Candidates adjusting to Covid-19 as election nears

July 21, 2020, 1:53 am
Rob Paul - Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Moosomin MLA Steven Bonk (left) and Cannington candidate Daryl Harrison (right)

There will be people all across Saskatchewan heading to polling stations on October 26 to vote for the MLA in their area. The polling station will look different than most years, however, with the Covid-19 pandemic forcing Saskatchewan Chief Electoral Officer Dr. Michael Boda to implement health and safety protocols with the guidance of the Electoral Advisory Board—made up of Boda, Chief medical Health Officer Dr. Saqub Shahab, Government House Leader Jeremy Harrison, and Opposition House Leader Cathy Sproule.

Not only will the actual polling stations look different in 2020, but so will everything leading up to October 26. Most election years involve heavy campaigning in the community, with candidates getting out into their areas for everything from barbecues to going door to door.

Campaigning is all about putting a face to the name and spreading a message on why residents of a community should trust a candidate to lead them. With Covid-19, though, it won’t be so simple. With most community events cancelled in the short-term and the unknown with the long-term, candidates will have to go about campaigning differently in 2020.

Sask Party only one to nominate so far

With the Sask Party the only party to have a candidate set in every electoral district in Southeast Saskatchewan, they’re preparing for a different kind of campaign this summer and fall.

“Campaigning (for the fall election) has been going on for a long time,” said Sask Party Executive Director Patrick Bundrock. “So it’s not just about how it’s impacting us over the next few months, but it’s how is it impacting us now? I would say that after the Covid-19 pandemic really broke out and the government started to bring in their response to slow the spread of Covid-19, the party basically made the decision that it was best to stop all of our activities.

“Then about a month ago we transitioned to the new form of campaigning. We’ve been doing lots of work on social media, emails, text messages, and of course we’ve been doing a lot of work on the phones. We’re not doing any in-person campaigning at this point, we’re waiting on (Saskatchewan Chief Medical Officer) Dr. Shahab to issue new guidelines. We’re following the guidelines as issued by the chief medical officer and not doing any physical campaigning right now.”

With nobody quite knowing what comes next with Covid-19 and when things truly will be normal again, Bundrock says, the Sask Party will be following the guidance of Dr. Shahab and continue with remote campaigning until further notice.

“We’re very closely following what the health department and Dr. Shahab does,” he said. “As the guidelines get posted and updated, we review them and determine from there what we’re going to do. For example, the last five nomination meetings that we have to do to finish off the party’s slate of nominations, we’re doing by mail-in ballot. The other thing we did was we decided that we couldn’t have Premier’s Dinners because obviously it would be a violation of the order. To be very cautious, we shifted a lot of our fundraising activities to mailings, to online, and to email.”

Bundrock says, like all other industries in the province, the Sask Party will adjust as more opens up as they move towards the fall elections.

“The political parties are no different than any business in Saskatchewan,” he said. “Everybody has had to change and we’ve had to change as well. Every couple weeks the guidelines get updated and we go through them. As we move through the different parts of the reopen Saskatchewan plan, the government has put out, every phase of it different things change and you can do more so if Dr. Shahab says, ‘you can now do this’ then we’ll review it and be compliant with that.”

Daryl Harrison, Cannington candidate

With Cannington’s incumbent MLA—Dan D’Autremont—retiring, the Sask Party’s new candidate, Daryl Harrison, has been put in a surreal situation with his first campaign.

“It will be more challenging for me than it is for someone like Steven in the Moosomin area,” he said. “Name recognition means a lot. If Dan was running again, he’s obviously got the long-term tenure here and he’s certainly got the name recognition, but I think having the Sask Party banner behind my name helps. I like to think I’ve traveled a fairly big circle in my past with school divisions and stuff like that. So some may be familiar, but there’s certainly lots more out there to introduce myself to.”

Harrison says, with Covid-19’s impact the campaigning efforts will have to shift focus from in-person interactions at events to using remote options like phone calls, social media, and written information.

“Typically during the summer season there’s community fairs, other community events, all kinds of minor and senior ball, and other events,” he said. “Just all kinds of social outings and they’re just not happening in the same way. It’s tough to get out and visit people, there’s fewer numbers out and about and fewer events in total.

“It will be a lot more phone calls, social connecting via email and stuff like that, there’s always mailing literature and possibly leaving some literature on doorsteps, things like that,” he said. “Some people just don’t want to see anybody on the doorstep right now either and it’s just really different. I don’t know fully how it’s going to all unfold, but we’ll do the best we can.

With 2020 being unlike any other election year, Harrison suspects guidance will come from the Sask Party, especially with different levels of comfort around the Covid-19 situation.

“Certainly we have to respect the public health orders and follow that,” he said. “I imagine closer to the election date there will be more specific procedures to follow. It’s the individuals you approach, everybody’s got their own threshold with this. Some people probably don’t want to open the door even with the two metre distance while others are probably still wanting to extend the hand for a handshake. In Saskatchewan, I think, in general everybody still appreciates a good firm handshake. There’s a wide range of ways people feel and connect, but we must follow the public health orders and keep everyone healthy.”

With everything closing down due to Covid-19 and the need for physical distancing, Harrison says he hasn’t quite had a chance to get out to all the communities in his area yet, but he’s looking forward to it.

“I was in the Carlyle rink—my son’s last playoff game—and that’s when the word came out that the SHA was shutting everything down,” he said. “There would be no more hockey and after that the schools. It seemed like your social life kind of hit a brick wall.”

“To be honest I haven’t been out and about across the constituency a whole lot (due to Covid-19). Things are starting to open up here and my son is on a ball team made up of about five different communities and it’s only going to be a month long, but that’s really when I’m going to get to meet people outside of my home community. As we ramp up into the end of August, I can see things picking up a little more. I’ll have to do some ‘main streeting’ in communities and make myself known to the area.”

Although Covid-19 has thrown a wrench in his first campaign, Harrison says, he’s prepared and excited for a chance to lead the Cannington constituency if elected.

“I’d like to represent my constituents to the best of my ability,” he said. “I think the Cannington constituency is fairly uniform with our sectors. There’s oil and gas from border to border and agriculture is our old faithful, for lack of a better term, with livestock and crops. It’s pretty consistent, we’re on the edge of the coal, the SaskPower, and those issues, but for the most part everyone in Cannington is part of the same sector. I think I can represent them well with my background in rural municipal politics and school board politics.

“I’ll offer a lot to the Sask Party caucus and to the government. I’ll be out and about with local government and the constituency to hear their concerns because I think they’re the best form of government because they’re the closest to the people and that’s where you get the real ideas and opinions and that’s what I want to hear and that’s what I’ll carry forward to the Sask Party caucus.”

Steven Bonk, Moosomin incumbent

It’s not Steven Bonk’s first campaign as the Sask Party candidate for MLA in Moosomin–he was elected in 2016—but it will be his first during a pandemic.

“I think in my situation, I don’t feel under the gun as much as I would have normally because I’ve spent a long time the last few years making sure I was out and about meeting with constituents and doing a good job of representing them in Regina,” he said. “I’ve tried my best, if they have a concern, to meet their concern as fast and efficiently as I can.

“There’s always pressure, of course, in an election. It’s sort of a strange job to have, where you have to have a job interview every four years in that sense. My thought process is that if I do a good job and I’m responsive to the needs of the constituents and represent their concerns that in a way is the best campaigning I can do.

“Some of the restrictions have been eased as far as the traditional methods regarding door knocking or constituency events,” he said. “But having said that, a lot of people still don’t feel comfortable with someone showing up at their door in this pandemic situation. I think what we will be doing is focusing a lot more on emails and phone calls and just trying to look after the concerns of the constituents the best that we possibly can. I think actions quite often speak louder than words. If you’re not afraid of putting in the hard work, hopefully that will be rewarded.”

Bonk says, the Covid-19 pandemic is unlike anything anybody has seen before and his focus has been on helping people who are being put in the worst circumstances as a result.

“This is almost like a movie script,” he said. “It’s something we’ve never had to encounter before and we’re trying to navigate it the best that we can as a government and limit the number of unforeseen circumstances that happen. That has sort of been a focus of mine in the last few months as Covid-19 really started to impact the economy.

“I wanted to make sure that people who don’t quite fit into the current regulations or programs that we have, that we can find solutions for them that will help them out. Every action that the government makes, there’s always some unforeseen consequences. It’s how do we best navigate those and help as many people as possible who could use our help at this time and help them access programs.”

While Covid-19 has changed everything, Bonk says, the Sask Party is following the SHA’s guidelines to give campaign guidance to their candidates.

“Absolutely (the Sask Party is giving guidance through this),” he said. “We’re following the recommendations of the Saskatchewan Health Authority and those are changing quite often. We’re doing our best to make sure that the people of Saskatchewan are aware of our platform, our track record, and what we’re planning for the future, but at the same time we’re trying to do that in a way that respects their right to stay safe and stay healthy. The last thing we want to do is jeopardize someones health because of an election.”

Although things like social media could be an alternate option for campaigning this year, Bonk says, he’d rather let his hard work and track record do the talking.

“It’s a little difficult for me in some ways because I’m not a user of social media,” he said. “I think social media could be helpful in a situation like this, but I’ve also found social media does occupy a lot of people’s time and there does tend to be a lot of downside for very little upside. I’d like to focus on my work, make sure I’m representing the people of this constituency, looking after their concerns, and also helping Saskatchewan as a whole. I’ve had the good fortune, since I was elected, of serving in quite a few roles that have a bit of responsibility in the province and I enjoy serving and hope I can continue to do so.

“I would prefer to let my performance speak for itself. As Brad Wall always said, ‘the best indicator of future performance is past performance.’ We’ll let the people of the Moosomin constituency be the judge and I hope that they approve of what I’ve done and send me back to Regina in October.”

Having spent so much time away from Saskatchewan, Bonk says, it pushed him to want to be able to represent the people of Saskatchewan.

“I think it really comes down to the fact that I lived away from our constituency for quite awhile working in Europe, Asia, and Australia,” he said. “Having moved back I realized, our constituency in particular, but Saskatchewan as a whole has so much to offer the world. We produce what the world needs and wants, yet nobody seems to know about us. I’ve always thought that we could do a better job getting our products out to the world and getting our products to the market. That was the main reason I got into politics. Since being in politics I’ve also realized, more on the social side of things, you can really make a difference in peoples lives with good solid policy. That’s the reason I want to continue to represent this constituency, if the voters are willing, in Regina because you can make a difference.”