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2020 year-end interview with Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil

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WATCH: From the pandemic to heartbreaking tragedy, Nova Scotia has been dealt a rough hand. Global News reporter Alicia Draus sat down with Premier Stephen McNeil to talk about his final year in politics, and what it's been like to lead the province through such challenging times. – Dec 31, 2020

In a year-end interview with Global News reporter Alicia Draus, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil took a look back at 2020 and the challenges of leading a province through a pandemic and numerous tragedies.

The premier also reflected on what would be his last full year in provincial politics and why he’s chosen to step down after 17 years of political life.

Here are some of the highlights.

On the COVID-19 Pandemic

Q:  2020 has been a year that nobody predicted. Before the pandemic hit, and we were starting out 2020 did you have expectations or goals of what you hoped to accomplish this year? 

A: We came in, brought our budget early, our house sat as you know back in February or March with the idea of delivering our fifth balanced budget and then I was going to make an announcement that my time in public life had ended. But obviously, the early part of March we had our first case (of COVID-19) — that changed all of that.

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Q: What was it like leading through this unprecedented pandemic, and what were the key challenges for you?

 A: If you remember back when the virus first came in, there was so much we didn’t know. We were terrified our health care system was going to be overtaken, that’s why we reduced 30 per cent of it, we had 30 per cent capacity to deal with anyone who needed to be hospitalized, so there were so many unknowns around that.  And then of course having to make the decisions around businesses. We decided, as we looked across the country and really globally, with our own public health, Dr. Strang and I, we knew the key for us was going to be to act quickly. Whenever we saw something, we couldn’t delay, we couldn’t wait for a period of time, it’s why we put masks on first; it’s why we saw our economy completely shut down on the service side early.

It really was around trying to control the virus and not get out in community spread. But with that comes the level of responsibility and stress that is — you know, you’re dealing with people’s lives, not only health but their economic lives when you’re telling them you’re going to close their business down for four months.

Q: There has been criticism in government’s transparency in the handling of the issue. We’re the only legislature in the country that didn’t sit (during the pandemic) save for the sitting to prorogue the legislature. Why was the decision made to not have a virtual sitting that would allow the MLAs to still partake in the process they were elected to do?

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 A: I appreciate the question, and earlier on we talked about when we had our sitting. So, we had our sitting in February or March before the pandemic. We passed the budget which is what happens in every province and that gives you your spending authority for the year. We’ve laid out our spending that we do every day. I’ve been in front of the media more in the last 10 months than I was at any time in my political life. And to be perfectly honest with you, I’m more concerned about the health of Nova Scotians.

Nova Scotians aren’t asking about the sitting of the legislature, they are worried about whether their family is going to be well. My job and my focus had to be for the last 10 months on the health of Nova Scotians and it wasn’t here (at Province House), it was actually working with public health; it was understanding what was happening with this virus not just in our country, but around the world.

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#nspoli with Lori Turnbull – Dec 21, 2020

Q: On that note, it’s the job of an elected MLA to also maybe question policy or bring forth things of their own and a lot of that is done through the legislature. Have you considered that maybe it was unfair for, particularly opposition MLAs, that they have not had the chance to do the job they were elected to do?

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A: If they haven’t been focused on this pandemic, they’re focused on the wrong thing. The focus of these last 10 months should be this pandemic and the health of Nova Scotians, not this legislature. Every MLA should be in their riding sitting in their constituency office responding to the needs of the people that elected them.

Q: Do you think that, particularly with opposition MLAs, did they still have the chance that they normally would to bring forward issues that they are hearing from their constituents?

 A: Here’s what’s really interesting: they can pick up the phone and call the minister of the departments. Think about this, and I really appreciate this conversation, because the legislature is an important part of democracy no question, but we’re in the middle of a pandemic. If you have a problem and a concern of a constituent and your sole focus is to bring it to the floor of the legislature, you’re not worried about the constituent, you’re more worried about getting profile. If there’s an issue with your constituent, pick up the phone and call the department, call the minister.

On tragedies felt province-wide

Q: As we’re going through this pandemic, Nova Scotia obviously had more than its fair share of heartbreak and tragedy, starting with the mass murder in April and then we had several other tragedies in the span of a month and most recently the fishing boat that went down. What has it been like leading the province through this unimaginable grief?

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 A: First of all, there’s many Nova Scotians whose grief is much greater. They’ve lost someone in their family someone who they care about and love. For me and for the team working with me, the enormity of so much death at one time, happening really one after another, it’s been hard to comprehend at times. I’ve said this many times, I’ve cried more in the last 10 months than certainly I did in the first 17 years of my job but really probably ever.

It’s been an emotional drain, that you see so much death and some of it so senseless, so horrific and senseless and first of all, you just can’t understand it, so how do you process it? And yet we’re left to deal with it, and deal with the sadness and the hurt and the anger of it all, and so it’s been one that’s been a challenging emotional year, there’s no question. It’ll take some time for sure, When I get a chance to rest, to let that all… to let me process it and quite frankly let me be able to move past it.

Click to play video: 'Stephen McNeil fights back tears as he comments on crew of missing scallop boat' Stephen McNeil fights back tears as he comments on crew of missing scallop boat
Stephen McNeil fights back tears as he comments on crew of missing scallop boat – Dec 17, 2020

Q: How much of a toll did it take on your team as well? Because at the same time in April, that was the height of the pandemic and we were seeing numerous deaths at Northwood.

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 A: I appreciate the question about the team, and it’s not just the elected body, it’s those who work and are employed with me who are living it every day and it’s not what you signed up for; it’s not what they signed up for. No one could have predicted or understood it. The pandemic obviously had a tremendous toll but the mass shooting, it’s one you can’t make sense of it and yet it was so senseless to us so the hurt of all of that and trying to grapple with a level of understanding. The virus is happening somewhere, it’s happening elsewhere and people are dealing with it and trying to understand it and deal with it, but there is no understanding of what happened in April.

It’s trying to (figure out) how do we heal as a province, because we were broken from one end to another. We saw an outpouring of love from around the world, really, but it was from one end of a province to the other we were broken, and still are in many ways. Then to have the helicopter crash and the Snowbird crash, and then to have the scallop dragger go down — it’s a lot. It’s a lot for anyone to have to deal with, those families much more, but you’re thinking of them and for us it just continued to build on top of one on top of the other.

Q: Before all of this happened, you had been intending to announce stepping down, but you held off and didn’t announce that until the summer. Tell me about your decision and how you came about it.

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 A: The reason the house was called in early, I wanted to get our budget through. We delivered our fifth balanced budget I wanted to make sure the process took place, I wanted our team to be able to go home and have their March break and then they were going to come back and I was going to announce that I would be stepping down. But of course, the first weekend of March break we had our first case (of COVID-19) so it started and I couldn’t, I felt I couldn’t until I worked with public health. I wasn’t sure where this was all going to go — so much uncertainty — so I just started preparing for another election and I started preparing for that. Then there was the break in summer where there was a bit of a lull and I felt this was my opportunity to communicate to the party that I would not be seeking a third term.

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On stepping down

Q: Why now? Why did you decided to wrap things up?

 A:   Well, 17 years, and sat as premier for two majority governments here in our province, it hasn’t been down since John Buchanan, and for the Liberal Party it’s Angus L. Macdonald which takes you back to the 50s. I believed there was a third majority there but I’ve had a lot on my plate. I’ve lived my life in a way that many people won’t understand and wouldn’t understand. I don’t want them to feel sorry for me, I asked for the job, but I’ve lived my life in public on the front pages of every media outlet in this province and sometimes that’s a diet that’s hard to understand and hard to take at times. And it was just time for me, I was hitting a significant milestone for me, I was turning 56 and I wanted to do something else; I wanted to start a third career. What that is I don’t know but I think I have something to offer and we’ll work on that once February gets here.

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Q: And what would you consider your greatest accomplishment throughout your nearly two decades?

 A: Others will probably talk about what they think is my greatest accomplishment. I’m proud of a number of things. I’m proud of the Home for Coloured Children, I’m proud of the organ donation bill we passed, I’m proud of the work we’re doing around Boat Harbour, I’m proud of the fact that more young people are working and staying here. And, we’re more confident, we’ve exported at a larger rate than we ever have. I feel that Nova Scotia businesses see themselves competing globally now. Through the trade missions we’ve done, the accomplishments we’ve been able to do with exporting, that’s part of what I was going to do in the final months of office was to go over and continue to focus on the Europe market, continue to grow, build a strategy around the European market.

So I’m really proud of the confidence that Nova Scotians have shown to be able to grow. We had some fiscal challenges in 2013, structural ones that we had to fix. While we will be in a deficit coming out of the pandemic, we are in a better solid foundation to come out of it. Stats Canada in November had us in the lowest unemployment rate in the country. Banks see us as a good place to invest in, people see us as a good place to live. So our march to a million population is key to all of that, and we’ll continue to do that.

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Political opposition frustrated by N.S. premier’s prorogation of the legislature – Dec 18, 2020

Q: Looking back at previous campaigns, one of the promises you made was to ensure that every Nova Scotian had access to a family doctor. Over the past two years we haven’t seen the waitlist really drop below 40,000 and it’s currently sitting just over 50,000. How do you feel about not having been able to keep that promise?

 A: Anyone who’s the premier who says they don’t believe every Nova Scotian should have a doctor I think is failing before they start. That should be our goal, we have one of the best percentages in the country. I think we all have to put that in perspective, it often gets lost in the debate here, and quite frankly if you don’t have a doctor it doesn’t mean anything here because you want one — that’s why we’ve continued to invest in infrastructure. Whether it’s the QEII redevelopment, the redevelopment Cape Breton, medical clinics, collaborative care centres, we’ve built around the province. It’s to build the infrastructure that medical practitioners want to work in, that doctors and nurses, nurse practitioners want to work in and I think we’re starting to see the benefit in that.

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Q: Had you expected to see the waitlist drop more than it has?

 A: So remember it was over 100,000, we’re one of the best in the country. Now I don’t dismiss how people are feeling if you don’t have a doctor, but let’s not forget all of that. We’ve dropped it substantially and we haven’t even opened some of our key infrastructure pieces we’ve invested in. We’re not seeing the benefit of the more medical seats at (Dalhousie University). That benefit will be a few years out, where we’re seeing rural and underrepresented population who will come back out in the field. Those are real substantive pieces that will change that permanently. So we’ll continue to make those investments and we’ll continue to see the benefits of those investments long after I’m gone.

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 Q: One of the promises you did keep was the Boat Harbour Act. It was actually almost a year ago, where you appeared on camera a bit emotional as you kept the promise. How do you feel a year later on that decision?

 A: I was remarking today, I didn’t think there would be any more difficult things to deal with than that, if you go back and listen to what I said, but then of course we had the pandemic and all of the other issues associated with this year. I believe it was the right thing for us to have done. I still fundamentally believe we gave that company a path, and they may choose to actually go through the perming process, that will be up to them. We’re seeing industry continue to transform and we know there’s more work to do but I believe it was the right decision for our province. As hard as it is, if every decision was easy, there’d be everyone wanting to run but they’re not all easy, especially those you know that have a human impact. That one was one of those that had a human impact, for some it was very good, and for others it changed their outlook.

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Premier McNeil is set to leave office when a new leader for the Nova Scotia Liberals is elected on Feb. 6, 2020.

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