Saskatoon, Treaty 6: Ryan Meili

photo by Lindsey Rewuski, intro by Shawn Simon Fraser

photo by Lindsey Rewuski, intro by Shawn Simon Fraser

I heard about Ryan Meili before I met him. A mutual friend of ours told me that I reminded him of someone he knew in Saskatoon.

From living on the same street (he on Osler St. in Saskatoon, me on Osler St. in Regina), to having roughly the same wardrobe, to driving roughly the same station wagon, it seemed obvious from the start that Ryan and I are stuck in parallel universes held apart by little more than a short stretch of the #11.

Having gotten to know Ryan over the past few years, three qualities stick out most to me.

  1. His dreams turn into reality. From clinics, to books, to think tanks, if an idea passes through Ryan’s brain, it’s likely to end up in reality.

  2. He’s articulate. In his book ‘A Healthy Society’, Ryan puts words to a worldview that many of us, until we read it, have only felt.

  3. The man has puns in his blood. To try to out rhyme him would be in vein.

KC: What kinds of projects are you involved in right now?

The big project for me is Upstream. This is a national, non-partisan, non-profit organization based in Saskatoon that seeks to change how we talk and think about health and politics. Our main purpose is to popularize the idea that income, education, employment, early childhood development, housing, food security and the wider environment have a far higher impact on health outcomes than health care, and that if we want a truly healthy society we need to work to address these social determinants of health.

In our first year we were part of the Poverty Costs campaign that led to the SK government committing to a poverty reduction strategy. This year we’re working on a number of different projects, including a Vote for Health campaign, doing a video and an assessment of the different federal election platforms to help Canadians see which party has the best plan to improve our health. To my mind, that’s what elections are really about, making decisions to improve our health and wellbeing.

Upstream has caught on around the country and we’re hearing more talk of the social determinants in the media, from political leaders and the public. This is encouraging to me, because it opens up space for better decisions to be made, for us to create the kind of society we want.

KC: What’s your day job? What do you like about it? What’s challenging?

I work at the West Side Clinic as a family physician and at the University of Saskatchewan as an Assistant Professor in the departments of Community Health and Family Medicine. West Side serves an inner-city population dealing with a lot of mental health challenges, HIV, Hepatitis C, substance abuse, diabetes and other illnesses related to poverty. At the University I teach and do research in community health and work on making the College of Medicine a more socially accountable institution.

I really like the ability to work directly with patients on the front line, but also be able to look at, write and teach about the big picture. Mixing this direct service with system-level advocacy for health suits me very well. It also helps me deal with what’s most frustrating about each aspect. If all you do is think and advocate, you can lose track of what’s really happening on the ground. If all you ever do is clinical work, helping people who are struggling from the health effects of poverty and marginalization without ever trying to change the larger social circumstances that make them ill, that can be very discouraging. I do my best to find a balance between the two, but it’s something of a juggling act.

KC: What’s important to you?

Being a good person and spending my time on things that matter.

KC: What do you like most/least about Saskatoon

Like lots of people who grew up in Saskatchewan I dreamt of leaving, going off to see the world and make my life somewhere else. And I did do a lot of travelling, spending time in South America, India, Africa and all over Canada. But then I would come back to Saskatoon and think to myself, “You know what’s great? This town.” There are obvious things like the university campus and the river that are so beautiful and really make Saskatoon stand out from other Canadian cities. There are the people of course, having gotten so close to friends over the years and just knowing so many faces in the community, that’s what makes it home. And it’s a city that I find to be constantly changing, and there’s a lot of excitement and possibility that goes along with that.

Of course there are things not to like in Saskatoon. I live in Riversdale, on the West Side. I love the neighbourhood, and my neighbours. But I don’t love the reality that we have a very segregated and separated city. In recent years there have been positive changes in Riversdale, and right now it’s in kind of a sweet spot between ghettoized and gentrified, but that won’t last long. There have been a lot of discussions lately, like the recent Riversdale Love event, about how we can do things better in our community and not just keep moving people to more and more marginalized areas as we develop. I’m glad these conversations are happening, because the point is not simply to revitalize neighbourhoods, the point is to improve the lives of the people in them.

KC: What is your impression of Regina

I heart Regina. It’s got a different feel to it than Saskatoon, for sure, a different social culture. I’m from Southern Sask (grew up on a farm near Courval, went to high school in Moose Jaw) so this is familiar, but having gone to school in Saskatoon, I know the scene much better, and have at times found it tough to find Regina’s hidden gems. But through my leadership campaigns I spent a lot of time there, and through some really good friends like Dave Mitchell, I’ve got to know a group of really cool people: artists, musicians, comedians, political activists etc. Through them I’ve come to have a lot more appreciation for the Queen City.

KC: (from Proust Questionnaire) What is your most treasured possession?

I have this acoustic guitar that I got when I was in Grade 12. It’s a bit beat-up, but it’s traveled all over with me. I used to write a lot of songs, played in a few shows, sang around a lot of campfires. I wish I could say I still played a lot, but I hardly pick it up now. Still, if I ever think of the house catching fire, once the people were out I’d want to grab that guitar.