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Cameco not panacea for northern Sask., Group says gov't shortchanging First Nations

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By Charlene Tebbutt, For The Star Phoenix April 13, 2013

A northern advocacy group is urging local residents to think hard about the provincial government's commitment to economic diversification in northern Saskatchewan following recent comments by Premier Brad Wall about Cameco and First Nations employment.

New North - Saskatchewan Association of Northern Communities said in its newsletter this week that northerners should question Wall's comments and whether the provincial government is really working to build on economic opportunities other than mining. While Cameco does bring thousands of jobs to the north, the company can only do so much.

"Governments are asked to provide the backbone for healthier and safer communities," the organization said in its newsletter.

"Mr. Wall would probably argue that revenue from Cameco ensures that governments have the capacity to do all those things (but) northern residents are entitled to the same quality of life and the same level of respect as people in the rest of the province."

The piece was written in response to Premier Brad Wall's remarks at an event in Prince Albert last month that Cameco is one of the best programs for First Nations and Metis people in the north.

"It's a job in the north. It's a chance to engage in the prosperity that we see in Saskatchewan. We will say 'yes' to that opportunity," Wall was quoted as saying at the dinner event.

New North CEO Al Loke said Thursday that Cameco has contributed much to the northern economy, including job training and education. But he said government has to be involved to have a successful northern economy, including more roads and infrastructure.

"Up here, we're still 10 years behind some places in the south," Loke said.

"We want them (provincial government) to recognize that the north is still part of the province ... you can't expect a private company to look after the north."

In a letter written last week, Wall said he was surprised by the controversy but that he stands by his comments. Given that First Nations and Metis people make up more than 40 per cent of its workforce, Wall said Cameco has been better than government programs at providing training and helping to reduce the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal employment.

The provincial government is moving away from paying for government programs with few tangible results, Wall wrote.

"If those who are misinterpreting my remarks as anything but a results-based comparison between government programs and real private sector jobs want us to return to the failed practices of the past, then they will not like the approach of our government," Wall said.

"Our government believes that a strong economy and good-paying employment opportunities are the most desirable outcomes for everyone in Saskatchewan, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ... we are going to continue with our growth plan whose aim it is to replace government programs with high quality jobs every chance we get."

Nevertheless, Wall's comments angered many, prompting calls for his resignation. A loosely-organized group led by spokesman Bryan Lee, who is president of the Fish Lake Metis Nation Local 108, hosted a second press conference Friday in Prince Albert to voice their concerns.

In an interview, Lee said Wall should not be commenting on the needs of First Nations and Metis people in Saskatchewan's north.

"It's just a preposterous statement and it's offensive," Lee said.

"I don't think it's the responsibility at all of government to provide some sort of answer ... The First Nations and Metis are very capable of handling their own affairs."

The group planned to present a list of questions for the premier on Friday, focusing on Wall's comment regarding Cameco and the provincial government's use of natural resources, as well as the use of renewable energy.

Lee said it's unlikely Wall will resign over the controversy, but said the group is hoping for some response to the questions.

"It more or less did get his attention and that was our objective," Lee said.

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