Recounting the leg’s last day before the COVID-19 suspension

John Cairns’ Leg Watch

The date of March 17 was a surreal one in the Saskatchewan legislature.

With the COVID-19 crisis spreading rapidly across Canada, the pandemic was top of mind for everyone in the legislature that afternoon. It was not yet known that this would be the last one of regular debates and discussion in the legislature for a while.

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A provincial budget had been scheduled for the next day, March 18. It ended up being transformed into the tabling of scaled-down budget estimates instead - one that was not even read in the legislature.

In fact the legislature’s sitting on Wednesday, March 18 was very brief, with the Speaker immediately announcing the Assembly was adjourned to the call of the Chair.

It was the March 17 Question Period that would be recorded as the last one before the suspension of proceedings. Opposition leader Ryan Meili and Premier Scott Moe had a lengthy exchange on the COVID-19 pandemic situation and a portion of those remarks are here, as recorded in Hansard.

Mr. Meili: —Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Saskatchewan people are under a great deal of stress at this time. We know that for too many families, it’s already hard to make ends meet at the end of each month, and it’s only getting harder. To help families across this province, we need to act quickly and decisively.

That’s why today I’m calling, we’re calling on the Premier to introduce a financial aid package for the people of Saskatchewan, a financial aid package that includes immediate payments to support low- and middle-income families, money that will help keep them whole and that will circulate in the local economy; supports for Saskatchewan businesses to keep workers employed with a focus on small and medium Saskatchewan companies and a response to regional and industry-specific needs; the injection of the necessary dollars into health to have an adequate response to the COVID-19 crisis; support for people who are having to take sick leave or self-isolation, including for those who have no child care options because of the closure of schools or child care centres; utility and rent guarantees so that during this difficult time no one goes without heat or power or communications or finds themselves out of their home; a financial aid package that includes tax changes to reduce pressure on Saskatchewan businesses.

Will the Premier show leadership today and commit to moving quickly on a financial aid package that supports Saskatchewan families? The time to act is now.

The Speaker: —I recognize the Premier.

Hon. Mr. Moe: —Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker, and thank you to the member opposite for that, what is a very important and timely question given where we are in this province today, and how we are going to support Saskatchewan families, Saskatchewan jobs, and small business and large business that provide that employment in each of our communities across this province.

Mr. Speaker, tomorrow the federal government is going to move forward, is our understanding. Our Minister of Finance as well as other ministers of Finance across the country have been in contact with the federal Minister of Finance, the federal government, Mr. Speaker, on an economic stimulus package that should be announced, it sounds like, sometime tomorrow.

Mr. Speaker, we are going to be looking very closely at that package and are looking at what opportunities we have as a province to dovetail into those supports that the federal government will provide, so that we can ensure that we are maximizing our investment, maximizing the opportunity that we have to support exactly those very Saskatchewan families, those Saskatchewan jobs, Mr. Speaker, as well as supporting the business that is providing employment in each of our communities.

....

Mr. Meili: —Thank you, Mr. Speaker. We know that some Saskatchewan small businesses have already closed their doors, some of them for good. We know that others will follow. Mr. Speaker, other businesses are telling workers to stay home, and they don’t have the means to continue to pay those employees. It’s a painful time for many small-business owners and for the employees on which they rely. Small businesses can’t wait. What financial aid measures will this government be bringing in to support Saskatchewan’s small businesses through this crisis?

The Speaker: —I recognize the Premier.

Hon. Mr. Moe: —Mr. Speaker, as I said, our Minister of Finance has been in touch with the federal Minister of Finance as we are looking to the federal government to move, quite likely tomorrow, with respect to an economic stimulus plan. Then the provinces — and I think in fairness, many of the provinces — will then look at the opportunities they have to dovetail in on that federal stimulus package, if you will, on how we can support our respective families across this nation...

Mr. Speaker, this starts tomorrow. It starts tomorrow with the federal stimulus package, and it starts tomorrow here in the province of Saskatchewan with us tabling our spending investments, Mr. Speaker, our spending intentions over the next number of months. Mr. Speaker, this is where the resources will become evident to the people of this province, and they will continue in the days ahead as we continue to work with our industries and the hard-working people in this province.

The Speaker: —I recognize the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Meili: —Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Tomorrow the government will table estimates that are based not only on financial forecasts that are completely out of date, but that don’t recognize the ways in which our revenue has changed and the ways in which our spending priorities need to change immediately.

Mr. Speaker, will the Premier acknowledge that these documents are no longer valid, no longer relevant today? Will he act quickly and decisively now and commit to an immediate financial aid package that addresses the health and economic needs that Saskatchewan families are facing today?

The Speaker: —I recognize the Premier.

Hon. Mr. Moe: —Mr. Speaker, with respect to the revenue numbers in what would ultimately be a budget that should be delivered at this point in time, Mr. Speaker, given the turmoil in the markets, in the commodity prices, given what is happening with all of the things that factor into the revenue items here for the province of Saskatchewan and, quite frankly, factor into the revenue items for any government anywhere in the world at this point in time, the revenue . . . It is very difficult if not impossible to forecast what the revenues will be over the course of this next year.

Mr. Speaker, if we went back to look at what those revenue items would be today, I don’t know how you would formulate what the revenue items would be here for the province of Saskatchewan. But what is important, what is important and what the people of this province need to know is the investment that we are going to make and the investment that we are going to put forward tomorrow, Mr. Speaker, is on behalf of the people in this province.

....You’re going to see the start of an investment in Saskatchewan people, Mr. Speaker, and the people that we represent in this province need to know this. As the investment is required, it’s going to be there.

The Speaker:I recognize the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Meili: —Mr. Speaker, we know that public health measures are one of the most important elements of reduction and delay of transmission of COVID-19 in the community. The first case of coronavirus was identified on December 31st of 2019. The first case appeared in Canada on January 27th. The World Health Organization declared a coronavirus global health emergency on January 30th. The province’s pandemic plan was introduced on March the 11th.

We know that there was a great deal of work required to update pandemic plans from 13 different regions as they incorporate into the SHA [Saskatchewan Health Authority] and an incredible amount of work for health care facilities and providers to prepare their specific plans and protocols.

My question to the Premier is this, Mr. Speaker: what additional funding was made available to Public Health in the months of January and February to help them prepare a robust plan and help Saskatchewan flatten the curve?

The Speaker: —I recognize the Premier.

Hon. Mr. Moe: —Mr. Speaker, the Leader of the Opposition is absolutely correct with respect to the work that has gone on over the last number of months by the hardworking public servants in the Ministry of Health and the Saskatchewan Health Authority, Mr. Speaker, in bringing our regions together and also bringing together the pandemic plans that we had in each specific region here to make one pandemic plan for the province of Saskatchewan.

With respect to the funding that has been made available for that work to happen, Mr. Speaker, that was part of the initial design of bringing the health regions together, was to ensure that they would be able to bring together plans just like the pandemic plan. So the funding that was made available for that work, Mr. Speaker, was made available one year ago, last year at budget time, when we invested a record amount of funding in the Ministry of Health here in the province and into health care in our communities across the province.

The Speaker: —I recognize the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Meili: —Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I would just ask, then, if I’m correct to understand that when this massive new challenge for our health system was coming on the horizon, no additional dollars were supplied for public health funding during that period and for preparation.

The Speaker: —I recognize the Premier.

Hon. Mr. Moe: —Mr. Speaker, with respect to the pandemic plan, there was already a pandemic plan in place here in the province, Mr. Speaker. What has happened through January and February is that pandemic plan has been altered, if you will, so that it is specific to the challenge that we are facing in this province and in this nation and across the globe here today, Mr. Speaker, and that is the COVID-19. So our plan has been in place, Mr. Speaker. It’s now been modified for the current-day reality.

...

The exchange between Meili and Moe was a lengthy one spanning a number of issues including the impact of the pandemic on correctional facilities, the impact of school closings, as well as the numbers of ventilators to be able to address the situation.

Finally, the two leaders focused on what would be happening in the legislature moving forward, given the rapidly-moving events elsewhere.

Mr. Meili: —Mr. Speaker, we know the province of Ontario declared a state of emergency today. They’re limiting gatherings of 50 people or more. We know that very soon, we’ll likely stop gathering in this room as well and that’s entirely appropriate, Mr. Speaker, for the protection of the public and for the safety of everyone in this room.

However, the work that happens in this legislature is extremely important. How does the Premier plan, should this legislature be closing down, how does he plan to continue that work effectively? How does he plan to involve the members on this side and leaders throughout the public in coming up with the best health and economic response to make sure that on the other side

of this pandemic, we look back and see Saskatchewan as one of the success stories? That we got ahead of this, that we flattened the curve, that we did the best we could.

The Speaker: —I recognize the Premier.

Hon. Mr. Moe: —Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. With respect to updating members opposite and updating the general public in the province of Saskatchewan as well, we have our chief medical officer. Dr. Shahab will be updating the public daily, Mr. Speaker. I believe he will be in just not too long this afternoon, Mr. Speaker, and again tomorrow, the day after that. And I think that’s important not only for us in this House, but for members in our community to be able to listen directly to the chief medical health officer as to where we are today versus yesterday, and where we may be heading tomorrow, along with any recommendations that he may have.

Mr. Speaker, we’d also commit, as I know has occurred yesterday, to update the Leader of the Opposition from time to time as well, with respect to exactly what our intentions are, and take advice, quite frankly, Mr. Speaker, from the Leader of the Opposition and others as to what moves we may have to make in the days ahead, Mr. Speaker, and on an ongoing basis as we deal with this pandemic.

Also, Mr. Speaker, with how we are going to support a move from restrictions, not totally away from restrictions, but from restrictions to the resources necessary, Mr. Speaker, you’re going to see — as all of the people of this province are going to see — our spending plan tomorrow, Mr. Speaker. Our spending plan which will be the starting point for how we are going to start to support the people, the families, the jobs of this province, Mr. Speaker.

In fact some of that is going to start even today with the introduction and hopefully the passing of some legislation that is going to protect the jobs of hard-working people in communities right across Saskatchewan.

Later that afternoon, His Honour Russ Mirasty, Lieutenant-Governor of the province of Saskatchewan, appeared in the legislature to give royal assent to Bill No. 207 - The Saskatchewan Employment (Public Health Emergencies) Amendment Act, 2020. In doing so, he broke from tradition to provide a few remarks.

His Honour: —In Her Majesty’s name, I assent to this bill.

Members of the Legislative Assembly, a little bit unusual for me to remain but, in conversation with the Speaker, I ask for a moment of your time. It is unprecedented times that we face collectively. And I just wanted to personally acknowledge that fact, but also acknowledge the work that you continue to do and will into the future to make sure that the citizens of Saskatchewan, who you represent, will receive the appropriate supports as we move forward to face this challenge across this province, but also across this country and around the world.

It is a difficult time, particularly for leaders of communities and, in your case, the province. And all of you play an important role to ensure that the citizens of Saskatchewan have the confidence that you are doing what is right for them. I certainly do and I express that now. I have the confidence that you will continue in the role that you pledged to and will support you in any way I can.

And finally, as you work to support us, the citizens of Saskatchewan, I want to encourage you and urge you to make sure that you look after yourselves and your families. So with that, again thank you. Thank you for your ongoing service to the citizens of Saskatchewan.

 

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