It is a different and quieter summer for outgoing Battlefords MLA Herb Cox.
Throughout the past nine years, Cox would normally spend his summers back at home, meeting constituents and often attending community events such as the Battleford and the North West Territorial Days parades.
At those parades Cox would be seen riding his horse through the city streets, waving to constituents.
But the COVID-19 pandemic year of 2020 meant a change of plans. Local parades and events were called off because of COVID-19 restrictions. Instead of staying at home, Cox spent three weeks in Regina as the legislature finished its final session and he finished his legislative career.
His last day in the Leg was July 3. Now, Cox is finally riding off into the sunset.
“It went by so quick,” said Cox of his nine years in the legislature. “It just seems like not that long ago that I gave my inaugural speech. I still remember parts of it — I used parts of it in my final speech.”
In fact, some MLAs made clear they didn’t want the session to end. There were demands from opposition leader Ryan Meili that the legislature be recalled again in September, just before the election.
But Premier Scott Moe said no to that idea. As a result, barring some unforeseen circumstance, Cox’s time in the leg is now at an end.
“It’s always bittersweet,” said Cox. “It wasn’t an easy decision for me to make to decide to step aside.”
Last Friday was turned over to the emotional goodbyes of 11 MLAs— seven from the Sask Party and four from the NDP. It was a chance for Cox to say goodbye to his constituents and thank the people closest to him.
“We all had a chance to thank the people important to us,” said Cox, referring to his family, staff and supporters.
As for his nine years in Regina, “I feel I learned a lot — had some great mentors, colleagues that were there longer than I have. Hopefully I made a difference for the people of the Battlefords.”
During the three-week sitting in June and early July, members sitting inside the chamber were restricted to 10 government members and five opposition members.
All members were able to vote, however, and Cox said he used his votes in the whip’s office to cast votes on those days when he was not inside the chamber.
“It was a totally different session than any of us had ever experienced,” said Cox. He said during caucus meetings, the MLAs were located in three different rooms and communicated through teleconferencing. He credited the legislature staff with setting it up so they could stay six feet apart and still be able to bring up issues.
The MLAs also gathered in those rooms to watch the proceedings and then headed to the whips office to cast their votes. Cox called it “really weird.”
The highlight of the return back was the COVID-19 pandemic budget delivered by Donna Harpauer on the first day back, June 15. That included a $2.4 billion deficit.
“There were some painful decisions,” said Cox. But on a positive note, “we were the first province to present a post-COVID budget and I think we’ve come out of it stronger than most provinces in the country with only a $2.4 billion deficit.”
He emphasized this was a pandemic deficit, not a structural deficit. Cox also pointed to massive infrastructure spending and added “those are the kind of things that are going to help get our Saskatchewan economy back — try to get it back to where it was before and keep our province growing.”
Cox said there has been strong positive reaction from municipalities in response to the Municipal Economic Enhancement Program funding for shovel-ready infrastructure projects.
Cox said there have been “very, very positive reactions” from local officials in the Battlefords, noting some projections that had been on the books for years are able to proceed.
Cox also welcomed a major announcement during the final week of the session about the massive $4 billion Lake Diefenbaker irrigation project.
That was a project he was involved in when he was Environment Minister, and now it is coming to fruition. He said this would be a boost not just for agriculture but also value-added Ag as well, and called it very exciting for the industry.
“This is going to be a huge lift.... with the infrastructure but for our Ag industry, to be able to irrigate potentially another 500,000 acres of farmland. It’s going to allow us to diversify our crops... whether that might be sugar beets or potatoes or whatever it might be, with the irrigation available.”
Looking back on his time in the legislature, Cox could point to a wide variety of roles in government, including stints in cabinet in Environment and then in Advanced Education.
He also also Government Whip and served on committees such as the Highway Traffic Safety committee.
He chaired the Caucus Committee on Crime, which addressed issues of great concern to the riding.
That was a highlight too, said Cox, noting that role took him around the province to find out what was on people’s minds. He noted the eight recommendations that committee made were all acted upon by the government as well.
“That was very significant — the government took seriously what we were doing,” said Cox.
Looking back to accomplishments over the last nine years, Cox pointed to the “things that have gone on in the Battlefords,” noting the projects that received provincial funding during his government’s time in office. He pointed to the highway connector upgrade in Battleford, the water treatment plant expansion in Battleford, the funding to the CUplex, the new Battlefords Trade and Education building funding, upgrades to the airport, and the new Saskatchewan Hospital — the latter often described by Cox previously as the “Godzilla of all announcements.”
When asked to identify his personal highlights of government policies from the past nine years, he pointed to Sask Hospital which was “something we needed for years and years before we got it done”. He also pointed to the new BTEC building opening, and also the opening of the new Jim Pattison Children’s Hospital in Saskatoon.
There was a particular personal highlight with the latter project: his grandson was born there soon after it opened. “That was pretty significant for me, just to see how wonderful that facility is.”
There were many other highlights he could point to. He noted anyone going to the lake on highway 4 would notice the passing lanes which were a great benefit.
Cox pointed to all the various projects and investments the Sask Party government has put into the community as reason for voters to keep supporting the party.
“I think the citizens of the Battlefords realize what the Sask Party has done over the past 13 years and will continue to support the new fellow,” said Cox.
The “new fellow” he refers to is Sask. Party nominee Jeremy Cockrill, who Cox hopes to see take over as MLA for the Battlefords after the next election. Cockrill faces a challenge from Amber Stewart of the NDP in that upcoming vote.
Cox believes the strong support he had at election time would carry over to Cockrill — that it wasn’t simply support for himself personally, but for what his party stood for.
“I think the votes that came our way came number one because of our leader (Brad Wall) and because of our party policy,” said Cox. “We’ve gained substantially in the popular vote here.”
Now, Cox is back in the Battlefords where he will continue to look after constituency business and keep “doing what we’ve done for the past nine years,” until the writ is dropped for the next election in the fall.
His plan after the election is to spend time with his family and his grandkids, and he likes to point out all three of his grown children now are back in the province.
“To me that’s what it’s all about,” said Cox. “That’s why we do this job, to make this place a better place for our grandkids.”