Before La Ronge had an overnight shelter, winters in the northern town were — invariably — deadly.
“We used to have at least one person in La Ronge freeze to death every winter,” said Ron Woytowich, executive director of the Kikinahk Friendship Centre.
But after local woman Tracy Bird froze to death in February 2016, the community came together and decided something had to change.
Jackie Ballantyne, who was then the outreach program director at Scattered Site’s day program, organized a sleep-in. Local politicians, social workers, band councilors and RCMP officers spent a night outdoors so they would understand how dangerous the winter nights can be when you have nowhere else to go.
“It was only supposed to drop down to around minus ten that night,” recalled Scattered Site extended hours program manager Tina Johnson. “But we had a cold front come through. It dropped to minus 30.
“After the sleep-out they had, folks realized that you can’t survive out here when it’s that cold. That’s how our night program was born.”
Since then, Johnson said no one in La Ronge has frozen to death while the overnight shelter was operating.
But since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, more people are relying on the shelter, outreach programs and other safety-net services than ever before.
Advocates say they need people across the province—and at all levels of government—to understand that the most critical safety nets in La Ronge are stretched thin. These are the last lines of defense against cold, hunger and death in the northern winter, and right now, they can’t catch everybody.
On paper, the tri-communities of La Ronge, Air Ronge and the Lac La Ronge Indian Band (LLRIB) are small; collectively home to a few thousand people living at the edge of the Canadian Shield.
In practice, La Ronge is often caught between two realities: It’s both a small town and a major administrative center for northern Saskatchewan.
“We’re the only court location,” explained Ron Woytowich, executive director of the Kikinahk Friendship Centre. “We’re the only ones with the hospital and the medical clinic. So when people from other communities have any aid, or get arrested, they will come into La Ronge.”
La Ronge is also one of the only communities in the area where alcohol is readily available.
“We’re the only one with bars and liquor stores and everything else — so anybody with that addiction will usually come into La Ronge,” he said.
For all these reasons, people are constantly coming into the community who need emergency help. Many are living with addictions and other health problems, don’t have family connections in the area and need food, shelter and support until they find a way to get back home or move on to somewhere else.
“Being the center, we end up attracting more people,” said La Ronge Mayor Joe Hordyski. “And we have to concern ourselves with how we’re going to meet their needs.”
Sometimes, Woytowich said, it feels like the town is responsible for caring for a city’s worth of people in need, which puts stress on all the local organizations stepping up to the plate.
“The community can’t afford to pay for all the extra people that come into town, that are transient and then leave,” Woytowich said. “But at the same time, our community, and our council, realizes that you can’t get rid of them, and they need help.”
Even when the shelters in town are at capacity — or, as they are this year, well above capacity and turning people away — Woytowich wants to find a way to meet people’s needs in the community, not just “haul ’em down” to Prince Albert, or another city in the south. He knows there aren’t enough shelter beds available there either, and people would only wind up farther away from their homes and any support networks they may have in the north.
“Ultimately, we’re the safest,” he said.
Over the summer, the federal and provincial governments combined efforts with the LLRIB to open a wellness center—built to provide treatment and recovery support to people dealing with mental health problems and addictions.
“We want to establish one-of-a-kind programming where the best of Western medicine co-exists with traditional and land-based healing,” said LLRIB Chief Tammy Cook-Searson.
But even with the wellness center’s 24 new beds, people in La Ronge looking to get into addictions or mental health treatment still face long waitlists. In October, Johnson said, she had tried to help one of her shelter clients get into a detox program. He thought he might be ready to get sober.
“Unfortunately, by the time the call came in for him to have a bed, it had been over a month,” she said. “And he had already gone somewhere else. He missed his opportunity.”
Along with building more resources, La Ronge has to fight to keep existing ones.
Scattered Site’s overnight shelter has no long-term funding. Instead, the money comes from different sources year by year. That constant scramble to keep the doors open has made it hard to build a stable, sustainable program. It makes it more difficult to find staff, too, since potential employees can’t count on long-term employment.
With how necessary the shelter is to La Ronge, Hordyski says this precarious situation can’t go on like this forever.
“Really, what we need is a permanent solution,” he said. “We need a facility with ongoing funding because these problems are not an easy fix, and they are not short-term. And when costs go up, it compounds existing problems.”
In November, the Government of Saskatchewan committed $1.7 million in additional funding for shelters this year — but that money is for shelters in Prince Albert, Saskatoon and Regina.
“We are continuing to develop new approaches to address chronic homelessness with Indigenous and community partners to better support individuals,” said Julene Restall, acting Executive Director of Income Assistance Service Delivery with the Ministry of Social Services.
“We have innovative projects providing care and support to people who have been experiencing homelessness or are at risk of homelessness and are open to discussions to create new partnerships. We encourage community-based organizations to reach out to us to explore ways we can work together.”
In the meantime, Woytowich thinks back to how Scattered Site’s overnight shelter came to be—built on grief and a growing understanding of the consequences of inaction.
He thinks of all his neighbors in La Ronge tonight, going hungry, waiting for treatment, or sleeping rough because there was no help when they needed it.
“We don’t want them to die,” he said. “We just don’t want them to die.”
Cold Front Line is a four-part series available now at thestarphoenix.com.
In the course of our lives, we will all need help. We can’t survive without it; that’s part of being human.
But in northern Saskatchewan, the safety nets meant to catch people in case of emergency are growing sparse — with potentially deadly consequences.
Local Journalism Initiative reporter Julia Peterson explores the complexities of this issue after spending time with people on the front lines in northern Saskatchewan.
Julia Peterson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The StarPhoenix