Regina– New Democratic Party Leader Ryan Meili told delegates of the Municipalities of Saskatchewan, formerly Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association, that Saskatchewan should have done a “circuit breaker,” back in November, as the party had suggested at the time. Failing to do so has meant that Saskatchewan’s death toll due to COVID-19 has gone up by a factor of ten since then.
Meili addressed the organization’s a virtual convention on Feb. 9, speaking from Regina.
Meili gave a shout out “to all those municipal workers ground workers where are out there doing their jobs, so that we can be warm and safe enough to feel like we're tough when it’s this cold.
“That pride shouldn't get in the way of trying to make things better. And that means being honest about the challenges we face, which is what I like about the theme of this year's convention: ‘Stronger, together.’ Stronger together is not just a description of where we are, who we are, but it's an aspiration for what we can be.”
He took a shot at Premier Scott Moe’s recent social media statements regarding Regina city council, which, sitting as executive committee, had recently passed a motion for further consideration of banning advertisements from fossil-fuel related firms. After substantial backlash, that motion has since been withdrawn, and the councillor who put it forward lost his job with the law firm where he worked as a lawyer.
Meili said, “Relationship built on respect, including respect for the autonomy of municipal leaders and understanding that there may be tough conversations; there's going to be real disagreement. But we should have those debates directly, not just getting angry on Twitter.”
Meili continued, “That said, we know, these are tough times. And there's bound to be some tension out there. I imagine every one of us has been shorter, more irritable with the folks around us than we want to be. Because it's hard. We're all sick and tired of COVID-19. I know I am.”
He spoke of his experience, as a physician, administering COVID-19 vaccines.
“In the meantime, we can't forget that just because we can see the finish line, doesn't mean we can stop running. The vaccine is great. The vaccine won't bring back anyone we’ve already lost, and it won't bring back the folks we may lose, in the days and weeks and months ahead.
“Because the sad truth is, we've not had a good run. In the last two weeks Saskatchewan has had more new cases, more deaths, per capita, than any place in Canada. That touches us all. I want to take this moment to express my deep condolences and regret for anyone who's lost someone close to them, due to COVID-19. I'm sure everyone here has had some connection to those losses. That's just Saskatchewan.”
Meili continued, “And the frustrating thing is, we didn't have to lose this many people. It didn't have to be this way. Back in November, as cases were starting to climb here, we looked around and we saw what was going on; Manitoba, and Alberta, in North Dakota. And so we called for early action. We didn't want to go down that road. And on November 18, we called for a three week circuit breaker; to protect people's health against the coming surge of COVID-19, and avoid much longer and more damaging lockdowns.
“We weren't alone. Over 400 doctors signed a letter, calling for a circuit breaker; nurses, pharmacists, other frontline health care workers, all made the same call. These aren't exactly people who just work from home. These are the people on the frontlines, taking care of the sick, protecting us all.
“And at that time in November, only 32 people have died in Saskatchewan during the entire pandemic. The premier chose not to act decisively. And now, not even three months later, over 10 times that many people have died; 200 deaths in the last six weeks alone. Hundreds more have been hospitalized, thousands more have been sick, or had their lives disrupted due to outbreaks their community, their workplace, their school.”
He implied the province had not done enough to slow the spread of the virus, saying, “And those half measures, they lingered on and on. And all of this was done in the name of protecting business, as though the virus spreading widely through our communities was somehow good for the bottom line. Pitting lives against livelihoods. It's not the choice. It's the pandemic that’s bad for business. Not getting it under control, not addressing properly, that's what’s hurting our economy the most. Too many business owners are being told to stay open, leaving them ineligible for federal support, while their customers are being told to stay home. It’s the worst of both worlds, which is why so many of those who have been able to stay afloat have had to let most of their staff.
“It's true. Times are tough all over. That doesn't change the fact that we're dealing with the highest unemployment rate and Saskatchewan over 40 years. That's a challenge we have to face together,” he said.
“Coming out of this time of separation stronger means recognizing than COVID-19 that’s keeping us apart,” Meili said, noting the struggle with addictions and suicide, especially in northern communities.
He also said that long-term care homes shouldn’t be overcrowded, understaffed and unsafe, pointing out 43 people had died at Regina’s Extendicare Parkside due to COVID-19.
Meili said the right road is to invest in people. “And that includes doing everything we can to make sure everyone can get a job; a good job pays a fair wage. This means supporting traditional industries like agriculture, oil and gas, mining and manufacturing, to get people back on the job, and Saskatchewan products to market.
“It means seeking new opportunities, new industries; solar power, geothermal, tourism and technology. It means we're spending our tax dollars. When we're spending those dollars on our roads, our schools and our hospitals, and it's our companies, our workers on the job.”
He mentioned reinvesting in regional economic development and supporting small business owners who were already struggling before the pandemic.
Meili said SaskTel should build the infrastructure needed to improve access to broadband internet. “It's not only essential in today's world, it is unequally distributed in our province. We need to use SaskTel to make sure that there's high speed broadband internet and high-quality cell service in every corner of the province. Broadband is no longer a ‘nice to have,’ it's a must.”
The day before, Moe warned municipal leaders that funding tied to the provincial sales tax will likely decline for the next two years. Meili said that municipalities can’t run deficits, but the federal and provincial governments do. He said, “There should be a recognition from the province that it's such an extraordinary time, the ordinary formula won't be enough; there is going to need to be added support for operating the municipalities.”
Brian Zinchuk, Local Journalism Initiative reporter, Estevan Mercury