New mayor a milestone for La Ronge council and country

Colin Ratushniak has a lot to be excited about right now.

The new mayor of La Ronge took the election with 406 of the 777 votes cast in the northern town. The remaining 371 votes split among the three other mayoral candidates. Former mayor Ronald Woytowich did not seek re-election.

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The 35-year-old is the first openly gay mayor in Saskatchewan and only the second west of Winnipeg with Mayor of Whistler Ted Nebbeling being first elected in 1990.

Ratushniak said he has always strived to be his authentic self and has always promoted everyone having that ability to do that, even when growing up in Gillam, Man. where he did not see other people who were like him. While being gay is part of Ratushniak’s identity, he does not consider it a big deal in his new role, he said.

“My sexuality does not deter or improve my ability to act as an official, nor does it give me the ability to work hard and make change within the community.”

Being new to the council, Ratushniak sees people who also want to see positive change especially at the council table, he said. Ratushniak and the new council, which includes two incumbents and four newly elected council members, were sworn in on Nov. 12.

“We all have the same wholeheartedness for positive change and new things to come into our town and I'm really excited for this new council that's coming into place.”

Based on the results from the Nov. 9 election, Ratushniak said the people wanted a go-getter and someone who would listen to their concerns. During his campaign he knocked on 99 per cent of doors in La Ronge, he said, so he showed residents that he wants to listen.

Safety and crime reduction in the tri-community, which includes the Town of La Ronge, the Village of Air Ronge, and the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, were major concerns that residents discussed with Ratushniak. As a young person himself, what is evident in La Ronge is the lack of programming for young people, he said, which has led to the problem with crime in the community.

In the coming term, Ratushniak said the town needs to invest in the community and focus on economic development. There is no reason why La Ronge is not already a northern tourist destination, he said, especially considering the success of Waskesiu resort which is located 180 km from La Ronge in Prince Albert National Park.

The biggest approach they will have to take is stronger communication and being transparent with residents, Ratushniak said, something that was lacking in previous councils.

Getting involved in politics

Ratushniak first moved to La Ronge in 2019 and got involved in municipal politics when he helped organize a rally in support of a pride flag being flown at La Ronge town hall in June of that year. 

The original resolution to fly the flag for pride month in 2017 was struck down four votes to three on a recorded vote after it was brought forward by councillor, Jordan McPhail. McPhail knew this outcome did not represent what the community wanted, he said, so he decided to continue pushing for more awareness and events within the community. The first La Ronge Pride Parade was held that year. 

McPhail kept the issue at the council table as well and brought the flag-raising motion forward again in 2018. The motion was not seconded and therefore did not reach any vote or discussion, he said, but he contributed that to a lack of understanding among the councillors and not the will of the people of La Ronge. He could not let the issue lie and used it as a chance to raise awareness in his community and eventually start the Lac La Ronge Regional Pride Committee.

There were already gender and sexual diversity groups in La Ronge, including in the schools that were alive and well and getting people involved in the group took very little organizing effort, he said.

With a similar result anticipated in 2019, a small Facebook post and word of mouth brought a possible rally to the public’s attention. It had turned into a much bigger crowd than Ratushniak was expecting, he said. McPhail said they had about 100 people at the rally, and he was told later that it was the biggest public meeting that was ever held in the town.

The success of the rally resulted in council passing a flag policy six to one on a recorded vote for a flag pole in Patterson Park. While Ratushniak is taking this as a win, he said, the LGBTQ2S community does not exactly fall under that definition of a special interest group. You have to pick your battles though, he said.

The rally did much more than just ensure the pride flag would be visible in La Ronge. It showed Ratushniak the community wanted to support people like him, he said, and since then, even before his run for mayor, Ratushniak dove right into growing more programming in La Ronge through both his work and volunteering.

“What that showed me was that this town wanted a council that was open-minded and wanted some change from what the traditional narrative was. So ever since that moment, I think that I took on a more political stance.”

In 2020, the vote was unanimous to fly the flag at Patterson Park, as well as in other parts of the tri-community. This was something that both the councils of Air Ronge and the Lac La Ronge Indian Band supported long before La Ronge town council brought it to a vote, Ratushniak said. While there is no flag pole in Air Ronge, they jumped at the chance to put one up in their office and painted two pride crosswalks in front of their school. The band office raised up a two-spirited pride flag as soon as they could, he said.

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