A scene set for conflict quickly shifted to hugs, coffee invitations and mutual respect, as Saskatchewan Rivers MLA Nadine Wilson met with protesters Wednesday.
Members of two unions were set to confront attendees at the Sask. Party riding association’s annual general meeting at Buckland’s firehall. They came armed with pamphlets.
SGEU president Bob Bymoen said he wasn’t expecting much. “The premier doesn’t want to talk to unions,” he said. Wilson, he predicted, wouldn’t be allowed to speak – even if she wanted to.
“I think there would be questions from the upper leadership if they actually came and talked to us today,” he said.
The MLA arrived around 7 p.m. “Nadine, wanna see what you voted for?” someone called out. But the mood shifted quickly when Wilson announced that her riding association president had died the night before.
“Every party has their AGM, and I’m having one today,” she said. “I will also be having a moment of silence for our president.”
The anger seemed to melt away. Someone invited Wilson to address the entire crowd of demonstrators. She agreed.
“I appreciate you coming and showing your concerns and your cares for our province and our region. At our AGM we will also look at what your concerns are. This is democracy. I appreciate you coming out and showing us your signs,” she said.
“Do you have someone who would like to speak at all?”
John Kunard, president of CUPE Local 4195, was the first to air his grievances. He said government cuts are partly to blame for reductions in hours for school staff. It’s putting future generations at risk, he told Wilson.
“We’re here today to let you know that we’re not supportive of your choices,” he said. “Our education workers and our support staff are very valuable to the kids, and to the future, and we really want you to consider that.”
“I understand, thank you,” Wilson responded. “You have your voice and we have ours. Of course, we’re always open to listen to the public.”
Bymoen spoke next. He focussed on cuts to health services provided through community organizations. He said the government is only saving pocket change for every taxpayer, while the impact of lost programming can be severe for vulnerable people.
Despite his frustration, he treated Wilson with respect.
“Nice to see you,” he said. “Most Sask. Party MLAs, they don’t want to talk to us… I appreciate you taking the time.”
Wilson listened as Bymoen criticized corporate tax cuts and the millions spent on the Regina Bypass. She said she would bring his concerns forward.
Bymoen said he didn’t come to interfere with Wilson’s AGM. Another protester asked when she planned to hold the moment of silence, so they could “be respectful outside.” Wilson asked whether the protesters brought enough water to drink, and offered them coffee from her AGM. “I’ve got enough coffee for everyone,” she said. The protesters, she explained later, are also her neighbours.
“I value everyone in the province,” Wilson told them. “We’re all here working together. We want the same things: good infrastructure, education and healthcare. And as mothers we want that for our children.”
Wilson took a moment to speak to a Matthew Labossiere, a young student diagnosed with autism. He told her he was dismayed when he learned that the Carlton Connection program – which offers smaller class sizes for students like him – was slated to shut down.
“It’s the fault of the MLAs that I might not be able to do much,” Labossiere explained later.
Wilson told him that he’s a symbol of what democracy is all about. She gave him a hug, and asked him what he wants to be when he grows up. “An inventor,” he said.
“You can be whatever you want to be,” she said, preparing to go into her AGM. “I guess I better go to work now too.”
The protestors seemed stunned after the MLA’s visit.
“I’ve been to a few rallies and they’ve all been away, or not coming out to speak with us,” said Bonnie McRae.
Kunard said he felt that Wilson was genuine. He hoped that she would take their comments to Premier Brad Wall.
“I was really impressed,” he said. “I think it was really a great opportunity for her to come out and just interact with us and hear our concerns… I really respect that.”
Inside the firehall, Wilson said she appreciated the comments. She said the divide between the government and the unions isn’t insurmountable. Dialogue, she stressed, is always possible.
“They were very empathetic, considerate and passionate about the issues that affect their families,” she said. “As a member of the legislative assembly, that’s my job: to bring it forward.
“I enjoy interacting with my neighbours.”