our municipal partners on anything related to healthcare, and I know that’s a priority for me as the Minister, it is for Tim (McLeod) as the Minister of Rural and Remote Health, and it is for the SHA as well.”

Hindley added that it is important for himself, as well as the other ministers and the SHA, to get out of Regina and into the rural communities around the province.

“To make sure that they’re hearing from the people on the front lines in these communities what the challenges are in rural Saskatchewan when it comes to healthcare, but also what the solutions are because I strongly believe that the best solutions come from the people in this room – the people that are locally elected in our towns or villages or rural municipalities.”

The SARM convention wraps up in Regina on Friday afternoon.