Wildfires, book bans and missing Prairie women

Since the beginning of 2023, Saskatchewan has seen more than 160 fires, more than double the five-year average.

The constant influx of information can sometimes be overwhelming, making it difficult to discern what truly matters and get a sense of the bigger picture. 

Since adding more daily news to The Flatlander website, I’ve been looking for patterns in the news to try and round up what’s important and what people are doing to solve the problems facing Saskatchewan and Manitoba today.

So in this week’s issue, I’ve included some of the top stories we should be paying attention to…

The first is the wildfires across Northern Saskatchewan and into Manitoba and the smoke drifting across many of our communities.

The second is book banning, which has been a problem in the United States, and has found its way into several Manitoba communities, which raises questions about censorship and intellectual freedom.

Local, independent, in-depth.

Our Prairie stories.

The third is affordability. The cost of groceries and housing is sky-high. I’ve been watching what the provincial governments are saying and doing to address the problem.  

And the last topic covered in this week’s issue is Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. People are proposing solutions to address this problem that impacts Saskatchewan and Manitoba. 

 For more, please take a look at the information below. 

Unprecedented amount of forest fires burn across Saskatchewan

24 wildfires were burning in Saskatchewan as of Thursday afternoon

  • Since the beginning of 2023, Saskatchewan has seen more than 160 fires, more than double the five-year average.
  • A drought last fall means a lack of moisture in the soil up north.
  • The absence of the usual water table has made the fire situation challenging.
  • Fueling the fires are strong winds.  
  • While some lightning strikes in the north could have caused fires, it is believed most of the fires were human-caused.
  • Several northern Saskatchewan communities, including Ile-a-la-Crosse, La Loche and Buffalo Narrows, have issued evacuation orders for all residents or specific vulnerable populations, including elderly adults, pregnant and disabled residents and families with young children.
  • Those who have left their communities are sheltering in Meadow Lake, North Battleford and Regina.
  • Wildfires have led to widespread power outages for over 2,500 people remaining in the most affected northern communities. 
  • As of Wednesday, several northern communities, including La Ronge, Hall Lake, Sucker River and Grandmother’s Bay, were waiting for air scrubbers to be set up in band halls and community centres for residents to come and breathe clean air.

Fires in Manitoba

  • There have been 14 wildfires in Manitoba, including two new fires in the last 24 hours in the Western region.
  • All the fires have been human-caused.
  • One tanker group is activated in Manitoba, with a second on standby.

Smoke is in the air

Environment Canada issued air quality statements for most of Saskatchewan and central and southern Manitoba after a cold front moving south caused the smoke to concentrate.

The haze and the smell of smoke in the air are caused by extremely fine particulate matter concentrations from wildfire smoke. 

Limited visibility:

Estevan was most affected by the smoke.

  • Visibility in the area was reduced to about 400-500 metres when the smoke was at its worst.

Air Quality:

On Wednesday and Thursday, some parts of Saskatchewan and Manitoba saw Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) values above 10, which is considered a very high risk to people’s health.

  • These very high-risk levels are uncommon in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
  • On an average day, the AQHI is around two or three, making a value of 10 extremely severe.
  • The severity of the air quality issue can affect people with pre-existing respiratory conditions and the general population.

People can check Environment Canada for updates on the air quality in their area. 

The poor air quality is expected to persist for a few more days in some regions of Saskatchewan.

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What can you do to reduce the impact of smoke on your health?

Exposure to wildfire smoke can cause headaches, coughs, a runny nose, dizziness, and chest pains.

  • If symptoms become severe, it is important to seek medical treatment.

Individuals with lung problems, heart problems, breathing difficulties, or other health conditions need to be particularly cautious and stay indoors as much as possible.

Even individuals without pre-existing health conditions should minimize being outdoors until the situation improves.

People should stay hydrated and may want to wear a mask, such as an N95 or equivalent outdoors, to help reduce exposure to the fine particles in the smoke.

  • Masks can also help with pollen, which is also in the air this time of year. 

Fire ban in effectprovincial fire ban has been issued for northern Saskatchewan due to hot and dry conditions posing an extreme fire risk.

  • The ban applies to Crown lands, provincial parks, and the Northern Saskatchewan Administration District and includes all open fires, controlled burns, and fireworks north of Highway 16.

Fires possible in Southern Saskatchewan

Despite snowmelt, some areas down south are experiencing moderate to severe drought, putting them at a higher risk of grass fires.

  • The summer is expected to be hot, with above-average temperatures that could contribute to average to above-average grass fires. 
  • Once the grasses green up, the fire risk decreases as there is more moisture in the grass. 

Manitoba fire crew helps in Alberta

  • One tanker group from Manitoba is helping with fires and is based out of Lac La Biche, Alberta.
  • The minister noted that the tanker group has eight personnel associated with it, and they will be deployed where needed.

Saskatchewan and Manitoba fire videos:

Keeping up to date with the fire situations in Saskatchewan and Manitoba

Both the governments of Saskatchewan and Manitoba have dedicated websites with the most current fire information.

The Manitoba fire crew that is helping out in Alberta. GOVERNMENT OF MANITOBA

At the library

Book banning

Libraries in Manitoba are facing attempts at censorship and banning of books on sexual and gender identity issues, prompting concern from library organizations.

  • Recently, a delegation requested removing such books from schools in Brandon, equating them falsely with pedophilia and grooming.
  • The books under scrutiny include award-winning memoirs, novels, and a children’s book.
  • The Brandon School District will discuss the matter on May 24.
  • A similar issue arose in Winkler, where the South Central Regional Library has been requested to remove certain books touching on LGBTQ issues.
  • Library staff in Winkler have been harassed over the issue.
  • Teacher-librarians are calling for a measured approach and for school board trustees to follow their policies on human diversity.
  • Those opposed to banning the books argue that blocking access to information denies students their right to read and learn.
  • The Manitoba Library Association (MLA) released an online toolkit to help public libraries facing censorship challenges.
  • MLA condemned the attempts at censorship and the discriminatory characterization behind them, highlighting values of intellectual freedom and equity, diversity, and inclusion.
  • MLA prepares to host a virtual conference and conversation on intellectual freedom.
  • The controversy prompted Brandon University to issue a one-word media release: “Don’t.”
  • The Manitoba School Library Association said school collections should reflect the diversity of their students.
  • Despite calls to ban specific titles, all books remain available to students and staff.

Sign out a provincial park pass at Saskatchewan libraries

Saskatchewan libraries partnered with the Saskatchewan Regional Parks Association to offer free park passes.

  • People with library cards can borrow a provincial park pass from any Saskatchewan library for seven days, allowing the pass user free access to various parks. 

Saskatoon screenings of Looking Forward at 100

I will be in Saskatoon with nursing researcher Heather Nelson on June 30, screening The Flatlander documentary project Looking Forward at 100.

  • We will be at the Mayfair Library at 602  33rd St W at 10 a.m.
  • And the Alice Turner Library, located at 110 Nelson Rd, at 2 p.m.

If you’re in Saskatoon and have the time, drop by and say hello. 

Heather and I were also interviewed on CTV Saskatoon about the project last week. 

Missing and murdered people


Human remains found in Saskatchewan landfill

Remains were discovered in the Big Island Lake Cree Nation landfill, 183 km north of Lloydminster.

  • A forensic autopsy determined they are not connected to recent missing persons cases in the area.
  • The RCMP historical case unit is now investigating

Search for human remains at Winnipeg landfill feasible

Searching for human remains at a landfill north of Winnipeg is possible. Still, it could take up to three years and cost up to $184 million, according to a study commissioned by an Indigenous-led committee looking at the feasibility of the search.

  • The search would come with considerable risks due to exposure to toxic chemicals and asbestos.
  • Not searching could cause considerable distress to victims’ family members.
  • “If a search is not carried out, it will demonstrate to all First Nations across Canada that this government condones the despairing act of disposing of First Nation women in landfills,” said Grand Chief Cathy Merrick of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

Background:

  • Last spring, Rebecca Contois’ partial remains were discovered in a garbage bin, while additional remains were found at a landfill in Winnipeg in June.
  • The bodies of Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran are believed to be in another landfill, and their bodies have not been found.
  • Jeremy Skibicki is charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of Contois, Harris, Myran, and an unidentified woman who Indigenous leaders named Buffalo Woman.

Keeping people out of the trash

The study also calls for increased funding for social support and homeless shelters. 

  • It recommends mandatory GPS tracking systems and rear-facing cameras in garbage trucks in Canada,
  • as well as surveillance video installed at entrances and exits at landfills. 

Remembering the murdered and the missing

The Manitoba Grand Chief calls for urgent action to keep Indigenous women and girls safe in Canada on Red Dress Day.

  • All levels of government need to collaborate to address what Southern Chiefs’ Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels called a national emergency.
  • Red Dress Day, first observed in 2010, happens every May 5. The goal of the day is to honour and bring awareness to the thousands of Indigenous women and girls and two-spirit people who have gone missing or who have been murdered.
  • The Manitoba Legislative Building was lit in symbolic red in commemoration on May 5 to bring attention to the ongoing issue of gender-based violence.
  • The day included a round dance at the intersection of Portage and Main. Participants included many people personally affected by violence against Indigenous women.
  • The event concluded with a march from The Forks to the Legislature.

Working towards a solution

The House of Commons unanimously backed a motion by Winnipeg MP Leah Gazan seeking to declare the deaths, disappearances and abuse of Indigenous women and girls in Canada a nationwide emergency.

  • The motion called for funding for a new Canada-wide ‘Red Dress’ alert system to alert the public when Indigenous women and girls go missing.
  • She also wants to see more funding, programs and services to help women and girls who grow up involved in the Child and Family Services (CFS) system and are ageing or have aged out of care.

Helping to bring more women home

  • Kai Keeper, a 15-year-old Ojibwa student, turned a school assignment into a T-shirt design that raises awareness about missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people, with 50% of profits going to Drag the Red (River). This grassroots group organizes searches on Winnipeg’s largest waterway.
  • The remaining profits are split between the student designer and an Indigenous-run company printing the T-shirts.
  • Kai drew inspiration from the women who raised him for the artwork as conversations about MMIWG2S+ were normalized for him since incidents frequently happened between his community and neighbouring First Nations.
  • The T-shirts are available for $30 each through Red Rebel Armour clothing company’s online storefront and can be shipped or picked up at Seven Oaks Met School.

Politics and the cost of living

Manitoba offers funds to housing complexes to keep rents low

The Manitoba government is offering new funds to private non-profit housing complexes to keep rents low.

  • The government will provide rent supplements or capital work grants to non-profits nearing the end of operating agreements with the province.
  • The move follows controversy at Lions Place in Winnipeg, a 287-unit complex sold in February to a private, for-profit Calgary-based company.
  • The complex had previously agreed with the province to keep rents low, but the agreement expired, and the owners put the facility up for sale, citing the need for expensive renovations.
  • The government’s new proposal will apply to approximately 162 non-profit housing operators, controlling around 8,000 units, whose operating agreements are set to expire within the next five years.
  • The government is putting up $1.4 million this fiscal year as a first step to deal with operators whose agreements are expiring soon.

Certain grocery food items charged PST, while others are exempt

The Saskatchewan Opposition NDP questioned how groceries are taxed, saying it doesn’t don’t make sense.

  • Rotisserie chicken is taxed PST, while uncooked chicken is not.
  • PST applies to a box of five granola bars and not to a box of six
  • Packaged salads are charged PST; unpackaged lettuce isn’t
  • Fruit-flavoured yogurt beverages containing less than 25% natural juice are taxed, while regular yogurt is not
  • These items are often used for school lunches or to make quick family dinners, said the NDP
  • The PST on snacks and some ready-to-go meals were introduced in 2017 to trim a $1.2-billion provincial deficit
  • Saskatchewan is now in better financial shape and expects to post a $1-billion surplus this fiscal year
  • The province’s Finance Minister, Donna Harpauer, said the PST applies to the same foods that are charged GST and provides clarity to retailers
  • The government has introduced several affordability measures, including $500 cheques that were delivered last year
  • Harpauer would like the government to reduce the PST, and a decision on potentially doing that could come next fiscal year if the province’s finances remain favourable.

For those looking for tips to keep the cost of groceries down, read:

Also, vegetable gardening has taken off in Manitoba as a way to save money on groceries.

More university students visiting foodbanks

Post-secondary students at the University of Manitoba are facing food insecurity as they struggle to pay for tuition, bills, and inflated grocery and dining costs.

  • The Fort Garry food bank, available to part-time and full-time students, has seen a significant increase in users compared to pre-pandemic semesters, with over 200 monthly users.
  • A survey found that many graduate students, who also have to manage responsibilities apart from coursework, are struggling with food insecurity that impacts their mental and physical well-being.
  • Many students choose unhealthier and less nutritious on-campus options due to high menu prices.
  • Most respondents said they or their families are worried about not eating as well as they should due to high food prices.
  • The rising cost of groceries, with a 9.7% increase between March 2022 and March 2023, also adds to their financial burden.
  • The federal government has yet to raise most of its scholarships covering tuition and living expenses for research-focused graduate students in 20 years, adding to their financial struggles.
  • Graduate students work multiple jobs to make ends meet, while some have resorted to food banks, downsizing, and loans.
  • The university has set aside $2 million in its budget to support graduate students.

Our Prairie stories matter too.

The Flatlander takes a closer look at the stories that unite us, and make us unique, in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

 

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