Sask. NDP leadership candidate Ryan Meili wants province to be renewable energy, pharmacare leader

Ryan Meili, MLA for Saskatoon Meewasin, is running for leadership of the provincial NDP. The new leader will be selected on March 3 in Regina.

Ryan Meili, Trent Wotherspoon running for leadership of the provincial NDP

Ryan Meili, MLA Saskatoon Meewasin, is hoping his third try will be the charm as he runs to be leader of the Sask. NDP. (CBC News)

Two men are vying to be the leader of the opposition in Saskatchewan's legislature. Ryan Meili was the first to announce his bid for NDP leadership.

The MLA for Saskatoon Meewasin is no stranger to the race, having run twice previously to lead the party.

NDP members will elect a leader on March 3 in Regina.

Leading up to that decision CBC Saskatchewan will sit down with each of the leadership hopefuls. On Tuesday, the CBC's Jill Morgan spoke with Meili.

Jill Morgan: A lot of people would have quit after a couple of leadership losses. What makes you think this one will be successful?

Ryan Meili: Well, I do think persistence is a value. It took me three times to get into medical school and that worked out OK. Sometimes you just have to keep trying when something's important.

What seems to be different about this time around is being an elected member of the legislature has taken away any questions that people had about whether or not I'd succeed in that format. And I think the other thing is that there's maybe a bit more of a recognition among party members, there really is time for us to change, time for us to be a bit more bold in the types of ideas that we're putting forward.

JM: How do you consider yourself the better person to take on that change in leadership as opposed to Trent Wotherspoon?

RM: What I'm really hearing from the membership is that there is that desire for a new approach and that for too long our way of approaching elections has been to criticize the Sask. Party — as much as we do have to point out the flaws there.

But we have been reluctant to be really clear about what kind of things we're wanting to achieve. And coming from where I do, coming as a family physician and from the work I've done with Upstream and writing the healthy society book, there's a set of ideas and an approach that focuses on the health and well being of the people of the province as the primary goal, and the types of investments, types of choices we can make at a government level that can allow us to achieve that best health that really opens up space for some ideas that maybe haven't been on the table before and can give us an opportunity to do what I think we need to do, which is to excite and inspire people if we want to be winning the next election and achieving what really matters.

JM: Can you give me some specifics about some of those types of things you want to do differently and put more focus on?

RM: Absolutely. One of the pieces I worked on prior to being elected was a poverty reduction strategy. [It] gave some advice to the provincial government on what that could look like. They chose not to; they chose to shelve that report, but the information is still there. We know that poverty is costing us nearly $4 billion a year to our economy. If we have a good poverty reduction strategy, we can grow the economy as well improve the lives and health of so many people.

Another piece that is clearly missing in our healthcare system is pharmacare. Too many are having to choose between paying the rent or paying for the medications that they need to stay healthy. I see that all the time in my practice. We should have a national pharmacare program, and we'll continue to push for that. But until we're there, Saskatchewan may once again have to take the lead — to save money because we're paying too much for drugs — but also to improve people's health.

JM: How do you plan to win more support in rural Saskatchewan?

RM: So that's something you might not know. I'm from rural Saskatchewan. I grew up on a farm south west of Moose Jaw, and certainly what I'm hearing when I'm out where I grew up and around the province there's a sense that the NDP has lost touch with rural Saskatchewan.

But there's also a growing sense that the Sask. Party is taking rural Saskatchewan for granted. Decisions like the attempt to cut libraries, the decision to get rid of STC — there's many things that suggest that there's not the same attention to the quality of lives of people in rural Saskatchewan that there should be, which isn't the kind of opportunity we want.

We want life to be good in rural Saskatchewan, but it offers us an opening to start communicating about listening to what are the real issues on the minds of people outside of the larger cities and reflecting those concerns in our platform. It's almost as though we've been a bit shy to talk about rural issues, where I think there's a lot of support, a lot of smart ideas in rural Saskatchewan about how to improve conditions. We need to be a part of that conversation, front and centre.  

JM: What would a climate change plan look like if you eventually formed government?

RM: The type of climate change plan that I would put in place would be effective at reducing carbon emissions, including also other greenhouse gases, like getting rid of the methane emissions, which are a major greenhouse gas. We need to decrease our contribution to greenhouse gases — extremely important.

We're seeing the way in which climate change is already affecting farming communities, already affecting water and its management around the province,. There's so much we need to do.

There is also an enormous opportunity here to create new jobs in renewable energy. Saskatchewan has the most wind, the best sun of anywhere in the country. We should be leaders in renewable energy but instead we've been holding back. We haven't been making the kinds of investments and making the kinds of decisions that would allow us to produce electricity everywhere in the province: farms, on reserves, in small towns.

We need a plan that shifts us in that direction at the same time as making sure that whatever mechanisms we use they don't make life less affordable; they don't get in the way of Saskatchewan businesses being able to succeed, of people having the employment opportunities they need.

There's a great opportunity here, we need to address it with courage instead of pretending it's not happening.

JM: You've been following the news headlines in the last week around the Gerald Stanley trial and there's been calls in the last few days for justice reform. There's a lot of angst being expressed over what has transpired. I'm interested to know a little bit more about what reconciliation looks like to you in Saskatchewan?

RM: There's been a lot of talk about reconciliation, and good talk. You know we talk about 'I'm sitting on Treaty 6 territory, homeland of the Métis.' That's starting to become part of our regular language. That's really valuable, but that talk has to lead into action. And this week that word 'reconciliation' is feeling a lot more hollow for a lot of Métis and First Nations people around the province.

If we're going to be serious about reconciliation we need to be serious about closing the gap in education, in health, in economic outcomes. Sixty per cent of kids living on reserve are living in poverty. High rates of HIV, of diabetes, of other illnesses among First Nations people; an overrepresentation of Indigenous people within our justice system — these are all parts of the challenges we face.

By saying we're not just going to talk about reconciliation, we're going to work together with First nations leadership and communities and the federal government to design the outcomes, to talk about what are the outcomes we want in health, education economics etc. And then each year as premier I will come forward and give a closing-the-gap-speech telling us how far we've come and commit to going further and further until we really do live in an equal province.

With files from Jill Morgan