NDP leader thinks Saskatchewan voters have 'buyer's remorse' after COVID-19 response

REGINA — Even after leading Saskatchewan's Opposition for more than two years, the question Ryan Meili is still asked the most is why he left medicine for politics.

The NDP leader hasn't completely stepped away from the profession. He's trained to enter a field hospital or COVID-19 ward as part of the province recruiting health-care workers to the front lines of the pandemic.

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He's also done weekly shifts as a family doctor at a homeless shelter in his home city of Saskatoon.

Meili, 45, worked at a testing centre shortly after the novel coronavirus appeared in the spring, and admits there have been moments where he's questioned his decision to give up full-time medicine.

"There’s an old saying, politics is medicine on a larger scale. When I’m feeling that distance from the practice, I remind myself of that," he told The Canadian Press in a year-end interview.

His two worlds, politics and health, have never collided more than during the pandemic. And his acknowledges that overlap hasn't always made for popular choices.

He was critical when the governing Saskatchewan Party was floating the idea of loosening limits on gatherings for Christmas, and instead said non-essential businesses should be shut down to combat the virus's worsening spread.

"It’s really frustrating to be … swimming a bit against the tide of what people want to do, but it’s so important to actually speak up and say what we need to do," he said.

In October, Meili ran in his first election campaign as party leader. The New Democrats were soundly defeated as Premier Scott Moe's Saskatchewan Party won its fourth-straight majority with 48 out of 61 seats in the legislature.

The NDP's 13 seats equalled where it stood before the vote.

"Interesting to know what people are thinking now," said Meili, who was re-elected in Saskatoon Meewasin, unlike the two NDP leaders before him.

"I bet there’s a lot of buyer’s remorse out there from people who felt like this government said they took (COVID-19) seriously, was going to protect them, and clearly hasn’t."

He has felt the pandemic's impact personally by being the husband of a pediatrician — who is also preparing for possible front-line work — and a father to two sons, one of whom had a recent case of COVID-19 in his school.

His mother also has health issues, so he hasn't visited.

Meili has offered no assessment about what his party could have done differently in the election campaign. He said that work will be done by a review panel.

He does suggest his party has a problem with its brand. He lays the blame on the Saskatchewan Party, which ran advertising attacking the provincial NDP as anti-oil and fiscally irresponsible.

Meili said fighting that image is frustrating, as is challenging ideas people have about him being too politically left to ever have a real shot of forming government.

A leadership review is set for the new year and Meili wants party members to know he's ready to stay and work.

He's said there's been a lot of advice given to him on how to do the job.

"You get lots of opinions on how you ought to be when you’re in a role like this. The word you hear the most often is ‘should.'

"I think people in Saskatchewan recognize when somebody’s being genuine and honest, and that’s the best way for me to continue to be."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 31, 2020

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