Board candidate profile: Pat Atkinson

Pat Atkinson

Pat Atkinson is a teacher by profession. She served in the Saskatchewan Legislature representing Saskatoon-Nutana. During her 25 years as an elected MLA, she held several senior ministerial portfolios, including Finance, Crown Investments Corporation, Transportation, Rural Revitalization, Health, Education, Social Services and Post Secondary Education. She has chaired governing committees, which included Treasury Board, Public Sector Bargaining, Planning and Priorities, Social Development and Regulations and Legislation. She is considered a governance expert.

Before she was elected a sitting Member of the Legislature, she was involved in numerous civil society organizations and cooperatives. She has served on the board of the Saskatoon Community Clinic and the Cooperative Housing Association of Saskatchewan.

Presently, she is a volunteer at the Saskatoon Community Clinic and is a Patient and Family Advisor to the Saskatchewan Health Authority, where she is mentoring College of Medicine Students and advising the Neuroscience Division at the Royal University Hospital. She has served on the interview committee for people who have applied for senior management positions with the Health Authority.

Over the years, Pat gained exceptional experience in governance, public policy development and implementation. She is the longest-serving woman parliamentarian in Saskatchewan history. Since leaving elected office in 2011, Pat has worked internationally and nationally with public servants, journalists, civil society organizations and parliamentarians. She has spent most of her time as a trainer teaching citizens about financial accountability and governance. She has worked in transitional and post-conflict democracies, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Russia, Myanmar and Ukraine.

So, Pat, tell us about yourself!

For the first part of my young life, I grew up on a farm west of Biggar. Our parents encouraged three things to do once we hit adulthood; join a Coop, join a Credit Union, and join a Community Clinic. When I was a university student, I lived close to the Greystone Coop on 8th Street.  I could get a job bunking shelves on Tuesday and Friday and a cashier position on Thursday nights and Saturdays.  That job was a massive help while I went to University. I would say it kept me away from student loans. After University, I taught and then I ran in the 1986 provincial election and was successful.  I had the good fortune to serve in the Romanow and Calvert governments, where I learned a lot about governance, financial accountability and representing people. All these experiences certainly have informed my work internationally. 

What made you consider running for the Board?

I am now home after working for the last several years internationally. I wanted to continue contributing to the experiences and skills I’ve gained to assist civil society organizations.  It seemed that the Saskatoon Coop had experienced some upheaval in the last few years, and I thought that by serving as an elected board member, I might be able, along with others, to work towards re-engaging our members. 

Since the CM4F group formed in early 2019, it seems that the Co-op has problems, such as contentious labour relations and disputes with Co-op’s workers over management proposed reductions in workers’ compensation, and the Calgary Co-op opting out of the grocery procurement system. How confident are you that the problems at Co-op can be overcome? 

It would seem that there have been long-standing issues regarding employee relations. I’m not familiar with all of the events that have led to various disputes. As a Board, it isn’t easy to go back in time.  With a renewal of the Board of Directors and a new CEO and a commitment to our values, it is possible to start re-engaging the people who work for the Saskatoon Coop.  The Board, management and staff will all need to work very hard at rebuilding our cooperative relationship, but it is possible.  It seems that a trusting relationship can be the outcome if everyone approaches the task with good intent.

From the position as board member, what do you think you’ll be able to do to empower workers and/or repair relationships with their organizations (i.e. unions)?

One way to improve communication is for the Board and CEO to meet with the representatives for the unions representing Coop employees. During a previous experience of mine, we had employee representatives appointed by the Union to the Board of Directors of Crown Corporations.  The representatives had to recuse themselves during discussions about employer-employee relations, but they could be fully contributing members of the Boards of Directors. Their perspective added to the overall governance of Saskatchewan’s Crown Corporations. 

Another significant overture that the Co-op can make is for the Labour Relations Department of the Saskatoon Coop to work with the Union to clean up outstanding grievances and signal that the Saskatoon Coop is serious about moving forward with employee relations.

Co-op Members for Fairness, when it formed, formulated a series of resolutions aimed at starting to adopt more “cooperative values.” Saskatoon Co-op has dismissed all of these for various reasons. Can you expand on these a little bit of talk about why you agree with CM4F’s resolutions (or not)?

If we are to have democratic practices within the Saskatoon Coop and restore relationships based on our cooperative values, several of the passed resolutions will positively start re-engaging our Coop members and our employees.  One of the ideas might be for representatives of the Board, Management and Employees working together to determine how we might implement the resolutions that don’t have any legal barriers. It seems that it’s going to take all of us to restore our collective reputations.  

The current Board rejected the resolutions, saying that they were “out of scope” of what the Board can legally do. Do you think that’s true? What will you do to help implement resolutions/policies the members clearly want? 

We need to implement the members’ resolutions.  If there is a legal obstacle, the legal opinion should be shared with the membership online and by mail. If members put forward resolutions that aren’t considered by the Board of Directors, that leads to membership disengagement. The Board of Directors is accountable to the membership, and as such, they need to either work towards implementing the resolutions or have an excellent reason why implementation isn’t possible.

How would you improve the democratic processes in our Saskatoon Co-op?

I’m a proponent of one member, one vote.  With the recent pandemic, we will hold our annual meeting online and will vote for resolutions and representatives to the Board online. We could move to online voting as other institutions have done.

What do you see as the proper working relationship between the Board and management?

The Board of Directors sets the tone and policy direction, and it’s the role of the CEO and her/ his team to implement and report back. That’s how governance should work. The Board of Directors needs to work in the context of cooperative values.

What do you see as the proper working relationship between the board/management and workers?

The Board of Directors needs to keep top of mind the international cooperative values that guide every cooperative in the world.  Those values include “democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. Coop members are to be guided by ethical values of “honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others.”  If we can all keep this in mind when the Board of Directors sets policy direction and the mandate for the collective bargaining process and management maintains its role as the implementor, we should see a dramatic improvement in our cooperative relationships between the board, management, and workers.