Tag Archives: Public Interest Alberta

24-hours in the life of a student leader the day tuition was removed from legislation

Photo: ACTISEC President Jon Hoffman, Public Interest Alberta executive director Bill Moore-Kilgannon, Liberal MLA Dave Taylor, NDP MLA Raj Pannu, and CAUS Chairperson Dave Cournoyer in the media room at the Alberta Legislature on May 9, 2006.

This week’s news about the Alberta Government extending the tuition freeze and legislating the formula to increase tuition reminded me of the day I came very close to being kicked out of the Legislature.

Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt introduced Bill 19: An Act to Improve the Affordability and Accessibility of Post-Secondary Education in the Legislative Assembly this week. If passed, Bill 19 will implement a new framework that will regulate tuition and mandatory non-instructional fees and provide a new measure of fairness for students enrolled at Alberta’s colleges and universities.

Bill 19 will cap each post-secondary institutions average tuition and apprenticeship fee increases to the Consumer Price Index and allow the minister to regulate mandatory non-instructional fees and international student tuition. It also gives student leaders a more meaningful voice in the process.

These are significant changes but, closer to the heart of this writer, Schmidt is bringing Alberta’s tuition policy out from behind the closed doors of the government boardrooms and returning it to public light in legislation.

In 2006, I was elected Vice-President External of the University of Alberta Students’ Union and chosen as chairperson of the Council of Alberta University Students, an organization that represented undergraduate students from the University of Alberta, the University of Calgary, and the University of Lethbridge. It was a interesting time to be a student leader in Alberta. The price of oil was high and political change was in the air.

After 13 years as premier, Ralph Klein was approaching the end of his time in office, and he was backtracking on a pledge made during a 2005 televised address that Alberta would have the most affordable tuition in Canada.

It happened that May 9, 2006 was an exciting and dramatic day to step in a new role as chairperson of CAUS. Then-Minister of Advanced Education Denis Herard announced he would introduce Bill 40: Post-secondary Learning Amendment Act, which would remove the tuition formula from the Post-Secondary Learning Act and move it into regulations. The formula as it then existed was complicated and needed to be reformed, but removing it from legislation meant that future changes to how much tuition could be raised in Alberta would be made in a closed door cabinet meeting, rather than required to be debated in front of the public on the floor of the Legislative Assembly.

The leaders of Alberta’s student movement were concerned that removing the policy from legislation would lead to further increases, rather than the affordability Klein had promised.

We decided that a quick response was best.

My first full-day as CAUS chairperson started with an early morning press conference in the media room in the basement of the Alberta Legislature Building.It was my first time participating in a press conference of any kind where I would be front and centre.

I was joined by Public Interest Alberta executive director Bill Moore-Kilgannon, ACTISEC president Jon Hoffman, and the Advanced Education critics from the Liberal and New Democratic Party critics, Calgary-Currie MLA Dave Taylor and Edmonton-Strathcona MLA Raj Pannu.

It was a big deal at the time that the Liberal and NDP critics joined us at the press conference, and it may have been the first time the two parties had ever participated in a press conference together. I remember there were some moments of heated dispute between staffers from the two opposition caucuses about which critic would speak first, and I recall the issue was settled in favour of Pannu because the NDP Caucus had booked the media room for the press conference.

The media room was packed with reporters as we read our statements arguing for transparency and accountability of the cost of education. It was the first time I had ever done something like this and it was nerve racking. Without the help of Moore-Kilgannon (who is now Minister Schmidt’s Chief of Staff) and the incredibly resourceful Duncan Wojtaszek, then-executive director of CAUS, I am not sure I would have even had my talking points straight.

It was political maneuvering on our part to hold the early morning press conference. We hoped to pre-empt a press conference that the minister of advanced education was scheduled to hold on the same topic later that morning. Little did we know that Herard would never show up to his own press conference.

After our media event ended we did a few more interviews and later joined the representatives from the University of Calgary Students’ Union for a tour of the Legislature. While on the tour, NDP Caucus staffer Tony Clark rushed to tell us that the minister had canceled his press conference and snuck out of the building before the media could track him down.

With that news in hand, we held an impromptu media scrum on the third floor of the Legislature. It wasn’t until I spotted Klein walk past our scrum that I realized that we had planted ourselves right outside the doors of Room 307 – the Premier’s Office – which was apparently considered a major security violation.

To our surprise, after the scum ended and the reporters disbursed to file their stories, U of A SU president Samantha Power and I were escorted by Legislature security to the front doors of the building. The guards gave us a stern talk about why we weren’t allowed to hold a scrum outside the Premier’s Office. After some heated negotiations, we convinced the guards that evicting us and presumably banning us from re-entering the building would result in us holding another press conference on the Legislature steps minutes later.

I didn’t believe that day could get any more exciting but I was proven wrong when CAUS received an urgent call from the Minister Herard’s office. He wanted to meet with us as soon as possible.

We met with the minister a few hours later in a conference room at the Delta Hotel in downtown Edmonton. The meeting was memorable but completely underwhelming. The minister listened to our arguments why keeping the tuition policy in legislation would ensure transparency and accountability for students but he offered nothing more than platitudes and strange metaphors in return.

Herard’s short time in cabinet would be remembered for his desire to “cross the wisdom bridge” and “build an army of mentors.”

Eight days later, Progressive Conservative MLAs voted to remove the tuition policy from legislation by passing Bill 40. The minister was shuffled into the backbenchers later that year when Ed Stelmach entered the Premier’s Office.

At the press conference early that morning, I told the assembled media that students were prepared to wait until the next time the legislature met to have a new policy implemented, so that the policy would be embedded in an act of the legislature. If the tuition policy was not in legislation, it was no good to us, I said.

I never expected the policy to ever be returned to legislation. And while the fight to lower the cost of and eliminate tuition fees needs to continue, 12 years later the tuition policy is finally out from behind closed doors and back where it should be – enshrined in legislature. And it is a big deal.

NDP MLA Brian Mason announces his retirement from Alberta politics on July 4, 2018. (photo credit: David Climenhaga)

NDP MLA Brian Mason retires after 30 years in politics. A spirited nomination contest expected in Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood.

Photo: NDP MLA Brian Mason announces his retirement from Alberta politics on July 4, 2018. (photo credit: David Climenhaga)

After 30 years in elected office, Brian Mason will call it quits when the next provincial election is called. The New Democratic Party MLA for Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood announced at a press conference this morning that he will not seek re-election in 2019.

Brian Mason as a city transit driver in the 1980s. (source: Facebook)

Brian Mason as a city transit driver in the 1980s. (source: Facebook)

He started his political career as a student activist, including a term as Vice-President External of the University of Alberta Students’ Union and as director of the Alberta Federation of Students. Mason jumped into municipal politics in 1983, running for city council as past of the left-leaning Edmonton Voters Association slate. His first run was unsuccessful but he ran again six years later.

Then employed by the City of Edmonton as a bus driver, Mason challenged a law prohibiting city employees from running for council and was elected to city council in 1989. He was re-elected in north east Edmonton in 1992, 1995, and 1998. He jumped into provincial politics in 2000, running in a by-election in Edmonton-Highlands to succeed former NDP leader Pam Barrett, who had represented the district from 1986 to 1993 and 1997 until her retirement from politics in 2000.

Mason cruised to victory in the by-election against former Leduc Liberal MLA Terry Kirkland and was re-elected by significant margins in the five elections since. He became leader of the Alberta NDP ahead of the 2004 election, succeeding Edmonton-Strathcona MLA Raj Pannu.

Brian Mason at the opening ceremony marking the completion of the north-east leg of the Anthony Henday ring road in Edmonton. (photograph by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)

Brian Mason at the opening ceremony marking the completion of the north-east leg of the Anthony Henday ring road in Edmonton. (photograph by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)

As leader of the sometimes 2 or 4 MLA caucus, Mason led a feisty opposition that frequently ran circles around the actual Official Opposition Liberals (to the frustration of Liberal Party staffers like me).

He stepped down as leader in 2014, perhaps sensing a change in the times. And the timing of the NDP leadership race that chose Rachel Notley was perfect. While no one could have predicted on that day that Notley would lead the NDP to form government in 2015, Mason handed over a party that was in much better shape than it was on the day he started the job in 2004.

He was re-elected in 2015 in Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood with the widest margin of his political career, earning a landslide 78 percent of the vote.

Despite rumours that Notley might pick him for Minister of Finance or back a bid for him to become Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, she appointed Mason as Minister of Transportation, Minister of Infrastructure and Government House Leader when the NDP were sworn-in to office in 2015.

The Dean of Alberta’s Legislative Assembly, Mason will end his political career as the longest-serving current MLA in our province.


NDP nomination battle in Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood

Janis Irwin NDP Edmonton Highlands Norwood

Janis Irwin (source: Facebook)

With Mason stepping aside, we could now see a spirited nomination contest in Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood, a largely blue-collar district that is considered strong territory for the NDP.

Two names frequently mentioned as potential successors to Mason include 2015 federal NDP candidate Janis Irwin and former Public Interest Alberta executive director Bill Moore-Kilgannon.

(I live in Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood, so I have a particularly keen interest in this nomination contest).


A history of Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood

The Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood district was created in 2004 and included areas from the former Edmonton-Highlands and Edmonton-Norwood districts.

Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood 2019 Map

Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood (click to enlarge)

Edmonton-Highlands had been represented by the NDP from 1986 until 1993, when Liberal Alice Hanson was elected, and again by the NDP from 1997 until 2004.

Edmonton-Norwood was represented by NDP leader Ray Martin from 1982 until 1993, when he was unseated by Liberal Andrew Beniuk. Beniuk later crossed the floor to the Progressive Conservatives and was defeated in 1997 by Liberal Sue Olsen. Olsen did not seek re-election in 2001 and the seat was won by PC candidate Gary Masyk, who would later cross the floor to the Alberta Alliance. Masyk chose not to challenge Mason in the new district in 2004 and was defeated in his bid for re-election in the neighbouring Edmonton-Decore district.

Michael Janz

Public schools should be the priority, says trustee Michael Janz

With Finance Minister Joe Ceci scheduled to table Alberta’s budget in the Legislative Assembly on Thursday, March 22, there was plenty of activity today by advocates wanting to see big changes in provincial education.

Public schools should be the priority, says Janz

Edmonton Public School Board Trustee Michael Janz is calling on the province to prioritize the construction of public schools in new communities. Janz will introduce a motion encourging the board seek a commitment from the provincial government that ‘the first school built in any community or neighbourhood be a public school or a shared public, separate, and/or francophone board facility.’

As of September 2017, around 100,000 students were enrolled in Edmonton’s public school system, a 3.4 percent increase from the previous year. According to Janz, the board’s draft projections indicate an increase of an additional 3,000 students in the 2018-2019 school year.

The board is currently debating its Three Year Capital Plan.

3 out of 4 taxpayers say no money for elite and exclusive private schools 

Progress Alberta released a poll from Environics showing that 75 percent of Albertans agree that schools charging more than $10,000 per year in tuition should not receive public funding. According to data released by Progress Alberta in 2017, 15 private schools that charge more than $10,000 in annual tuition fees received more than $30 million in taxpayer subsidies from the Alberta government in 2015-2016.

Some school boards falling behind on protecting sexual minority students

Public Interest Alberta has released a new report on four school boards’ policies and procedures on sexual and gender minorities that points to the need for changes to protect students and their rights. “Policies should be clear, comprehensive and unequivocal in their support for LGBTQ students, staff and families. Students shouldn’t need a lawyer to make sense of their school policies, or to find out if they’re fully protected or not,” University of Alberta assistant professor Kristopher Wells told Metro Edmonton.

Photo: Edmonton Public School Trustee Michael Janz

Child poverty a problem worth eliminating in wealthy Alberta

November 24, 2014 marked 25 years since members of the Canadian Parliament voted unanimously to end child poverty in our country. The motion introduced by then-NDP leader Ed Broadbent supported abolishing child poverty in Canada by the year 2000.

Twenty-five years later, we are far away from reaching this goal.

Although Alberta has benefited from rapid economic growth, not everyone has shared in this prosperity. The Edmonton Social Planning Council, Alberta College of Social Workers and Public Interest Alberta released a new report on Nov. 24 showing that 143,200 children in our province lived below the low-income measure in 2012.

Alberta Child PovertyThe numbers in the report are depressing but important to recognize. According to the report, the percentage of Alberta children living in poverty is essentially unchanged since Mr. Broadbent’s motion was passed in 1989.

Unemployment is not necessarily the main cause of child poverty in Alberta. The report shows that in 2011, a record high of 59.2% of children in poverty lived in a household where one or more persons were working full-time job.

According to the report, Alberta’s income inequality has increased faster than the national average, with the top 1% of earners seeing real income increases of over 60% since 1982 while the bottom half of income earners only saw a small increase of 3.4%.

The report also shows that in March 2014, more than forty-nine thousand Albertans accessed food banks, an increase of 2.3% from  2013 and 48.2% higher than in 2008.

The recent Homeless Count found 2,252 people without a home in Edmonton, an increase of 3.5% from 2012. The number of youth increased by 17% from 481 to 562. Of all those counted in the survey (including non-youth), 47% identified as being of Aboriginal heritage.

But despite an intense political focus in Alberta on low taxes and oil pipeline expansion, the discussion around income-inequality and eliminating poverty has gained some attention in recent years.

Poverty Parents Working Alberta

In March 2014, Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson named a task force on Poverty Elimination to develop a plan with recommendations to eliminate poverty in the city.

“There are over 100,000 Edmontonians living below the poverty line, 30,000 of whom are children. For me, that is not acceptable,” Mr. Iveson said in a press release earlier this year.

Speaking to a group of Edmontonians during a break from budget hearings last week, Mr. Iveson explained some of the ways Edmonton can help contribute to the reduction of child poverty through public library education programs and reduced-fee transit passes for low-income parents.

“Poverty elimination will be the result of good prevention,” Mr. Iveson said, as he explained the need for a renewed focus on the social determinants of health.

“If we don’t deal with some of those things proactively they can become policing challenges, which is the most expensive thing we do,” he said.

As city governments are limited in their resources compared to provincial and federal governments, he spoke to the need for municipalities to pressure MLAs to make much needed funding increases to Family and Community Support Services.

During the 2012 election, Progressive Conservative leader Alison Redford promised the creation of a ten year strategy to end poverty in Alberta, which would include a five-year plan to eliminate child poverty and a plan to address the root causes of poverty. Following Ms. Redford’s departure, it is suspected that a strategy will not be released until next year. But it remains unclear how Premier Jim Prentice will approach this issue.

Despite our prosperity, Mr. Prentice is pleading poverty due to slightly deflating world oil prices and is already suggesting education funding cuts are likely in next year’s budget.

It is shameful that child poverty in Canada still exits in 2014, twenty-five years after every Member of Parliament stood and committed to eliminating it by 2000. And in a wealthy and prosperous jurisdiction like Alberta, where we have the financial means and ingenuity to ensure every resident can live outside of poverty, there is no excuse why child poverty still exists.

Read the reportNo Change: After 25 years of Promises it is Time to Eliminate Child Poverty.

Listen: Ed Broadbent’s interview with CBC’s The Current on the 25th anniversary of the motion to end child poverty