As the Saskatchewan New Democratic Party’s leadership race winds down, I have a chat with Dr. Ryan Meili, who is campaigning to be the next leader of the party.
This takes place against a backdrop which saw Saskatchewan Party Premier Brad Wall step down, being replaced by now-Premier Scott Moe. The Saskatchewan NDP, having suffered its third consecutive defeat under former leader Cam Broten, is now in the process of choosing his successor, who will then lead the party into the next general election.
I wanted to know what Dr. Meili believes sets him apart from his opponents, and much more:
(Ammario Reza talks with Sask NDP leadership hopeful Ryan Meili, February 21st, 2018)
A.R: By March 3rd, we’ll know who will be leading the Sask NDP into the next provincial election. This is your third attempt at the leadership. So, how has the political landscape shifted since the last time you ran, and do you feel like it has been to your advantage?
R.M: The political landscape has shifted considerably. We’ve gone from a situation where the Sask Party had Brad Wall - the most popular Premier in the province - won an astounding victory in the last provincial election just about two years ago, to now: where Wall has left and the Sask Party’s popularity has decreased considerably. They ran a very severe austerity budget, last year, which people really didn’t like. And, it looks like we’re going to be facing a similar approach in this budgeting cycle. Also, I think the political landscape has changed in terms of the ideas that I’ve been putting forward. My core underlying principles, my philosophy really centres on the idea of social investment: that when we invest in people, they do better but so does the economy. And, as an underlying goal of trying to make sure that people have the best quality of life possible, and that we have the best health for our society - that’s the approach that works. And those ideas - when I was talking about them - even as recently as 2013 were a bit outside the current political window. Whereas now they seem much more accepted and understood. I think the economic and political discourse has really moved much more in that direction.
A.R: So, could you talk a little bit about what it is - in your view - that sets you apart from your opponent (being Trent [Wotherspoon]) in this race?”
R.M: One thing would be that focus on health as the primary goal of what we’re trying to achieve in our political system, and an understanding of the way that social factors - income, education, housing, food-security, the wider environment, employment - how those play into or how those really determine what the health outcomes will look like. So, having that consistent vision of an approach and consistent philosophy is different than what we see from politicians in general, and distinct from my opponent in this race. And the other thing is that I am - although I ran for the leadership before - I’m bringing a new approach: a reasonably recent election to the legislature, and less connected to the strategy that we’ve been using for the last many years as a party of really trying to play it safe as much as we can and criticizing the opposing party and not really coming out with a clear vision of what we are trying to achieve. I really think people of today are looking for a bolder vision, and are looking to be excited and inspired by our plans - not just to hear what’s wrong with our opponents.
A.R: Ok, so - in terms of boldness - there is a perception out there that you are… I guess I’d put it as ‘to the left of’ Trent. Do you think that played a part in how the current caucus fell in terms of who they’re endorsing, and why it seems that a lot of them have endorsed Trent… but there seems to be this refrain out there that if you go really bold (as you would call it) then you become unelectable. Do you buy into that?
R.M: So, I don’t think that being bolder with our ideas makes us unelectable. In fact, I think failing to do so makes us unelectable. The experience, here in Saskatchewan - and also across the country: when New Democrats come out and pretend not to be New Democrats, or really don’t show what it is that we truly believe in, and when we don’t trust the people of Saskatchewan and the people of Canada that they share our values..then they don’t trust us.
And we really need to be much more upfront about what we think we can achieve, and invite people to be a part of that - and I really think that’s the case. When it comes to the caucus, I don’t actually think that’s what is at play. I think you’re seeing a lot of connections that have been built over years, with Trent having been an elected member for a decade - it’s really difficult for people who have those collegial connections to not side with somebody. When we look beyond those immediate connections, I’m finding that there’s a real appetite throughout the membership (past elected folks, general members) for the approach and the types of ideas that I’ve been bringing forward, and less - very little in fact - of that concern that I may be taking us to a place that Saskatchewan people aren’t ready for.
A.R: Could you talk a little bit about your work with Upstream, and how that has influenced your politics and even the platform you’re currently running on?
R.M: Certainly. So, I’m a family doctor, and that has influenced my politics a great deal, working as I have in rural Saskatchewan… I’m actually just about to drive back from door-knocking in a small town where I used to work as a locum physician, and working in Northern Saskatchewan and in the inner-city in Saskatoon. And, just seeing every day the way in which poverty, shortage of housing, food insecurity..etc plays out in health problems in my patients, and recognizing that political decisions are what influences those circumstances much more than clinical decisions. And that’s what led me to get involved politically, but also to start the organization “Upstream”(link: http://www.thinkupstream.net ), which has, as its purpose - basically propagating this approach of the idea of health as our primary goal. Our biggest purposes are to improve the quality of our lives, and health is the best measure of that quality, and the understanding of the way in which investments in social factors are what has the greatest influence on those health outcomes - and, also, the greatest influence on making sure we have an economy that works for everyone.
Upstream is a national organization, a national non-profit, non-partisan, but that has been for the last several years really building some of the understanding around these ideas, which I think has helped to make this campaign something the people are more ready for, because those ideas have become much more understood by folks in the mainstream.
A.R: So, since you are a doctor - a physician - what does the healthcare system in Saskatchewan need right now more than anything that it is not getting, that voters can only get if they elect a government led by you, basically?
R.M: One of the things I like most about being a doctor in Saskatchewan is that we’re in the province that started medicare, and we have that underlying philosophy that people are seen based on their medical needs and not their ability to pay. So, when you come to see me as a patient, I ask you how you’re feeling, not how you’re paying - and that’s great. But, that only counts if I’m not talking about your eyes, or your teeth or your mind. We have very little in the way of vision or dental care, and mental health care is a huge bottleneck. We don’t have anywhere near the access to support for psychological counselling or emergency mental health treatment that we need. So, that’s a major expansion that we need to look into. The other one is medications. Canada needs a national pharmacare plan. We would be saving 7 billion dollars a year if we were, just on the cost of drugs, if we were buying bulk and prescribing in a rational fashion. As a result of not having one, we pay the highest prices for generic drugs in the world, second-highest for brand name. People are having to pay for their diabetes medication, having to pay for their stroke rehab unit, or their dialysis treatment.
So, I would introduce pharmacare nationally if I were able to influence the federal government to do so. If we can’t get there, Saskatchewan has shown leadership in the past, speaking out on its own. We may have to do so again, and lead us to a good quality pharmacare program.
A.R: Okay, well I wanted to actually get your thoughts on this: I realize it’s not really necessarily a provincial thing. The federal NDP with Don Davies (MP from British Columbia) is championing the cause of not just Harm Reduction, but actually a full-on decriminalization of recreational drugs and removing the issue of substance abuse and drugs from the criminal system and making it solely a public health issue. Is that the vein that you would….is that something that you would agree with, and would you work on a provincial level with the federal government - if it’s an NDP government - to go in that direction?
R.M: For too long, we’ve been punishing people for having addictions, which are closely related to trauma, closely related to mental health issues. It’s an inappropriate use of the justice system, and it doesn’t recognize what people really need. So, I would stop the focus on punishing people for using drugs. We still should be doing what we can to decrease the traffic of illicit drugs. We shouldn’t be pulling back on law-enforcement on that side of things. But, what we need to do is - instead of putting all our money into cracking down on people for using and locking them up, we should be making sure we’re investing in rehabilitation programs, the kind of investment in mental health that I’ve been talking about. Helping people deal with childhood trauma, and getting at the underlying issues of addictions instead of really just punishing people for being ill.
A.R: So, would you support the notion - or just the concept, at least - that when it comes to drugs and addictions that decriminalizing is one thing, and then if you move toward actually legalizing and focusing on Harm Reduction more than anything, then you actually wouldn’t necessarily need so much law-enforcement because you’d be under-cutting the black market anyway when you provide, through harm reduction, clean and safe ways for people to feed their addiction but also treat it when they need it?
R.M: It’s worth debating, Ammario. But, I don’t think we’re at the point where we would want to be legalizing every substance.
A.R: So, we were just talking about criminality of…. Well, the justice system. There was a flashpoint in the history of the justice system in Saskatchewan with the Colten Boushie case, and racism exists in Saskatchewan. Many would say it exists at really high levels in Saskatchewan. Uh.. just your feelings on that? What would change in how the Government of Saskatchewan deals with Indigenous communities, in particular, if you were Premier?
R.M: So, we definitely have, across Canada, a problem with racism and the Colten Boushie - or Gerald Stanley case (to be more accurate), has certainly raised that issue here in Saskatchewan. We have seen a lot of online commentary that really exposes some of the divisions in our society, and that’s a real problem. And, it underlines an ongoing issue in Saskatchewan and across the country around reconciliation. So, there’s been the commission, and a lot of talk about the history of the residential schools, colonization ...etc. And, we’re hearing apologies and nice words...but are we seeing real action, in terms of closing the gap in outcomes in health, in justice, in economics, in education? So, one of the things that I would like to do is bring in a new approach where we’d have an annual report: we have a body that’s dedicated to gathering the data and observing the interventions that are going on to try and close the gap in these inequities. An annual Closing The Gap Report. And this is modeled on an approach out of Australia: we’d have a Closing The Gap speech that the Premier would get up and give that really elevates this from a side-issue that really doesn’t get the attention that it should in the legislature to an issue or the kind of speech that is at the level of the Throne Speech or a budget speech. And, by doing that, forcing the provincial government to really bring the federal government, the First Nations and Metis leadership to the table, and say ‘what are the outcomes you’re trying to achieve, and what are the levers we have to make that possible?’ I think that’s the first step.
A.R: So, you think that there’s so much to catch up on that we need to have that conversation before we put any other concrete steps to take forward...we need to know what the conversation we’re having is…
R.M: Yeah, we have to obtain some common ground - from the leadership and community members from each segment or each level of government, and say ‘these are the outcomes we agree we want to achieve’ which I think will be fairly self-evident- there’ll be health and education and justice outcomes because it’s so clear - and outcomes like no longer having 60% of kids on reserves living in poverty, and no longer having the levels of overcrowding and damaged housing. These are pretty obvious pieces, but we have to actually agree on knowing the numbers and mobilizing the resources to deal with them.
A.R: You mentioned poverty. And it is available on your platform on your website [link: http://www.ryanmeili.com/poverty ] - your idea of Basic Income. And, I noticed the difference - if you were following the federal NDP leadership race: Guy Caron had run on a model of Basic Income that worked as a top-up. The federal gov’t would top up to bring anyone whose income is below the LICO line above and beyond the poverty line. And, your model is - unless I’m mistaken - it’s actually different in the sense that it is a universal model that is not means-tested and what I was wondering: the federal model, the top-up model that Guy Caron had run on basically removed the conditionality of the current welfare state, and the degrading conditions and humiliating rules that are in place. When you make it universal and completely under the control of the provincial government, as I believe you’re proposing - and correct me if I am wrong… do you not run the risk (and this is criticism I’ve heard from the left a lot) do you not then run the risk of Basic Income being used as a tool of neoliberalism there, where they would cut everything else - all other social programs and then use the Basic Income and then not fund it properly, and then just dismantle the entire welfare state eventually?
R.M: Whew… a lot to unpack there. A bit of a leading question.. Not that you’re trying to box me in, but there’s a few things to unpack in the premise. First of all, we haven’t necessarily said that it would be a universal basic income of the demogrant model. In fact, I do prefer the negative income tax model. And, in my book [“A Healthy Society” link: https://www.amazon.ca/Healthy-Society-Health-Canadian-Democracy/dp/189583063X ] that’s the model I describe in more detail, and we’ve just got a couple of lines on it in the Poverty Reduction program in our policy, but in the book there’s more detail. I think it makes more sense to have it as if people fall below a certain amount - anyone who is, you know, doing their taxes, if they’re income is below a certain amount, they get topped up to that amount. Whether it is provincial or federal, I think ideally it would be a combination thereof and there would be a partnership. But, again, since we are having a conversation around pharamcare, we need a province to come forward and say ‘ this is what we are doing’, show that it works, and then have it transferred to the federal level. In terms of the risk, and that risk is a real risk, and has to be talked about: I don’t think it’s independent to whether it’s a negative income tax, top-up or demogrant, I think either one poses the same risk. They use this model to sort of commodify everything, and reduce things like the existing supports, for example universal healthcare, old age security or disability funding here Saskatchewan. That’s not the progressive approach. I think we need to be really careful , though, that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater when people say ‘oh, there’s a risk that this/that could happen, therefore we must not take this major step in dealing with poverty and we must continue with the kind of welfare and social assistance models that have people trapped'. Inadequate amounts of income, inadequate amounts of resources and all kinds of byzantine bureaucracy that gets in the way of people getting what they really need. So, the core principles are: you maintain and even expand the basic benefits, so that you actually need less direct funding to people for them to be able to meet their basic needs. So, that’s part of the opportunity, cost, back-and-forth that you need to evaluate. And then, the second piece is that you use this to replace income assistance programs both in their complexity and their inadequacy.
A.R: So what would you say is the most common or at least aggravating myth or untruth about Basic Income that you hear repeated out there that you would say is false and wish that it wasn’t circulating out there?
R.M: I think the most common one, and one that has really been debunked pretty well by the studies that have been done on the different trials of Basic Income is that if people have enough money coming in to live on - then they won’t work. And, the opposite seems to be the case. Which - at first glance - people tend to think ..oh yeah, if people are getting money they won’t work. But that really assumes something false about human nature. People want to succeed, and they want their independence, and they want to do well. And what our current system does is that it gives people not enough to actually survive, and if they make any money, it gets clawed back. So, they trap them behind that welfare wall. But, if you give people enough money to do well, so that they’d meet their basic needs, and you don’t put that barrier in place for further work, you actually create that foundation for people to go forward, get an education, get a job, get the training they need (those that are capable and able) and be able to leave this kind of support behind. You also, for those who cannot work (for people who have a disability or other reason that they can’t work) you give them enough to live a dignified and decent life, which is something that we all should have the right to.
A.R: Well, I kind of wanted to ask you this: Would you agree with this notion… that (it’s usually from the right-wing who would say this and talk about how people are fundamentally lazy and wouldn’t work). Would you agree that the notion of laziness is actually a mental health thing, where - if somebody does not have any kind of aspiration whatsoever, that that’s probably a mental health condition that’s being dealt with there, and that the way you deal with mental health is you’re supposed to help the person, because the person is ill. And that laziness, in the sense that the right-wing wants to paint it as a chronic aspect of human nature. If you give people money or the means to live without having to fear death and homelessness …. Would you agree that ‘laziness’ doesn’t exist in that sense?
R.M: I think I’d find that a little bit extreme, to be honest with you. I think you’re on to something in that a lot of the people who might be declared lazy or seen to be lazy are actually struggling with depression or other mental illnesses or are in a situation of hopelessness. They don’t feel directly that their efforts are being rewarded. They’ve perhaps seen, for generations, their family members or people from their part of society having their efforts be marginalized. So, I think there are things to deal with there. But, human nature is human nature, and I think if you think about yourself, and certainly if I think about myself, there are days when I have the ambition and the drive to do the work, and others when I really wish I didn’t have work to do. We shouldn’t be so adherent to blamelessness that we don’t recognize there is some role in everybody’s lives for initiative and self-directed activity.
A.R: Okay. So, the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements: There’s a cultural shift happening in society. Within the NDP as well as other parties, at least that much is clear - that it’s not just the Liberals or the Conservatives or the Sask Party. It is a culture also within the NDP, where it’s shifting, and harassment is no longer okay. What is the way forward? As a political party, what needs to change in our culture and, perhaps, the way we deal with these issues when they arise that hasn’t worked in the past that needs to change so that it would work, so that people can come forward and so that this culture wouldn’t exist anymore?
R.M: Yeah, that’s the hope. And we’re in an unsettling period where there are lots of cases coming forward. People that they trusted who have been engaging in activities that are not okay. Whenever we look at activities that are not okay...when we look at crime of any sort- and, obviously, sexual harassment and sexual assault..etc are criminal activities and are activities that are negative behaviour. There’s two elements to it, and the first element and the first reactive element, which is very natural, is the punishment side of things: When you find somebody who’s doing this bad thing..how do you deal with it? And that is really important. We need to be believing survivors and giving them the space to tell their story. We need to be making sure that every reported incident or series of incidents is taken seriously, and we need to take quick action to remove … [inaudible] .. from a position where they can continue to do so, unless it has been proven otherwise, or if it were to be proven otherwise. So, we need to act quickly to stop the activity where it is happening.
The bigger piece is that there needs to start being a conversation about behaviours. Behaviours that might have been normalized in the past, and are now very clearly seen as not okay.
We’re getting to a point, hopefully, where people are less likely to engage in this sort of activity, as there has been more clarity over what the lines are. But also that people will be more and more likely to either call each other out and say to their peers ‘that’s not okay, what you’re doing’, and more people being willing to say -when it happens to them - to stand up and say ‘that’s not okay’, and go forward and report it. That, to me, is the hopeful part of this. It is digging up a lot of really awful stories - but they’re true stories, and they need to be heard.
A.R: On March 3rd, if you win this leadership race, and you become leader of the Sask NDP: What would you do to ensure party unity and make sure that the NDP is unified before the next general election comes up?
R.M: Yeah, I’m quite optimistic about that. I think we’ve come through a couple of leadership races that were more divisive, but this has not been. On the surface, it has been a very friendly race, and beneath the surface, as well - which has been really encouraging. Trent and I are friends. We have different opinions about the approach to leadership, but I know that we’ll work well together afterwards, and the same is said for my caucus colleagues. And, I think what has really been positive… the Sask Party has also just been through a leadership race, and they had five candidates, and it got really quite nasty, and there are some really serious fracture lines in that party right now. And, it looked a bit undisciplined and unprofessional and haphazard during their process. And I think ours has looked really on the ball, and that we are looking like the grown-ups in the room, and that’s really positive. People are really ready, in our party, to mobilize around whoever is elected.
A.R: So, basically, with Brad Wall gone as Premier and Scott Moe being the person to beat, I guess. Would you agree that this is not the unbeatable Sask Party of the last decade, that this is a very different dynamic? Does it have a lot more to do, do you think, with the actions of the Sask Party government or the change in leadership? Like, is it because Brad Wall is gone, or is because they’ve just done so many horrible things while in government?
R.M: It’s a combination thereof. The benefit of the doubt was already gone before Brad Wall left. We were out in rural areas, and all over the province, and hearing people say they hated that budget, that they’d voted Sask Party every time and they weren’t going to do it again. The elimination of the bus company, the cuts to health, to education, to social services - that really hit people hard, and really - I think - fractured what had been a very lustrous sheen over this party, where nothing seemed to stick to them forever. This..stuck. You add to that Brad Wall, who was very popular and a very effective communicator -- he’s gone, and I don’t see Scott Moe as being able to carry that banner - but he will carry the baggage. So, I think that’s a really important combination for us, and that there is a very real possibility of electing New Democrats as a government in 2020.
A.R: So, the coalition that brought the Sask Party to power and Brad Wall is… is kind of falling apart. Which leg of that coalition, do you think, was the first to go, and which, do you think, is the most likely to look to the NDP as an alternative because they’ve been alienated by the Sask Party?
R.M: I think we have seen the Sask Party go much further down the austerity route - the sort of free-market fundamentalism road - as well as the increase in their social-conservatism, and that’s alienating lots of folks who might have associated themselves with the Liberal Party (which was part of that coalition). But that’s not the only group that is being alienated.
Rural Saskatchewan has really been taken for granted. There’s been an assumption that those votes are the Sask Party’s and that they don’t have to work for them. But there are lots of emerging issues and frustrations in rural Saskatchewan. So, I think that there’s both, political spectrum orphans in that coalition, but also a regionalism - or regional groups and parts of society (people in education, people in health..etc) who are more and more disillusioned with the Sask Party’s approach. And they are looking for a change. Our opportunity right now as New Democrats - and our challenge - is to make ourselves the change that they choose, is to present a compelling offer, a compelling distinction from the Sask Party’s approach. We also, at the same time, need to be looking to people who were never part of the Sask Party coalition but haven’t been voting for us either; the people who have been disaffected with the political system who haven’t wanted to engage. We need to be inspiring and exciting people who haven’t voted before or been involved in campaigns before to really see themselves through the actions of the NDP and see the actions of the provincial government...to get them mobilized and engaged.
A.R: So, you win the leadership, there’s a general election, and the NDP is elected to a majority government. What would be the first piece of legislation a government led by you would introduce? The absolute first.
R.M: Number one, I’d actually follow the examples of Notley and Horgan whose first acts were getting rid of corporate and union donations in provincial politics. Saskatchewan has the worst laws of anywhere. We have millions of dollars coming in from companies, many of them companies that aren’t even here - companies in Alberta - giving money to the Sask Party. And, six to ten times as much coming in to the Sask Party from those corporate donations as all the union and corporate donations combined for the NDP. It’s an unfair playing field, and it’s also really influencing the Sask Party in terms of the policies that they pursue, and the contracts that they award, where companies that donate are also getting major lucrative contracts. So, I would get rid of corporate and union donations, and put in an individual limit - really lock that down and make sure that our elections are funded by the people who are going to be represented, not the companies that want to have their interests represented.
And, as a demonstration of my commitment to that, I actually went ahead and said that, in this race, I wouldn’t accept corporate and union donations. And that….that was a risk. You know, we have some good union support, we have companies that would like to give money, but we just said that that’s not the way we are going to run things. Fortunately, that risk seems to have turned out okay. We had our financial returns released today [on the day of this interview] , and that showed that our campaign has raised more than the other campaign - about $160K to their $130K. But also, over…..how do I say this…. we’ve raised over twice as much from individual donors. Less than $80K raised by individuals to the other campaign and nearly $160K to ours- over nearly 1,000 individual donors to ours compared to 500-and-some to my opponent. Which is, you know...not to say that this thing is in the bag, but I think it shows that there was some real interest in that approach. And people heard that, respected it and said ‘yeah, I’m gonna give when I might not have, or give a little bit more than I was intending to, because I respect that principled stance.”
A.R: Ok… Before we go, I’ve wanted to ask this in Saskatchewan, because you are unique in the sense that you have a sort of a two-party system - well, two main-parties system (the Sask Party and the Sask NDP), and I’ve been wondering about Proportional Representation. Does it not make sense to bring it in because it’s fair and is voter-equality and ‘making every vote count’, and then use that to also ask supporters of other parties to lend the NDP their vote so that the NDP can bring in PR, and then after that’s done, then they’d feel represented and then if they decide to go back home to their usual party in the election after that. Is PR at all on the table?
R.M: It is. One of the things I’ve committed to is a commission - an electoral review commission - that would …. I wouldn’t say like we’ve seen from our Prime Minister, that I would only accept their recommendations if I like them. That wouldn’t be the only thing that we look at. PR is part of it, but also what are the other ways in which we can make structural changes to reinvigorate local democratic involvement, reinvigorate democratic engagement so we get more people out, increase our voter turnout, but - more than that - increase the level of political discussion and discourse in the province. So, I’d really want to have an even broader discussion about how do we do democracy better, looking at boundaries, and how do we avoid the gerrymandering that’s gone on..etc.
A.R: Great. So, before we go, is there anything else you’d like to add?
R.M: Yeah, I just think we’re in a moment, as party - in a province - where there’s an appetite for change. People are looking for a new approach. And that change can be the NDP. We are ready to be a real alternative, a credible alternative to the Sask Party. But, to be that change, we actually need to demonstrate that we’ve changed ourselves. And that, I think, is the major question in this race: are the members ready? And I believe, from my discussions and my impressions that members really are ready to have a new approach and be a bit bolder, and they know that that’s not only in keeping with their principles and what they want to see from the party. But it also means we are more likely to win.
A.R: So, basically, the ballot-box question is - at first, within this race - change within change?
R.M: Exactly. As change is happening, are we going to be leading it, or just watching it happen?
A.R: Ryan Meili, thank you very much.
You can find Ryan Meili’s campaign platform here: http://www.ryanmeili.com/vision
Ammario Reza is the co-founder of NDP Grassroots-Ralliement populaire NPD, with a background in Political Science. He is a writer, commentator and activist primarily based in Ottawa. He works varying contract positions for various NDP and other progressive campaigns, in addition to being a liaison for author Linda McQuaig's speaking engagements.
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See also: An interview with NDP Parliamentary Leader Guy Caron