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A look back at Saskatchewan’s top news stories of 2020

While the COVID-19 pandemic was the story of 2020, a number of other stories in Saskatchewan garnered headlines during the year. File / Global News

There is little doubt that 2020 will be remembered as the year of the coronavirus pandemic — locally and worldwide.

While COVID-19 seemed to make headlines on a daily basis, other major stories of the year covered the opioid crisis and mental health, the weather, the carbon tax, Black Lives Matter, and not one but two elections.

Here are Saskatchewan’s top 10 news stories of 2020.

10 — Carbon tax hearing at the Supreme Court of Canada

Who should control greenhouse gas policies like the carbon tax?

The federal government says it has the right to impose minimum carbon pricing on any province that does not have an equivalent scheme.

It was a central campaign promise of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau when his party formed government in the 2015 federal election.

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Read more: Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of the Liberal government’s carbon tax

The federal carbon tax on fuel was applied on April 1, 2019, in Saskatchewan and several other provinces whose climate plans did not meet the federal backstop of $20 per tonne of CO2, growing to $50 per tonne in 2022.

A number of provinces, including Saskatchewan, believe otherwise, saying the federal government is infringing on provincial jurisdiction.

Saskatchewan Party Leader Scott Moe has been fighting the carbon tax for years — first as the province’s environment minister and now as premier.

Moe believes a carbon tax hurts his province economically.

Read more: Supreme Court reserves judgment in Canada’s carbon tax cases

One group, the Agriculture Producers Association of Saskatchewan, says farm income could fall up to 12 per cent due to the carbon tax.

The answer to the question is in the hands of the Supreme Court of Canada, which heard arguments for and against the carbon tax over two days in September.

A decision has not yet been handed down.

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Since the hearing, the federal government said the carbon tax will increase $15 a tonne per year, hitting $170 a tonne per year in 2030.

9 — Saskatchewan’s first supervised consumption site opens

The province’s first supervised consumption site opened on Oct. 1 in Saskatoon.

While the full vision of the site hasn’t been realized yet, Jason Mercredi said the facility is needed now more than ever.

Read more: Saskatchewan’s first supervised consumption site opens as overdose deaths spike

“Our folks are among the most vulnerable. They are immunocompromised, just based on the nature of the work we do, living with HIV and hepatitis C, so we have to do our part,” the executive director of Prairie Harm Reduction told Global News earlier in the year.

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The organization had sought $1.3 million from the Saskatchewan government to run the site.

Read more: Sask.’s 1st supervised drug consumption site still to open without provincial funding

The province denied the request, but did provide $130,000 for two new case managers.

PHR then turned to crowdfunding to hire a paramedic to operate the facility from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays, serving up to 72 people a day.

8 — Black Lives Matter rallies

Hundreds of people gathered at demonstrations around the province to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

One demonstration drew more than 1,000 people in Saskatoon, where they called for an end to racism and police violence after the death of George Floyd.

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Read more: Saskatoon Black Lives Matter march joins call to end racism, police violence

Floyd, a Black man, died on May 25 after a white police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes in Minneapolis, Minn.

Several speakers at the Saskatoon demonstration led the crowd in saying the names of people who have died in police incidents, like Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and Regis Korchinski-Paquet in Toronto.

Read more: Lloydminster man paints Black Lives Matter message, turns fence into public canvas

In Lloydminster, Travis Hall spray-painted his fence with a large grey fist outlined in black accompanied by “#BLM” in bold lettering, referring to a social media hashtag for Black Lives Matter.

Hall said he’s tired of racism against Black people, Indigenous people and new Canadians, and encouraged others to use his fence “as a creative outlet” hoping people will engage in a productive dialogue about social issues.

He encouraged people to cover his fence with graffiti as long as the artwork was respectful and not vulgar or offensive.

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7 — The death of Samwel Uko

Samwel Uko went to Regina General Hospital not once, but twice on May 21 seeking help for mental health issues.

During his first visit, Uko was diagnosed with depression and referred to a mental health clinic.

Later that day, Uko called 911 and was taken by police to the hospital a second time. A video later emerged showing Uko being escorted out of the hospital by four security guards.

Read more: Video shows Samwel Uko escorted out of hospital, Sask. Health Authority completes review

Uko’s body was pulled from Wascana Lake that evening.

His family has said the health-care system failed him.

“For the hospital to turn him away, it’s shocking for us and it’s upsetting. The hospital should be a place for him to get help,” said Justin Nyee, Uko’s uncle.

“It shouldn’t have happened. It makes us question the whole system.”

The Saskatchewan Health Authority apologized to Uko’s family, saying they failed him.

“I appreciate there are no words that can bring Samwel back, but I want you to know that we recognize how deeply we failed him,” CEO Scott Livingstone said in a letter.

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Read more: Samwel Uko’s family calls on Sask. government to begin inquest promised in June

Two separate inquests were called in Uko’s death — one by the health authority and the other by the Saskatchewan government. The SHA has completed its review, while a date for the province’s inquest has not been set.

Uko’s family is also suing the SHA and the province, claiming the SHA was negligent and breached its duty of care.

6 — Suicide prevention march and camp protest

A July 31 march from northern Saskatchewan to Regina calling on the government to implement an effective suicide prevention strategy brought the issue to the court.

Tristen Durocher took 28 days to walk more than600 kilometres from La Ronge to the legislative building in Regina where he then started a hunger strike at Wascana Park.

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Read more: Hunger strike begins at Sask. legislature following 635-km suicide prevention trek

He was calling on the government to address growing suicide rates in the province.

“We deserve better. This country deserves better. Our children deserve better and their children deserve better,” Durocher said at the time.

The Saskatchewan government took action against Durocher after two ministers met with him to discuss suicide prevention.

Read more: Teepees erected in Wascana Park in solidarity with Walking With Our Angels

It filed an application to remove Durocher and his teepee from the legislature lawn, saying he didn’t have a permit and that overnight camping and fires were prohibited in the park.

Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Graeme Mitchell dismissed the government’s application, saying the bylaws and trespassing notice against him were unconstitutional.

Read more: Justice Graeme Mitchell drops by protest camp at Sask. legislature he ruled on last week

Mitchell then appeared at the camp at its closing ceremony where he spoke with Durocher and was presented with a Metis sash by Durocher’s friend, Christopher Merasty.

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That sparked discussion in the legal community, with the Indigenous Bar Association calling it a starting point in building relationships while a defence lawyer warned it could expose the court to potential allegations of bias.

5 — The great November blizzard

An early November blizzard brought parts of Saskatchewan to a standstill, including Saskatoon which had to postpone its municipal election from Nov. 9 until Nov. 13.

The Colorado low moved into the province on Nov. 7 and left some areas with record amounts of snowfall by the time it tapered off two days later.

Read more: 2nd wintry blast hits Saskatoon, 30-50 cm of snow possible

“This was a powerful, precipitation-packed Colorado low-pressure system that swept in from south of the border and slammed Saskatoon with 31 to 35 centimetres of snow,” said Global News meteorologist Peter Quinlan.

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“Strong winds caused snow drifts up to one metre in height.”

Swift Current and Kindersley were also hit hard.

Read more: Saskatoon snow removal estimated to cost $10-15 million

More than 40 centimetres of snow fell in Swift Current, forcing the city to postpone its municipal election as well.

Kindersley broke its one-day record for snowfall with 47.6 centimetres. The previous record of 21.3 centimetres was set on March 17, 1974.

Other areas that were walloped by snow included Prince Albert (37 centimetres), Codette (33 centimetres) and Limerick (31 centimetres).

4 — Overlapping pandemic elections

Most people in Saskatchewan had to head to the polls not once, but twice this year.

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There were rumblings late in the winter of a possible early provincial election, but after weeks of uncertainty, Scott Moe said no to a spring vote.

Read more: Voters return Saskatchewan Party to power for fourth-straight mandate

Instead, Saskatchewan became the third province to hold an election during the pandemic with voters casting ballots on Oct. 26.

The Saskatchewan Party won 48 of the 61 seats.

Six ridings could not be called on election night because the races were too close to call because of the number of mail-in ballots. Candidates had to wait for several days before winners could be announced.

That included Ryan Meli, who became the first leader of the Saskatchewan NDP to win their seat in the last three elections.

FULL COVERAGE: 2020 Saskatchewan Election

Municipal elections were held two weeks later on Nov. 9.

Voters in Regina elected Sandra Masters as their first female mayor and five new councillors.

Read more: Sandra Masters will be Regina’s first elected female mayor

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Masters beat out eight other candidates, including two-term incumbent Michael Fougere.

It was a different story in Saskatoon, where the election was postponed until Nov. 13 due to a blizzard.

Read more: Charlie Clark re-elected to second term as Saskatoon mayor

Mayor Charlie Clark and nine of 10 incumbent councillors were re-elected.

The only new councillor elected was David Kirton in Ward 3. Incumbent Ann Iwanchuk had not sought re-election.

3 — Opioid overdoses crisis

Amid the pandemic, another crisis came to the forefront in the province: a record number of overdose deaths.

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As of the end of October, 296 confirmed or suspected overdose deaths were reported by the Saskatchewan Coroners Service.

That was a 75-per-cent increase from the same time in 2019.

Read more: Advocates say more needs to be done to prevent overdose deaths in Saskatchewan

Advocates said the spike in deaths highlights a need for more treatment programs.

“(The system) is deeply underfunded and uses archaic, outdated models of care in the treatment for those suffering,” Marie Agioritis told Global News. Her son died five years ago from a fentanyl overdose.

Read more: Saskatchewan health minister responds to potential record drug overdose numbers

Jason Mercredi said more safe consumption sites are needed.

“People need to be alive to get to those treatment centres. That’s where harm reduction sites like ours come into play,” the executive director of Prairie Harm Reduction in Saskatoon said.

Read more: Saskatchewan mothers flag gaps in province’s addictions, overdose response

Added Jenny Churchill from Moms Stop the Harm: “Like COVID with our hospital system, there is a concern that at some point it is overwhelming the health-care system, and the overdose crisis is the same. But the overdose crisis is overwhelming our first responders.”

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2 — The economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic

The Saskatchewan government initially took a cautious approach dealing with COVID-19, but it declared a state of emergency on March 18.

Among the measures implemented were seating limits at bars and restaurants to 50 per cent of capacity and the closures of gyms, fitness centres, casinos and bingo halls until further notice.

By March 26, all restaurants and bars were ordered closed except for takeout, drive-thru and deliveries, and all non-allowable businesses had to close.

Read more: Saskatchewan restaurants call for help from government, patrons in coronavirus recovery

Many of those measures remained in place until later in the spring and early summer under the province’s reopening plan.

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It had a major impact on the province’s economy, with the unemployment rate doubling to 12.5 per cent by May.

By the end of June, nearly 40 per cent of the province’s workforce had received a Canada Emergency Response Benefit payment to replace lost income, according to the federal government.

Read more: Millennials facing second financial crisis in 2 decades

The province brought in a number of measures to help businesses and people.

One was the small business emergency payment, which paid up to $5,000 to small- and medium-sized businesses.

Another was a temporary wage supplement program to provide workers at short- and long-term health-care facilities with $400 for every four-week period up to July 4.

The Saskatchewan Party also promised to cut the small business tax rate for the next three years and cut SaskPower bills by 10 per cent for one year.

As COVID-19 cases started to rise in the fall, the province began imposing new restrictions.

As of Dec. 30, retail businesses and personal care services must operate at 50-per-cent capacity, while retailers in spaces greater than 20,000 square feet are reduced to 25-per-cent capacity.

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Personal services, such as hairdressers and barbers, remain open but are also limited to 50-per-cent capacity.

Read more: Anxiety in Saskatchewan’s retail, service industry workers rising with coronavirus cases

Restaurants and bars were allowed to stay open with seating limited to four at a table, with three metres required between tables without solid barriers and two metres if there are barriers.

Several economic relief measures brought in during the first wave were reinstated during the second wave, including the small business emergency payment and the temporary wage supplement.

Read more: Saskatchewan’s finance minister says economy will return to pre-coronavirus level in 2022

The province also tabled its 2020-21 budget in June, stating it was confident about the economic outlook but cautioning that the recovery depended on economies around the world returning to normal.

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1 — COVID-19 case numbers and outbreaks

The start of the pandemic in Saskatchewan was one of mixed messages.

There were no cases reported on March 5 when the province’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, said the risk of contracting COVID-19 remained low.

But less than two weeks later, the provincial government declared a state of emergency.

Read more: Saskatchewan confirms first presumptive case of novel coronavirus

The first case had been reported on March 12 — a person in their 60s who had recently travelled to Egypt.

The province recently surpassed 10,000 cases on Dec. 6.

The first COVID-19-related deaths in Saskatchewan were two individuals in their 70s on March 29.

Read more: Coronavirus: Saskatchewan reports first COVID-19 deaths

As of Dec. 30, 154 deaths have been reported in Saskatchewan.

Saskatchewan fared well in limiting cases at long-term care homes during the first wave of the pandemic. That changed in the second wave.

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The largest outbreak so far has been at Parkside Extendicare in Regina.

More than 140 residents and 58 staff members tested positive for the virus, with at least 14 related deaths.

A large outbreak was declared at Saskatoon’s Luther Special Care Home in November, where there were nine deaths. At its height, 39 residents and 14 staff had tested positive.

Read more: Saskatchewan restricting indoor gatherings to immediate household members

Outbreaks were also declared at correctional centres in the province.

The largest was at Saskatchewan Correctional Centre, with nearly 160 inmates and more than 50 staff testing positive.

There was also an outbreak including at least 35 inmates at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary.

No deaths were reported at either provincial or federal correctional facilities.

Read more: 1st doses of COVID-19 vaccine in Saskatchewan given to health-care workers

Nearly nine months after Saskatchewan reported its first case, the first vaccines were administered.

Two health-care workers in Regina received the Pfizer vaccine on Dec. 15, with 1,950 workers scheduled to receive it during the initial pilot phase.

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The province has said it tentatively expects to start widespread access to immunization in April.