Tag Archives: Marg Mrazek

The main campus of Athabasca University, located 152 kilometres north of Edmonton.

Will the NDP save or shutter Athabasca University?

Residents of one northern Alberta community want to know what Alberta’s new New Democratic Party government has planned for their local university.

Peter McKinnon

Peter MacKinnon

Athabasca University, the province’s largest distance-learning institution employs more than 400 people in Athabasca, making it the largest employer in the town of 3,000.

There is significant fear in the town about the consequences of the university closing or relocating to a larger urban centre, like Edmonton.

In recent years, Athabasca University has been the source of much controversy, ranging from illegal political donations made to the Progressive Conservative Party to claims of financial insolvency.

In 2012, staff called for then-university president Frits Pannekoek to retire, citing questions around illegal donations to the PC Party and the institution’s finances, including the depletion of its reserve fund.

In 2013, four of the institution’s vice-presidents and associate vice-presidents had their positions apparently terminated without explanation to the public shortly after the Public Accounts Committee called the university out for its fiscal mismanagement. And after denying there were financial problems in 2012, the institution cut around 100 positions in 2013, citing financial difficulties.

Colin Piquette NDP

Colin Piquette

During those cuts, sources in government reported that discussions were taking place to merge parts of Athabasca with the University of Alberta, talks that then-PC cabinet minister Thomas Lukaszuk said he was not aware of.

PC MLA Jeff Johnson was unseated by NDP candidate Colin Piquette in this year’s provincial election, with the future of the university being a key issue for voters in the area. The election of an NDP MLA has led locals to believe Mr. Piquette will take action to ensure the university stays open and remains in Athabasca.

In June 2015, Athabasca University interim president Peter MacKinnon released a task force report on the university’s sustainability, which indicated the institution was facing insolvency in the 2015/2016 financial year. The report blamed over-reliance on tuition fees, the state of its information technology infrastructure, as well as staff compensation and the university’s location, for the university’s financial difficulties.

Lori Sigurdson NDP

Lori Sigurdson

While the task force report focused on alarming terms like ”insolvency,” the university had small surpluses in its 2013/2014 and 2014/2015 budgets.

Some observers in the community have suggested that Mr. MacKinnon is playing chicken with the government in an attempt to force new Advanced Education Minister Lori Sigurdson to commit to keeping the university in Athabasca.

Current Wildrose MLA Jason Nixon was a student representative on Mr. MacKinnon’s task force.

In response to the report, the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3911, Alberta Union of Provincial Employees Local 69 and the Athabasca University Faculty Association have launched a petition demanding the government ensure Athabasca University and its jobs remain in Athabasca.

Jeff Johnson Alberta Education Minister MLA

Jeff Johnson

Politically speaking, it may have been an easier decision for the new government to make if an NDP MLA was not currently representing the area. If the constituency had remained PC territory, the NDP would not have to worry about Mr. Piquette’s re-election chances in 2019.

Now the NDP government is stuck in an odd position. Even if the new government wanted to relocate the institution, it would not be difficult to reallocate extra funds in the provincial budget to cover the deficits.

If the NDP’s first budget is focused on job creation and stimulus, then protecting 400 jobs in Athabasca should be on the list of priorities.

The new government also faces the question about what to do with the university’s board of governors after years of controversy. Like several universities and colleges across Alberta, the board is headed by someone with strong political connections to the old governing party.

Jason Nixon Wildrose Rocky Mountain House Rimbey Sundre

Jason Nixon

Acting chair Marg Mrazek is a former president of the PC Party. While the Post-Secondary Learning Act gives the government the ability to replace the board, with Ms. Mrazek’s term is set to expire on July 24, 2016 the NDP may wait until that date before replacing the Tory appointee.

In many ways, Athabasca University is a microcosm for the challenges of regime change after forty-four years of Progressive Conservative government in Alberta.

But Athabasca University may be able to use its NDP connections to apply pressure to the new government. Mr. MacKinnon is the husband of former Saskatchewan NDP MLA and Finance Minister Janice MacKinnon, who served in Roy Romanow‘s cabinet in the 1990s. Premier Rachel Notley‘s Chief of Staff, Brian Topp, was Mr. Romanow’s deputy chief of staff during that period.

While the new government has been able to remain coy about the future of the institution in its first four months in office, residents of Athabasca will demand to know what the NDP has planned for their university. They may find out this week when Ms. Sigurdson is scheduled to meet with Ms. Mrazek and Mr. MacKinnon.

illegal donations continue to dog alberta’s tories.

Tories Illegal Donations

Another case of illegal donations to the PC Party has been relvealed.

In the weeks leading to the election call earlier this year, it appeared that a series of illegal donations collected by Alberta’s Progressive Conservative Association could become a defining issue of the campaign. The donations, made public through the great investigative work of CBC reporter Charles Rusnell, revealed that many public institutions, municipalities, and organizations that receive public funds had made financial or in-kind donations to the PC Party. Under the laws that govern Alberta’s political financing, these types of contributions are deemed illegal.

As the Writ was dropped and the electioneering began, the public focus shifted away from the illegal donations towards more sensational issues, like MLA pay, which were soon eclipsed by other issues and the Tories were re-elected on April 23.

Brian Fjeldheim

Brian Fjeldheim

As the Assembly ended and summer break began last week, Alberta’s Chief Electoral Officer O. Brian Fjeldheim had announced that Elections Alberta was charging fines to some of these groups but would not make public the names of these groups. Mr. Fjeldheim told the media that he is barred by law from making these names public and does not have the authority to further investigate breaches of Alberta’s political financing laws.

Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk and Justice Minister Jonathan Denis responded by claiming the Chief Electoral Officer’s inability to publicly release the group names was a results of recommendations made by Mr. Fjeldheim’s predecessor, Lorne Gibson.

The Calgary Herald’s Don Braid interviewed Mr. Gibson, who disputed this claim and said he is being used as a scapegoat by Tory politicians:

It stretches the bounds of credibility to suggest that the intention of (my) recommendation was to keep private the results of an investigations that lead to a finding of wrongdoing.

This week, Mr. Rusnell unveiled another case of illegal contributions. Documents obtained by the CBC show that Joe Lougheed, a prominent lawyer and the son of former Premier Peter Lougheed, purchased $4,500 worth of tickets to PC Party fundraisers on behalf of the University of Calgary and billed the University extra hours to pay for them. To the university’s credit, their legal counsel put an end to the practice.

Joe Lougheed

Joe Lougheed

Mr. Lougheed’s connections to the PC Party are more than just familial. He has been active in that party and he ran for to be President of the PC Party in 2007. He was defeated by Marg Mrazek in what was split between northern and southern regional factions within the party (Ms.Mrazek was from St. Albert, which is located north of Edmonton).  At the time, Mount Royal University Professor David Taras described Mr. Lougheed as “a symbol of the old party and Calgary power.”

Since her stepping into the role last year, PC Premier Alison Redford has made a priority to improve her party’s image amid these types of allegations. This is not an easy task. After four decades in government, her party has essentially institutionalized this type of behaviour. I would not be shocked if the University of Calgary is not the final example.

Before the election, opposition party leaders claimed that that many of these institutions and municipalities faced intimidation to make those donations. Liberal Party leader Raj Sherman frequently used the example of the banned donations to accuse the Tories of practising “warlord politics” in rural Alberta.

While there does not seem to be much hard evidence proving the claims of intimidation, Alberta’s one-party state political environment has certainly created the belief that joining and supporting the PC Party is the only way to participate and influence debate in this province. It is just the way business is done in Alberta.