COVID-19, unmarked graves top 2021 news stories in Saskatchewan

COVID-19, hundreds of unmarked graves at a former Saskatchewan residential school and a prolonged drought were the top stories in the province in 2021. Getty Images

The year 2021 will be remembered as one where the COVID-19 pandemic continued to make headlines — both locally and around the world.

Other stories did overshadow the pandemic at times, including the announcement of hundreds of unmarked graves at a former Saskatchewan residential school, as well as carbon pricing and a prolonged drought.

Here are the top 10 news stories in Saskatchewan for 2021.

1. COVID-19

The year started with Saskatchewan in the midst of COVID-19’s second wave.

It is ending with the waning of the fourth wave, but with fears of a fifth wave after the Omicron variant was detected in the province.

More: COVID-19 continued to make headlines in Saskatchewan throughout 2021

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The second wave reached its peak on Jan. 11 when 412 new cases were reported.

Cases started declining, then spiked again near the end of March and into April, peaking on April 9 with 364 new cases reported.

In July, the province lifted all public health measures, including mandatory masking in indoor public places.

Read more: Doctor predicts fifth wave on anniversary of COVID-19 vaccines in Saskatchewan

Signs of the fourth wave started in mid-August, when new daily cases topped 100 for the first time in two months, with the exception of one day.

It reach its peak on Oct. 7, when a record 650 new daily cases were reported.

ICU beds in Saskatchewan were overwhelmed as hospitalizations increased.

The province started sending some COVID intensive care patients to Ontario in October for treatment.

Read more: Saskatchewan planning to send 2 to 4 ICU patients daily to Ontario starting next week

The last ICU patient returned to Saskatchewan in December.

The province introduced proof of vaccination or a negative test requirement as of Oct.1 for indoor dining at restaurants, nightclubs, bars, event and entertainment venues, and indoor fitness centres and gyms.

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The province also brought back mandatory masking for all indoor public spaces.

December saw the Saskatchewan government report its first cases of the Omicron variant.

Click to play video: 'COVID-19 continued to make headlines in Saskatchewan throughout 2021' COVID-19 continued to make headlines in Saskatchewan throughout 2021
COVID-19 continued to make headlines in Saskatchewan throughout 2021 – Dec 29, 2021

 2. Cowessess First Nation unmarked graves

It was a sombre announcement made by the chief of the Cowessess First Nation on June 24.

Chief Cadmus Delorme said an estimated 751 unmarked graves were found at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School.

The facility operated from 1899 to 1997, and was run by the Roman Catholic Church until 1968.

Read more: 751 unmarked graves found at former Saskatchewan residential school

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The announcement came just weeks after 215 unmarked burial sites were reported at a residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

“In the 1960s, the Catholic Church removed the headstones and today, we have over 600 unmarked graves,” Delorme said at the announcement.

Cowessess First Nation, with the help of Saskatchewan Polytechnic, used ground-penetrating radar technology to identify the unmarked graves.

Read more: Saskatchewan residential school survivor reacts to discovery of unmarked graves

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was saddened when he learned about the discovery.

“My heart breaks for the Cowessess First Nation, and for all Indigenous communities across Canada,” Trudeau said in a statement shortly after the announcement.

“No child should have ever been taken away from their families and communities, and robbed of their language, culture and identity,” he added.

More: Discovery of unmarked graves impacts Cowessess First Nation

Click to play video: 'Discovery of unmarked graves impacts Cowessess First Nation' Discovery of unmarked graves impacts Cowessess First Nation
Discovery of unmarked graves impacts Cowessess First Nation – Dec 29, 2021

3. Summer drought

A below-normal snowfall and an extremely low spring runoff left agriculture producers in many parts of the province dealing with severe drought conditions heading into seeding.

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Conditions did not improve as the growing season advanced.

Read more: Drought shrivels Canada’s wheat crop to 14-year low, canola to 9-year low

The Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan called for assistance from both the federal and provincial governments.

“APAS is calling on both levels of government to initiate a drought‐related AgriRecovery assessment. For many producers, 2021 follows a long period of below‐average moisture,” APAS president Todd Lewis said in June.

“We can’t just keep hoping for rain. It is time to act.”

The Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Corporation responded by doubling its low yield appraisal threshold values for customers who salvaged their cereal or pulse crops for feed.

Read more: Saskatchewan farmers look to the future after months of drought

The drought also affected livestock producers, with many unable to find feed for their cattle. Ranchers were forced to sell off their herds in record numbers.

“They are being sold off because there is no grass or water and it’s hard to find feed, so people are letting their cattle go and selling early,” Lee Crowley, manager of Heartland Livestock Services in Swift Current, Sask., said in August.

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“If we lose 20 to 25 per cent of the cows, they will not go back to the business.”

The Saskatchewan government announced $119 million in direct support for livestock producers.

The 2021 Canada-Saskatchewan Drought Response Initiative will provide payments of up to $200 per head for cattle, including adjustments based on animal unit equivalents for other livestock,

The province also temporarily increased the maximum funding from the Farm and Ranch Water Infrastructure program to $150,000.

Click to play video: 'Saskatchewan farmers hoping for wet winter after drought-ravaged summer' Saskatchewan farmers hoping for wet winter after drought-ravaged summer
Saskatchewan farmers hoping for wet winter after drought-ravaged summer – Nov 9, 2021

Dry conditions persisted into the fall freeze-up, with some experts stating roughly 200 millimetres of precipitation is required for the soil to meet its needs.

The most recent map from the Canadian Drought Monitor, issued at the end of November, indicates many parts of the province are under extreme or exceptional drought conditions.

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4. COVID vaccine rollout

Saskatchewan rolled out its vaccination plan in phases.

Health-care workers, residents and staff at long-term care homes, and anyone over the age of 70 were part of the first phase of Saskatchewan’s COVID vaccine strategy.

Read more: Two COVID-19 vaccines doses isn’t fully vaccinated anymore — scientist

The province moved to Phase 2 of its rollout in March, targeting the general population in age groups.

Mass immunization clinics followed in April, however, those looking for a shot had to make an appointment.

Drive-thru clinics also popped up throughout the province, with long lineups reported for those looking for their first shot on a first-come, first-served basis.

Read more: COVID-19: Saskatchewan premier, doctor say vaccines turned around hospitalizations

Saskatchewan started rolling out second doses of the COVID-19 vaccination in May, again in age groups, with a goal to have everyone eligible fully vaccinated by the end of July.

The province also moved in May to include youth aged 12 and older in its vaccination plan and in November, added children aged five to 11.

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Booster shots were rolled out in September to residents in long-term care homes and immunocompromised residents as COVID-19 cases started to rise.

Read more: Saskatchewan government broadens COVID-19 vaccine booster eligibility

It expanded in October to include anyone who had two shots, eventually including everyone aged 50 and older.

On Dec. 20, booster shot eligibility was changed to anyone aged 18 and older as COVID-19 cases rose in other jurisdictions due to the Omicron variant.

5. Overdose crisis

The overdose crisis reached a new level in Saskatchewan, with the coroner’s office estimating a record-breaking year for deaths.

In a report released in November, the coroner’s office said there were 161 confirmed drug toxicity deaths in the province as of Nov. 3.

Read more: Sask. coroner estimates record-breaking year for drug overdose deaths

Another 202 deaths are suspected drug overdoses, but the investigations into those deaths have not been completed.

The Saskatchewan government says the growing number of deaths is a concern, but officials note it’s a problem not unique to Saskatchewan.

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Click to play video: 'Regina Police Service send message about the dangers of drug use' Regina Police Service send message about the dangers of drug use
Regina Police Service send message about the dangers of drug use – Dec 4, 2021

Advocates say more needs to be done by the province to deal with the rising overdose deaths.

“We need more harm reduction, a safe supply of drugs and a model of decriminalization,” said Marie Agioritis, Saskatchewan’s regional lead for Moms Stop The Harm.

Read more: 2021 another grim year for drug overdoses in Saskatchewan

“It’s also a failure on the part of leadership to do evidence-based things to make this situation better.”

The crisis was highlighted in August when volunteers gathered to build 1,600 crosses to mark overdose deaths in Saskatchewan since 2010.

6. Supreme Court carbon price decision

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in March that the federal government’s plan to put a price on carbon was constitutional.

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Saskatchewan, along with Alberta and Ontario, had challenged whether the feds had a right to impose a carbon price, arguing that it interfered in provincial jurisdiction.

Read more: Canada’s carbon price is constitutional, Supreme Court rules

A split court found that climate change poses a real and serious threat to the world — one that allows the federal government to step on provincial toes.

In July, the Canadian government rejected Saskatchewan’s submission to replace the federal carbon pricing plan with one drawn up by the province.

In rejecting Saskatchewan’s plan, the feds said the plan did not meet federal benchmarks.

Read more: Federal government rejects Saskatchewan’s proposal to replace carbon tax

Premier Scott Moe rejected that claim, saying Saskatchewan’s plan was largely based on one in place in New Brunswick.

Moe said the decision by the federal government creates a double standard across the country and hinted another court battle is possible.

7. Wildfires

A dry and hot spring and summer sparked a number of wildfires across Saskatchewan.

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One major wildfire happened near Prince Albert in May.

Read more: Lightning strike cause of Cloverdale wildfire near Prince Albert, Sask.

A number of people just north of the city limits were forced to evacuate due to the fast-moving Cloverdale wildfire.

It took several days for crews to contain the fire, which was started by a lightning strike.

Major wildfires north of Hudson Bay in October forced the evacuation of more than 700 people from the Shoal Lake and Red Earth Cree Nations.

Click to play video: 'First Nation Chiefs blast Sask. government over firefighting efforts' First Nation Chiefs blast Sask. government over firefighting efforts
First Nation Chiefs blast Sask. government over firefighting efforts – Oct 5, 2021

Saskatchewan reported 635 wildfires during 2021. The five-year average for wildfires in the province is 305.

The province also issued a number of fire bans during the year due to the hot and dry conditions.

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8. Homeless tent city in Regina

The first tent popped up just before the Thanksgiving long weekend in Regina’s core community park.

It was set up by advocates to support people affected by homelessness after the province’s Saskatchewan Income Support (SIS) program was fully implemented.

Under the program, financial supports for housing and utilities go right to program users.

The financial assistance meant for rent and utilities were being spent in other ways, leaving many people evicted and homeless.

Read more: Camp Marjorie organizers calling for change to Social Services program

The number of tents grew at Camp Hope, previously known as Camp Marjorie, over the coming days, and at one point had 72 tents and more than 100 people.

As the weather turned colder, the City of Regina confirmed in November that a lease had been signed for an indoor space for Camp Hope.

Advocates continue to push the government to revise the SIS program.

Social Services Minister Lori Carr says it will take time to monitor the full effect of the program and work with clients to get them back on track.

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9. Suicide crisis

Doyle Vermette said he couldn’t stop thinking about all the families impacted when his private member’s bill on suicide prevention passed in the legislative assembly.

Vermette’s bill, the Saskatchewan Strategy for Suicide Prevention Act, 2021, passed after previously being voted down twice, once in 2018 and again in 2019.

The bill mandated the Ministry of Health to consult with stakeholders within 180 days of coming into force.

Read more: Saskatchewan NDP private member’s bill on suicide prevention passes in legislative assembly

The Saskatchewan government said the bill will work alongside its Pillars of Life plan to help bring down the number of suicides in the province.

Between 2000 and 2019, at least 2,891 deaths in the province were the result of suicide.

Vermette said his bill is just one of many steps that need to be taken to combat the crisis.

“We know that suicide and mental health is a leading contributing factor to Indigenous deaths in this province, especially in the North among our youth,” he said.

10. Tenant/landlord issues

A complaint heard about a lot in the newsroom relates to issues between landlords and tenants.

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Two such stories resonated with the Global News audience.

Read more: Saskatoon apartment tenants have been without heat, water for a week

The first was in February, when tenants in a new, westside Saskatoon apartment were left without heat and water for over a week.

It happened during an extreme cold spell as a polar vortex moved through the province.

The second story came out of Regina in September when a landlord said her home was trashed by a tenant.

Read more: Regina landlord left dealing with high costs after home gets trashed by tenant

It happened over a nine-month period and left the landlord with $70,000 in repair costs.

The landlord said the floors were destroyed and that every room in the house had to be gutted in order to be restored.

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