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Innisfail-Sylvan Lake MLA aims to heal public anger

Devin Dreeshen hints at improved public engagement but no specifics

INNISFAIL – There was no sipping mai tais on a Hawaiian beach this past holiday season for Devin Dreeshen.

In fact, the Sylvan Lake-Innisfail MLA is proud to point out he was home the entire time and built a “pretty darn nice” skating rink near his riding home. “…if I have to pat myself on the back on it,” he said in triumph.

However, there was no triumphant tone for his naughty wayward UCP colleagues, including a now resigned cabinet minister, five other demoted MLSs, and a shamed now out-of-a-job top chief of staff.

They were all punished for taking out-of-country holiday vacations while average citizens hunkered down at home for the most challenging Yuletide season of their lives.

“I was obviously saddened by it, and again I think it showed poor judgement on their side but also at the end of the day we are a team,” said Dreeshen in an interview with The Albertan on Jan. 5. “And you don’t like to see team members have this type of sanctions or disciplinary actions hit them. At the end of the day being stripped of your title or to lose your job is the ultimate sacrifice that people have been paying from this. That speaks volumes more so than my personal opinion on how disappointed I was that they would do that.”

With that said, the Sylvan Lake-Innisfail MLA and UCP cabinet minister is giving some consideration, but without any definitive promise or plan, of being more open and accessible to the many constituents who still harbour ill feelings towards him and the provincial government.

“The core function of being an MLA is always to be there for people, and that is why I ran in the first place,” he said.

However, The Albertan pressed the Sylvan-Lake MLA what he and his colleagues could do better to overcome many constituent’s lack of trust and confidence for the party over the out-of-country vacation scandal.

He began his answer by noting how “positive” it will be for students to be back to school this month, and that the vaccine roll out is “happening” and that COVID numbers are going in a “better direction”.

“On COVID, there is light at the end of the tunnel that this is all going to be behind us,” he said. “But when it comes to reaching out and talking to folks in the riding it’s calls, it’s Zoom meetings, as much as you can to try to get out there because you are always limited on a personal face-to-face level.

"I think it’s just when they call and trying to get back to them as soon as possible into the office…and also the use of social media, whether it’s Facebook or Twitter, that you are going out and communicating that out on a more regular basis.”

However, one prominent local citizen, former three-term town councillor Jason Heistad, has been trying to get a one-on-one meeting with Dreeshen for the past 10 months over the UCP’s controversial fight with provincial doctors.

Following a town hall meeting over the doctors’ issue last March, Heistad, who is currently the secretary-treasurer of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, and 25 other citizens went to his office to demand answers from the MLA. Dreeshen was not present, and Heistad and citizens have never had a chance to talk to the MLA face-to-face.

“(He) put a lot of pressure on one staff member that I had in the office,” said Dreeshen. “That is an issue I have never seen him publicly apologize for.”

The Albertan reminded Dreeshen the newspaper covered the citizens’ attendance at his office and did not see or hear any “pressure” on the staff member, and that all 26 citizens were polite and orderly.

“I spoke to my staff and she said she felt very uncomfortable by having that many people packed in behind her chair in her desk,” countered Dreeshen, adding his staff remains in “regular contact” with Heistad.

Heistad, who is considering another run for Innisfail town council this coming October, told The Albertan on Jan. 6 he will not apologize to Dreeshen, and has made at least 16 email and office visit attempts since March to have a “conversation” with the local MLA.

“My intent with my emails is about having a civil conversation and about moving forward. As to an apology I am not going to apologize for 26 citizens that have come in to book a meeting with him,” said Heistad, adding its his belief only three out of the 26 citizens eventually heard back from Dreeshen’s office.

“He needs to have those one-on-one conversations with those citizens who came in about the concerns they had about public health care.”

As far as reaching out to constituents following the scandal, Dreeshen said he will consider some sort of public forum. He did note many politicians are getting “creative” when looking at ways to reach out to constituents, whether through social media or Zoom meetings, or teleconference calls.

“All those options are on the table to try to find out ways to make sure you can better communicate with your constituents,” said Dreeshen.