REGINA - A lot has changed since this same time last year, including the job title for NDP member for Regina Lakeview Carla Beck.
“I don’t think last year I could have forecast sitting in this office as the Leader of the Official Opposition,” said Beck, speaking in a year end interview with SASKTODAY.ca. “It’s been a very eventful year for myself personally, and for the province as well.”
Indeed, things changed quickly after the NDP lost the by-election in their longtime stronghold of Athabasca. In the aftermath, leader Ryan Meili resigned. Soon after, Beck entered the race which she won in June to be the first female leader of the Saskatchewan NDP.
Since then Beck has been travelling the province and raising concerns about issues that have dominated the Legislature this year, on topics such as affordability and healthcare service delivery.
After winning the leadership, a “focus on outreach and connecting with people in the province really was top of mind and something we are really focused on,” said Beck. She hit the road soon after and reports she logged 40,000 km on her own car alone, making connections and having conversations with people throughout the province.
“It’s been those conversations with people in the province that we brought forward to the legislative assembly in the fall.”
Among the concerns she heard from people about was on “affordability issues” and “the ability of people to pay their bills, people feeling like they’re less well-off than a year ago.”
She also points to the government’s response in the budget. “When people were faced with 40-year record inflation,” they “chose to actually increase fees and tax taxes on utilities,” Beck said.
The government did come out with $500 Saskatchewan Affordability Tax Credit cheques in the fall, but the opposition was critical of how that relief was handled.
Beck pointed out they “took the whole summer, took nine months to deliver any relief to the people a Saskatchewan at a time when we saw other provinces providing rebates on their utilities bills. Instead, we saw a government that actually raised power bills eight per cent, raised energy rates 23 per cent. I think it’s frustrating. I think the impacts are there for people to see, certainly when they go to pay their bills, but when we look at numbers like food bank usage and mortgage arrears —- this is a government that chose to pile on fees and taxes at a time when people really needed relief.”
Another concern raised by the opposition was rising food prices.
“In Saskatchewan we saw the highest inflation, grocery prices, anywhere of any of the provinces. We called for an investigation into why that’s the case. This is not just something we were calling for. We saw the stock growers also ask for this with particular attention to meat pricing in the province, where the price where producers are getting for live cattle is not reflected in the price people are paying at the store. This is again another place that the government did not take us up on our suggestion, but the government should be curious why people in this province are paying more for groceries, seeing more inflation in their groceries than anywhere else in the country.”
Meanwhile, Beck noted the government “sits on windfall revenues, and brags about how great things are. The reality is too many people are not feeling that and actually feeling more stressed out and further behind than they were last year.
Health care was a major issue in 2022 with stories of hospital bed closures and staffing shortages. Beck agreed the issues seen this year in health care were “exacerbated by COVID, but a lot of those concerns preexisted the pandemic.”
“I know we had healthcare workers raising the alarm well before COVID(-19) about the loss of healthcare workers in the system, about the need to recruit” said Beck. “The Auditor’s Report most recently confirms a lot of those concerns that have been raised, the fact that we lost 600 healthcare workers year over year net is a real concern which is having impacts on healthcare services to continue. We saw 37 different hospitals and services disrupted. We see people in Saskatoon not able to get in to see a family doctor… these were longstanding concerns that existed prior to the pandemic.”
Beck said the issues in health care were seen early on, when they travelled the province on their tour.
“We saw places like North Battleford, where there was no emergency care available on Tuesdays and Thursdays for example. A city like Meadow Lake that has had frequent interruptions in their ability to deliver babies in that community, people being bypassed down the road, and sometimes having to turn around and go back to other communities to access healthcare. We were out in Esterhazy in the heart of potash country with mines all around that community, they had their whole emergency department disrupted all weekend. These are very real concerns that exist all around the province.”
Beck also pointed to issues of health care workers leaving the province and even the profession, “citing a lack of respect and citing that other governments like in British Columbia, are doing more to actually invest in that retention… This is an urgent problem, we need the government to put a real focus on finding solutions.”
As for the government’s much-touted point plan to recruit and retain healthcare professionals, Beck agreed recruitment will be part of the solution. “But even we saw in the auditor’s report, even if their four point plan we’re completely and effectively carried out we’d still be in a deficit of almost 1,000 healthcare workers in this province.”
Another controversial issue has been the government’s Saskatchewan First Act.
Beck said there was a “real contrast” between what the NDP were doing during the summer and what the Sask Party government was doing, referring to it as a “closed door, separatist tour they embarked on.”
“We saw the White Paper come out of that, something which was university panned from all angles and political stripes. And then the Bill 88, the Sask First (Act) bill that by the Minister’s own admission, really 'isn’t designed to do that much' was the quote. Our concerns, as our critics and members have talked about, is a lack of consultation, particularly with First Nations and Métis groups in the province, and certainly we’ve heard that expressed by leadership in the First Nations and Métis community. The fact that this was their flagship bill, this is what came out of their summer of closed-door consultations, begs the question I think of what was this bill designed to do.”
She added the fact the bill “has not made it to committee — the government didn’t schedule it to come to committee — speaks to the fact that this bill was designed to be a political tool more than anything.”
Law enforcement concerns
Beck was also critical about the province’s law enforcement initiatives such as the Saskatchewan Marshals Service.
While she acknowledged crime was an issue, what the government “served up with their Marshals bill seems again to have made its way onto the floor of the Assembly without much consultation, certainly with municipalities and with the RCMP.”
She also expressed concerns that any benefits seen from a Marshals service would be years from now, after it is up and running.
“This has been a theme with this government where they table legislation that talks about starting the process, talks about results potentially years into the future, for issues that are facing people in this province today.”
Beck was critical of what she saw during the fall sitting, when “convicted wife murderer” Colin Thatcher, as Beck called him, was invited to the Speech from the Throne.
“The fact that it surprised them, the outrage, not just provincially, not just nationally, but internationally, shows that this is a government that has lost the plot.”
She also pointed to the controversy at Legacy Christian Academy over textbooks teaching that humans walked the earth with dinosaurs. “It’s out of the frame of where most people in the province were at.”
In terms of where her own party is at now, following the leadership race, Beck said she was proud of how the party came together during the by-election campaign that followed in Meewasin, where Nathaniel Teed was elected for the NDP.
Looking ahead to the new year, Beck said “you can expect the Saskatchewan NDP to continue to put a real focus on outreach and getting out to communities… To connect with people, their concerns and their hopes for the future of this province, to build that alternative version of this province, and to address issues that they have, but also to lean in to that promise that I do see out there. I see potential in all corners of this province. I see too many people who are being left behind, but people who want to be part of that solution, and want to see the brightest future for themselves and their children in this province.