Is all of Saskatchewan getting free counselling?

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A computer search bar with the phrase “Free counselling services northern SK.” with the phrase “Did you mean: Free counselling services Southern SK?” beneath it as the autocorrect search recommendation.
Freakin’ search engines and their autocorrect... lee lim

Before we jump to conclusions…

Some people are concerned that the expansion of the rapid access counselling services through Family Services Saskatchewan is neglecting the northern half of Saskatchewan due to racial discrimination. The northern half of the province’s population is predominantly Indigenous so, at first glance, it may appear that the government bodies that are funding this expansion are being intentionally discriminatory. 

However, there are multiple factors to consider in this issue. First, the healthcare in the northern half of Saskatchewan is not solely regulated by the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA). This contrasts the claim on their website that they “are responsible for the delivery of safe, high quality [sic] health care for the entire province.” It is the Athabascan Health Authority (AHA) that regulates the provision of healthcare services in the northernmost areas of Saskatchewan. 

The SHA was formed from the 12 regional health authorities in Saskatchewan in 2017. However, the AHA is, presumably, still responsible for the northernmost communities, because of the 1996 “’Unanimous Members Agreement’ [that] was signed at Black Lake to confirm that the Athabasca First Nations Bands and provincial communities would jointly administer health services in the Athabasca region,” as stated on the AHA home website. 

Additionally, the SHA’s website describes the Athabascan health facility as “not owned or operated by the Saskatchewan Health Authority. [… it] is governed by the Athabasca Health Authority.” This suggests that the AHA operates independently of the SHA.   

On the AHA website, they say that they provide services for the “Black Lake Denesųłiné First Nation, the Fond Du Lac Denesųłiné First Nation, Stony Rapids, Uranium City, and Camsell Portage.” 

With this in mind, the $1.7 million dollars put towards expanding Family Services Saskatchewan’s rapid counselling services, which are funded by the SHA, would not extend to the northern regions. However, this does not mean that the northern regions of Saskatchewan lack complete access to counselling. 

Family Services Saskatchewan offers in-person and online counselling services at counsellingconnectsask.ca. In-person locations have been increased to 20-plus communities in southern Saskatchewan. However, online counselling is not restricted to specific regions of the province. Since this counselling is offered at no charge, it would be accessible to rural northern communities that have access to the internet. 

While it is understandable to want in-person counselling expanded across the entirety of Saskatchewan, several barriers to service make this difficult. Most of the communities in northern Saskatchewan that are within the SHA’s scope are villages. There is unlikely to be enough properly trained staff, or a great enough population, for a new counselling centre to be established in such rural areas.  

Also, Saskatchewan’s healthcare sector is experiencing staffing shortages for even established healthcare centres. This shortage is in the process of being addressed by the Government of Saskatchewan’s Health Human Resources Action Plan, but it is still impacting the quality of Saskatchewan’s healthcare services (this was talked about in Volume 66 Issue 11, so head to carillonregina.com to read that article). 

Additionally, the further expansion of Family Services Saskatchewan would likely require the consent and cooperation of the AHA. So far, there has been no news about whether this is a possible option for the SHA and AHA to provide greater access to mental health counselling in the north. 

For now, though, the AHA manages the northernmost communities’ healthcare. The Government of Saskatchewan’s website lists several AHA-managed treatment centres that offer mental health services. These locations are the Hatchet Lake Health Centre, Black Lake Health Clinic, and the Fond Du Lac Health Centre. 

Whether the AHA is adequately funded to provide quality counselling is an entirely different issue. An interview done by Kristen McEwen with Dr. Sara Dungavell on December 6, 2021, said it was not adequately funded. In this interview, Dungavell said “We’re constantly short, constantly having to go to other places to find mental health services. I think that has certainly been a strong highlight of what’s happening.” 

There is insufficient information available on whether funding has increased in the past two years, but Dungavell described this issue as a chronic one that existed even before the COVID-19 pandemic. It is unlikely that mental health supports in the northernmost communities have seen an increase in funding, but expanding free online counselling services is a step in the right direction. 

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