Doctor In The Park

The NDP’s Ryan Meili has a prescription for a better Sask

Election 2020 by Stephen Whitworth

Ryan Meili
Photo by Darrol Hofmeister, Sharpshooter Photography

I met Ryan Meili in a small public park south of downtown Regina on a gorgeous Monday morning in September. After weeks of indecision, the trees had committed to turning and their leaves danced across branches like yellow and orange sparks. The disappointing cold and grey weekend was over, the sky was blue and clear, and the park and its content visitors basked in sunlit warmth. It was a beauty.

Meili, of course, is the leader of Saskatchewan’s plucky NDP Opposition, which, as you’re reading this, is fighting a provincial election campaign hoping to add to its seats or, hey, maybe win government and give the Alberta-loving, oil-worshipping, union-hating and Saskaboom-bungling Saskatchewan Party government an overdue time out. Who knows, right? Less likely things have happened.

Meili — a family doctor and community organizer who won the party leadership in 2018 after unsuccessful runs in 2009 and 2013 — has a lot to say. Over a half-hour or so we discussed issues that don’t seem to be priorities for Scott Moe’s Saskatchewan Party government but matter a lot to those of us who want Saskatchewan to be somewhere people love to live, as opposed to a worksite handing out resource paycheques that get cashed in other provinces.

More than any election since I’ve lived in Saskatchewan, Meili’s common-sense policy platform embodies the NDP at its best: practical ideas that work and make regular people’s lives better. Also, he isn’t afraid to talk about climate change which, despite some apparent confusion, I can assure readers is both real and a matter of pressing concern.

The following interview has been heavily edited for length and (mostly thanks to my rambling questions) clarity.

Besides being the leader of a political party, you’re a doctor. What do you bring to the table with that?

I worked as a family doctor for many years and actually in recent weeks gone back to the clinic to help with COVID testing and to work in the clinic in the Lighthouse shelter. Having that exposure to what patients and my colleagues, the doctors and nurses and psychologists and others that I work with, are experiencing now helps me to have a better understanding of what people are dealing with on the front lines of health care. It’s also helpful to have some concept of how viruses work. The way that I’ve tried to use that in recent months is to call on the government to take action that protects us, and to some degree we’ve been successful.

Having someone with some medical background in a position of leadership during a pandemic wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

I’ve been watching a lot of TV lately. There are a lot of anti-Ryan Meili commercials.

Oh yeah. We didn’t put those together. That was somebody else.

Going by Saskatchewan Party attack ads, you’re a radical left-winger who’s gonna close all the province’s schools and shut down all the MRIs. Is there anything else you’re not telling us? I’m being sarcastic, but what do you think about those ads?

You’re right that there’s a goofiness to them where they’re saying both we want to invest and we care about health care, but somehow we’re also going to close schools and hospitals. It’s nonsense. It’s about Scott Moe having a very selective read of history and not identifying that past difficult decisions were in response to conservatives bankrupting the province. That’s something we can debate, but that’s not what he wants to do. He wants to change the channel to ancient history — and decisions made when I was in high school — away from recent history and the cuts that he has made in health and education, the elimination of STC, and efforts to sell off SaskTel and SGI. He wants to change the channel from that, and even moreso, what he’s got coming. He’s said austerity is the road ahead, that more cuts is what he’s going to do, and everything [in the commercials] is trying to distract from his own record and his own plans.

What really strikes me is that message in there that “we can’t afford Ryan Meili and the Saskatchewan NDP”. What is he really saying? He’s saying that we can’t afford what we announced today [Sept. 21]: to invest in the mental health of our kids. We can’t afford accessible childcare. We can’t afford to invest in our classrooms or decent healthcare. That people in Saskatchewan aren’t worth a $15 minimum wage.

Basically he’s saying that we shouldn’t take care of ourselves and build up our economy. What I say in response is, we can’t afford four more years of Scott Moe: four more years of cuts, privatizations [and] public dollars finding their way into the pockets of the Old Boy’s Club while the rest of us are struggling. That’s what we can’t afford.

We still live in the province with the worst rules when it comes to political donations, and you see the Sask. Party make decisions that benefit the people who give them money. For example, this private MRI scheme — Mayfair Radiologists have given thousands of dollars to the Sask. Party.

Why do you think the Sask. Party makes decisions like killing the Film Tax Credit?

This is absolutely a government that makes decisions on ideology and on what will benefit their friends and the people who give them money. I would say it really is an Old Boy’s Club approach to governing: the things that will help out their buddies are the choices they make. The decision to kill the film tax credit, killing off STC, killing the solar industry by stopping the net metering program… if you add that up that’s millions of dollars lost to the economy, it’s hundreds  of people who lost their jobs at no benefit to the public, and yet those are the choices they make. And it really calls into question who they’re working for.

That net metering program was also straight-up entrepreneurship. But it was smaller scale, local entrepreneurship.

I think there were about 800 people who lost their jobs in the weeks after that decision was made. We wanna go the other way. Why would we limit our opportunities here, and avoid expanding and diversifying our economy? Let’s bring back the film tax credit, let’s bring back STC — it’s essential economic and social infrastructure for the province. And let’s take solar to a whole new level. Solar, wind, geothermal… we’ve got incredible opportunities in this province for what we can build.

What are some of the impacts closing the Saskatchewan Transportation Company had?

The Sask. Party tries to wrap themselves in the rural flag but they take rural Saskatchewan for granted, over and over again. Some of these cuts have hurt rural people even more than folks in the cities, and STC is one. I’ve talked to so many farmers who lose days in the field because either they can’t get a part or they’re having to take a loved one into the city for an appointment. Seniors who actually have to leave their home towns because they can’t get to medical appointments anymore. People who are hitchhiking, people who are having a hard time getting home to see family. It’s left a lot of hardship and it really didn’t make any sense.

The Sask. Party’s slogan, “Strong Leadership, Strong Saskatchewan”. What does that even mean? Sounds like something a caveman would belch out in monosyllables: “me strong, strong good. See problem, fix with club.” But maybe it’s impossible to have policy discussions on the campaign trail.

You’re right that it’s hard to boil down much depth into campaign slogans, but if you look at our slogan People First versus Strong Leadership, Strong Saskatchewan, it’s all about Scott. It’s about trying to present him as some great figure. Ours is about the people of Saskatchewan. Which means it’s not about what’s good for me, it’s about making the decisions that will improve the lives of Saskatchewan people.

And that’s why that concept of his, that he’d be a tough guy going down the road of austerity, is so frustrating. Because if you actually look at the evidence, austerity doesn’t work. It hurts people in the short term. It doesn’t rebuild an economy, it slows down economic growth. Ideological folks like Mr. Moe still think it’s the road to go down, but nobody who actually looks at the evidence would agree.

So I think that as much as it’s hard to boil down into three or four words, that big difference, that concept of People First, really does inform everything we’re doing.

Climate change is a difficult topic in Saskatchewan. We have a lot of people who have been miseducated on global warming and there’s a lot of manufactured opposition to a carbon tax, which was probably a factor in popular Liberal cabinet minister Ralph Goodale being voted out for a member of the John A. MacDonald statue fan club. But climate change is real. How do you have a conversation with Saskatchewan about it after decades of conservative nonsense and hot air?

I think Saskatchewan people, more and more, are believing that climate change is real because they see it. Especially farmers. They know their growing season has changed, their moisture levels are changing. They’re making different choices in what crops they grow.

We need to be actually working with people to figure out what changes we can make to reduce our emissions without creating undue or especially uneven hardship. And that’s where I come back to our Renew Saskatchewan program. Say, for example, you want to do some retrofits at your home to use less energy, or put a solar panel on the roof or even be part of a wind co-op. You get an assessment, you get told “here’s what will be the likely best fit and how long it would take to pay it off”. But instead of saying ‘okay great’ and you put in the $20–30 thousand to make those changes yourself, we say, “we will lend you that, you keep paying the SaskPower, SaskEnergy bills you’re already paying, until the savings pay it off.”

So you get lower bills and we get thousands of people put to work. And we take full advantage of all the opportunities we have with the sun that’s shining on us right now.

One of the arguments against a carbon tax is that since Saskatchewan’s carbon emissions are a very small part of the world’s total, we shouldn’t even bother.

Yeah, I remember Brad Wall saying that. I always thought well, Brad, everyone else is peeing in the pool so you can pee a little bit? It’s not a very good argument. We should be showing leadership. Every bit does contribute. It is a global problem and we’re part of this globe.

What do you think will happen if Saskatchewan ignores climate change while other jurisdictions act? What consequences could Saskatchewan face for thumbing its nose at an international community that is increasingly rolling up its sleeves to deal with this?

We’ve already seen businesses choose to set up shop in Manitoba where they were able to access hydropower instead of power produced by coal that has high emissions. Companies will vote with their feet because that is what the public and shareholders expect. We will be left behind if we try to go down the road of Scott Moe status quo and the economy of the 1950s, instead of trying to make the choices and investments now to prepare us for the economy of 2050.

What happens if the NDP wins?

That’s what’s on our minds — what do we do in those first hundred days. And what you’ll see is significant investments in health care to bring down the waiting lists and fix some of the problems we’re seeing. The hallway medicine, where people are waiting days on end; the lack of supports for mental health and addictions; and in particular supports for seniors, where we have a plan to bring in the best home care in Canada.

You’ll see us moving quickly to bring down class sizes to keep kids safe during the pandemic but also to address the overcrowded classrooms that were a huge challenge for teachers and kids before the pandemic.

And you’ll see us make a major shift, and this one is really important. We have a government that, every time there’s a major contract, somehow they manage to give it to a company from out of the province or out of the country. We’re going to take the opposite approach. We’re going to put Saskatchewan companies first. Because when it’s our roads, our schools and our hospitals, we’re paying for them with our tax dollars. It should be our companies and our workers on the job.

Do you see coordination between different conservative governments in Canada?

Oh absolutely, and there’s absolutely connections between the Sask. Party and the Republican Party, and international right-wing parties. That’s not an accident. And I think it’s worth noting because there’s some pretty close-by examples of how governments work together on a legislative agenda, and they have a pattern. Scott Moe’s signaling austerity but he’s still trying to pretend it’s not going to be that bad. If we get after an election, what’s going on in Doug Fords’ Ontario? What’s going on in Jason Kenney’s Alberta? That is what will happen here. The cuts to schools, the sell-off of public goods like parks, here the Crown corporations that [other provinces] sold off long ago, they will be under attack.

There are so many things that are happening right now in the beginning years of right-wing governments in other parts of the country that should really raise the concerns of Saskatchewan people about what would happen if we reelect Scott Moe and the Sask. Party.

Well maybe we will, maybe we won’t.

I suggest we don’t.