Tag Archives: University of 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.

Alberta NDP Convention 2018

Notley NDP launch “Fighting for You” campaign for re-election, Tribute to Brian Mason, and Vegreville Ford breaks from the MDA-Kenney Pact

Alberta’s New Democratic Party has focused a lot of energy attacking Jason Kenney and honing in on United Conservative Party nomination candidate bozo-eruptions in hopes of building a narrative that casts the UCP as having a big problem with its social conservative elements. But while Kenney and the UCP were frequently mentioned at the NDP convention at the Westin Hotel in downtown Edmonton today, the governing party put a lot more focus on what might become the positive narrative of their campaign for re-election.

With “Fighting for You,” “Fighting for Jobs,” “Fighting for Healthcare,” “Fighting for Public Education,” and “Fighting for Public Services” projected on the large bright screen at the front of the convention hall, NDP officials and cabinet ministers took to the microphones to test talking points and remind delegates about the changes the party has implemented on childcare, climate change, education, health care, and workplace safety since the 2015 election.

The convention feels like it was designed avoid the kind of controversy that was generated at the recent UCP policy convention or the last time there was a big NDP gathering in Edmonton. And unlike previous conventions, there were no contentious debates about halting pipelines, disaffiliating from the federal NDP, or merging with other political parties. Delegates instead reaffirmed their support for Notley’s fight for oil pipelines and a range of progressive policies that included expanding broadband internet in rural Alberta, eliminating racism, expanding affordable childcare, and opposing education vouchers.

Premier Rachel Notley and Finance Minister Joe Ceci took part in a panel discussion moderated by Edmonton-Manning MLA Heather Sweet. The discussion was very friendly, allowing Notley and Ceci to highlight their familiar narrative that investment in public infrastructure and public services was a better choice for Albertans than cutting frontline public services when the price of oil dropped in 2014.

The second day of the NDP convention also featured guest speakers. Chief Billy Joe Laboucan spoke about the historic agreement signed with the Lubicon Lake Band this week. Former Calgary Board of Education chairperson Joy Bowen-Eyre spoke about the need to protect funding for public education. And University of Alberta professor Russell Cobb spoke about how austerity and tax cuts in once-oil rich Oklahoma has led that state down the road to massive public service cuts.

Overall, the second day of the convention was a very well-stage managed event.

But despite a lack of controversy on the convention floor today, the group of more than 1,200 delegates appeared upbeat, energized and ready to hit the doors to campaign in 2019.

“Rachel’s Team” coming to a billboard near you

We can expect a larger focus on Premier Rachel Notley going into Alberta’s next provincial general election. The NDP has already begun to quietly exchange its party logo in many of its public documents in favour of Rachel Notley’s name. It has been clear since 2015 that Notley is her party’s greatest asset, so it is not surprising that she will play the central role in her party’s 2019 re-election campaign.

When next spring arrives, I would not be surprised to see “Rachel’s Team” billboards popping up across the province.

Notley is scheduled to deliver her keynote speech to delegates on the second day of the convention at 11:15 a.m. on Sunday, October 28, 2018.

Ceci criticizes feds for “moving the goal posts” on Olympic funding

Joe Ceci scrums with reporters at the NDP convention.

Finance Minister Joe Ceci accused the federal government of “moving the goal posts in the fourth quarter,” following news that the federal Liberal cabinet had decided to fund up to $1.75 billion towards the potential Calgary 2026 Winter Olympics, but only if the Alberta government and City of Calgary match the total. The Alberta government said it will not budge from its $700 million commitment to Calgary’s Olympic Games.

The news from Ottawa gave Ceci an opportunity to criticize Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, something that is rarely a negative in Alberta politics. Expect NDP cabinet ministers to continue to distance themselves from their former federal allies in the coming months.

Tribute to former leader Brian Mason

NDP MLAs gather on stage during the tribute to former party leader Brian Mason.

The lunch break featured a tribute to Brian Mason, the retiring cabinet minister and MLA from Edmonton-Highlands-Nowood who led the NDP through the muddy trenches of Alberta politics from 2004 to 2014. Mason was introduced by Notley and joined on stage by former party leaders Raj Pannu and Ray Martin, and dozens of his fellow NDP MLAs.

Brian Mason (source: The Gateway, November 1974).

Brian Mason (source: The Gateway, November 1974).

“Work hard, give lots, take nothing for granted, and never, ever, ever give up,” Mason told convention delegates.

Mason has been a fixture in Edmonton and Alberta politics for decades, first as a prominent activist and student leader at the University of Alberta in the 1970s, then as an transit driver turned Edmonton City Councillor in the 1980s and 1990s before jumping into provincial politics in 2000.

Respected community advocate and educator Janis Irwin has been nominated as Mason’s NDP successor in Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood.

Big difference from the last NDP convention I attended

Mason was party leader the last time I attended an NDP convention.

It was September 2009, in a dim-lit windowless ballroom in a downtown Edmonton hotel, the most contentious topic of debate was a proposal from a small group of New Democrat founders of the Democratic Renewal Project.

The DRP advocated the creation of an electoral arrangement or cooperation agreement between the NDP and the Liberal Party to prevent vote splitting by progressive voters. Both opposition parties had major loses in the previous year’s election, with the NDP dropping from four to two MLAs.

The ideas put forward by the DRP sounded sensible to me at the time but were soundly rejected by conference delegates.

Nine years later, the NDP are no longer debating vote splitting or electoral coalitions. They are holding their final convention before going to the polls to ask Albertans to grant them a second-term as government.


Vegreville Ford breaks from MDA support for Jason Kenney’s PAC

Vegreville Ford

Vegreville Ford

Brian Baron, the dealer principal of Vegreville Ford, posted a message on his car dealership’s Facebook page this week, distancing himself from the dozens of car dealerships across Alberta that have donated $170,000 to Shaping Alberta’s Future, a pro-Jason Kenney political action committee:

“Although we are a member of the MDA, we have chosen not to contribute to the “Shaping Alberta’s Future” 3rd party marketing campaign. Our position is that we do not feel that this action supports what we feel the MDA’s or our purpose should be. Vegford is nonpartisan and it neither endorses nor supports financially any politician or political party. Our job is to take great care of our customers and our staff. We care about Albertans and we vote, but in a world that is already too divided, we feel no need to engage in controversy.”

Anne McGrath

Anne McGrath jumps into NDP nomination in Calgary-Varsity, Byron Nelson seeks UCP nod in Calgary-Bow

New Democratic Party stalwart Anne McGrath announced on social media today that she plans to seek her party’s nomination to run in Alberta’s next provincial election in the Calgary-Varsity district. A long-time advocate for progressive issues, McGrath is known to many of Canada’s New Democrats as Chief of Staff to former federal party leader Jack Layton from 2008 to 2011 and president of the NDP from 2006 to 2008.

Most recently, McGrath returned to Alberta after Rachel Notley‘s NDP were elected into office in 2015, first serving as Principal Secretary in the Premier’s Office in Edmonton and then moving to Calgary to serve as Executive Director of the Premier’s Southern Alberta Office at the McDougall Centre.

McGrath’s entry into this nomination race was foreshadowed by the unexpected announcement over the weekend by Calgary-Hawkwood MLA Michael Connolly that he was withdrawing from the contest. Connolly had been challenging Julia Hayter for the nomination to succeed incumbent Calgary-Varsity MLA Stephanie McLean, who announced in June 2018 that she would not seek re-election in 2019. (UPDATE: It appears that Hayter has also withdrawn from the nomination contest).

McLean was elected with 43.9 percent of the vote in the 2015 election, and along with this district’s history of electing Liberal Harry Chase from 2004 to 2012, the NDP see holding Calgary-Varsity as a priority in 2019.

Anne McGrath (centre) during her time as field organizer for the Alberta Federation of Students in 1982.

Anne McGrath (centre) during her time as field organizer for the Alberta Federation of Students in 1982. (Photo Source: The Gateway)

McGrath is no stranger to Alberta politics. She was an organizer in Alberta’s student movement in the early 1980s and worked as a field organizer for the Alberta Federation of Students she organized activities including anti-tuition campaigns and rallies. And during her time involved in student politics at the University of Alberta, she ran as a Communist Party of Canada candidate in Edmonton-Strathcona during the 1984 federal election. She earned 137 votes in that election and years later she would explain her brief involvement with the Communists as “I was young, probably naïve, interested in talking about politics. And very influenced by friends and teachers.

She was later a spokesperson for the Alberta Status of Women Action Committee and ran for the Alberta NDP in Calgary-Bow in the 1993 election and in Calgary-McCall during a 1995 by-election. She also ran for the leadership of the Alberta NDP, challenging then leader Ross Harvey and earning 118 votes to Harvey’s 177 at the party’s 1995 convention.

She enters the nomination contest in Calgary-Varsity as Notley’s approval numbers have jumped following the Premier’s tough talk in response to the latest setbacks in the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline project.


Here are some of the latest updates to the list of candidates running for party nominations ahead of the 2019 Alberta provincial general election:

Byron Nelson PC MLA Candidate Calgary Bow

Byron Nelson

Calgary-Bow – Lawyer Byron Nelson is seeking the UCP nomination. Nelson was the Progressive Conservative Party candidate in this district in 2015 and ran for the leadership of the PC Party in 2017 (he finished in third place with support from 2.7 percent of the voting delegates at the party’s convention). Harry Fleming has withdrawn from the UCP nomination contest and is now working as a Communications Advisor at the UCP Caucus office.

Calgary-South East – MLA Rick Fraser has announced he plans to seek the Alberta Party nomination and run for re-election in 2019. Fraser was elected as a PC Party MLA in 2012 and 2015 and left the UCP caucus to sit as an Independent MLA on September 12, 2017. He joined the Alberta Party caucus on January 9, 2018 and ran for that party’s leadership.

Camrose – Steven Hansen is seeking the Alberta Party nomination and Trevor Miller is seeking the UCP nomination. Miller was the Wildrose Party candidate in Wetaskiwin-Camrose in 2012, where he placed second with 31.8 percent of the vote. The UCP nomination contest in this district is turning into a Wildrose Stomp, as Miller faces Jackie Lovely, who ran for the Wildrose Party in Edmonton-Ellerslie in 2012 and 2015, and Brandon Lunty, who ran for the Wildrose Party in Calgary-South East in the 2015 election.

Edmonton-Glenora – Glen Tickner is seeking the Alberta Party nomination.

Lethbridge-East – Motivational speaker and consultant Kimberly Lyall is seeking the UCP nomination.

If you know any candidates who have announced their intentions to stand for party nominations, please send me an email at david.cournoyer@gmail.com. I will add them to the list. Thank you!

William Aberhart University of Alberta Honourary Degree

Before David Suzuki there was the William Aberhart honorary degree scandal at the University of Alberta

The decision by the University of Alberta Senate to grant environmentalist, scientist and broadcaster David Suzuki an honorary degree has the university community tied in knots. University President David Turpin responded to criticism with an open letter today, but criticism from Dean of Business Joseph Doucet and Dean of Engineering Fraser Forbes gives the impression of an open revolt (or at least an attempt to appease unhappy donors from the oil and gas sector).

David Suzuki University of Alberta Honorary Degree

David Suzuki

But the Suzuki controversy of 2018 is nothing compared to the slight created when the Senate refused to grant an honorary degree to Alberta Premier William Aberhart in 1941.

What should have been a routine exercise erupted into a full blown controversy in 1941 when members of the University Senate voted against granting Aberhart an honorary degree after he had already been informally notified of the honour by University President William Kerr.

A Senate committee’s recommendation that Aberhart be given an honorary degree was rebuked with one week left until convocation.

Until that point in history, three of Aberhart’s predecessors, Alexander Rutherford, Arthur Sifton, and John Brownlee, had received honorary degrees from the University during their time as elected officials.

The committee’s recommendations were said to be based on Aberhart’s record as an educator and his role in reforming the school system, including certifying teachers into a professional class and introducing a teachers’ pension system.

But it would have been hard for members of the Senate to ignore the rest of Aberhart’s record as Premier.

Alexander Rutherford University of Alberta

Alexander Rutherford

During its first decade in government, Aberhart’s Social Credit Party implemented a radical agenda that followed a fringe economic theory created by Major C.H. Douglas, tried to print its own currency, legislate control over the media, nationalize the banking system and ban alcohol sales. It is also well known that many early Social Credit MLAs harboured deep anti-semitic and racist attitudes rooted in the belief of a global banking conspiracy.

It was a strange time in Alberta’s political history.

Scrambling to deal with the huge political problem the rejection might cause the University, the Senate quickly passed a motion that no honorary degrees would be granted that year.  It was possibly, “the first time in the university’s history that no address will be given at convocation,” an Edmonton Journal report speculated on May 14, 1941.

Presiding over that year’s convocation on May 19, 1941 at McDougall Church was University Chancellor Alexander Rutherford, who had served as Alberta’s first premier from 1905 until he was forced out of office by a railway scandal in 1910. President Kerr resigned the following day.

John Robinson MLA Medicine Hat

John Robinson

An editorial published in the Edmonton Bulletin on May 14, 1941 stated that “…there is an affront to dignity of the University in this sorry affair. There is an affront to Dr. Kerr who was unwittingly made the instrument of what could only have been a calculated insult to Alberta’s self-respect. There is an affront to the the people of Alberta who are made ridiculous throughout Canada.”

Aberhart responded to the slight the next year by introducing Bill 57: An Act to amend and consolidate The University Act, which reorganized university governance and stripped the Senate of much of its powers, with the exception of its responsibility of selecting honorary degree recipients.

“The citizens of Alberta are now looking to the legislature to see to it that never again will it be possible for the senate of the University of Alberta to present a display as petty, so childish, so humiliating,” said Medicine Hat Social Credit MLA John Robinson told the Bulletin on Feb. 3, 1942.

The University Senate’s behaviour was “political prostitution,” Robinson told the Calgary Herald on Feb. 4, 1942.

Reportedly expressing pain at at Aberhart’s failure to obtain an honorary degree from the U of A, Willingdon Social Credit MLA William Tomyn told the Herald on Feb 3, 1942 that “never in the history of any nation was there a greater scandal.”


(Note: Most of the historical material included in this post was found in Walter H. Johns’ excellent book A History of the University of Alberta 1908-1969, and through the Alberta Legislature Library Scrapbook Hansard and the Google Newspaper Archive).

Knickers in a twist over David Suzuki’s University of Alberta honorary degree

Photo: Environmentalist, scientist, author, and broadcaster David Suzuki (credit: David Climenhaga)

The decision by the University of Alberta‘s volunteer Senate to present an honorary degree to high profile environmentalist, scientist, author, broadcaster and Order of Canada recipient Dr. David Suzuki has aroused much outrage from conservative partisans, Postmedia columnists, donors and U of A staff. It even earned an embarassingly entitled response from the Dean of Engineering Fraser Forbes, who said he was “deeply sorry” and “ashamed” of the decision.

Good grief.

Whether or not you agree or disagree with Suzuki’s political positions (most notably his controversial comments about Canada’s oil sands) or have had poor personal experiences with him (which many people seem to have had), it is impossible to deny the huge contributions he has made to the popularization of sciences in Canadian culture.

As host of the Nature of Things and Quirks and Quarks, a generation of Canadians were introduced to the sciences through Suzuki’s broadcasts.

The U of A responded with it own statement in defence of Suzuki’s honourary degree, but it appears one statement may not have been enough to appease angry critics. Suzuki has been demonized by the political right for years, including a recent attack from United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney.

Politically manufactured outrage toward Suzuki, who already has an honorary degree from the University of Calgary and nearly 30 other universities, could also be pointed at previous honourary degree recipients.

Albertans outraged about Suzuki’s honorary degree might be surprised to discover that a U of A honorary degree was given to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1968. The U of A also bestowed an honorary degree to Maurice Strong in 1973, three years before Trudeau appointed him as head of Petro-Canada, the now privatized crown-corporation decried by Conservatives of the day. Unthinkable!

Only five short years after he was in charge of enforcing the much-derided National Energy Program as federal minister of energy, Jean Chretien was given a U of A honourary degree in Spring 1987. Blasphemy!

And Mel Hurtig, who later became the country’s loudest crusader against free trade with the United States in the early 1990s, was given an honorary degree in Fall 1986. Unbelievable!

As a U of A alumnus and former member of the U of A Senate, Suzuki’s honourary degree does not particularly bother me more than some previous choices.

Back in 2012, I was not pleased to learn that the U of A Senate had granted an honorary degree to Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the Chair of Nestlé, the largest multinational food and water corporation in the world.

As Scott Harris wrote in back in 2012, Nestle had been the “target of international boycotts stretching back decades for its marketing of breast milk substitutes … in violation of international standards, widespread labour violations and links to slave labour in its chocolate production, and its environmental impact and strong-arm tactics with communities opposed to Nestlé’s exploitation of groundwater for its bottled water division.”

That is offensive.

At least the U of A administration cannot be accused of not being consistent in their defence of the Senate’s choices for honorary degree recipients.

It will be interesting to see what kind of reaction Suzuki’s opinions will generate from the audience of U of A Science graduates and their families. Will he insult them by criticizing the oil and gas industry and calling to stop climate change? Will he call for an end to or insult our oil pipelines? Should the U of A give a platform to someone who will likely voice opinions that those sitting in the Jubilee Auditorium might find offensive?

It would not be the first time.

I am told that some parents of graduates refused to applaud former Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations Stephen Lewis when he delivered a call to action against climate change as he accepted his U of A honourary degree a few years ago.

Albertans are free to criticize the U of A Senate’s choices of honourary degree recipients, and we should probably even criticize the sometimes silly exercise of granting honorary degrees.

But the U of A should not shy away from controversial choices.

The University should resist pressure from external donors and internal voices like Forbes to withdraw Suzuki’s honorary degree. As my colleague David Climenhaga writes, doing so would “be a black mark on the intellectual reputation of the U of A, a great university, and it will be a great victory for those who would, “without fairness or justification,” turn all Albertans into climate-change pariahs.”


Luckily for U of A grads in 2018, along with Suzuki the honourary degree recipients speaking at their convocation ceremonies will include farmers’ union activist Nettie Wiebe, CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada Louise Bradley, historian, playwright and composer France Levasseur-Ouimet, particle physicist Brian Cox, human rights scholar David Matas, former Alberta MLA Raj Pannu, former premier of the North West Territories Stephen Kakfwi, former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark, and respected foreign correspondent Nahlah Ayed.

Suzuki will receive an honourary doctor of science degree from the university on June 7 at 10 a.m.

The arena formerly known as Rexall Place, owned and operated by Northlands.

City Council needs to get it right on Northlands Coliseum redevelopment

It has been about 10 years since the City of Edmonton seriously began studying the concept of funding the construction of a downtown arena, and 6 years since City Council voted to approve a financial deal with the Edmonton Oilers and its billionaire owner, Daryl Katz, to construct a new arena.

But despite the years of attention paid to the new arena, not much focus was given to the arena that housed the Edmonton Oilers since 1974. When the shiny new Rogers Place arena opened downtown in 2016, there was still no real plan for the future of the old arena, now known again as Northlands Coliseum.

The implications of the Oilers move downtown was huge for the Coliseum and Northlands and a non-compete clause agreed to by the City crippled the already disadvantaged older arena. Without the revenue generated from NHL hockey games or large concerts, the Northlands organization was placed in a dire financial situation.

Better late than never, Northlands released a Vision 2020 proposal in 2016. The plan focused on the entire Northlands property and proposed the Coliseum be renovated into a six-rink hockey arena. The idea was later considered financial untenable by City Council.

City Council has since cannibalized much of the Northlands operations and voted to close the Coliseum.

Now sitting empty and unused, the question facing City Councillors meeting at City Hall this week is what to do with the closed building.

As a resident of the area (I live a 10 minute walk away from the Coliseum in the Bellevue neighbourhood), it is frustrating to feel like this area of the city was an afterthought. But while it is important to recognize past mistakes made by the City on this issue, it is also helpful to look for solutions for the future.

Community input and engagement should play a critical role in determining the future of the Coliseum and the Northlands property. But the engagement should be meaningful. Meaningless buzz-phrases, like we saw included in a recent press release from the City of Edmonton on this issue are not helpful (ie: “tap[ping] into the magnitude of the opportunity for transformation”).

Meaningful engagement is important, because residential neighbourhoods and commercial districts in the area will be directly impacted by any future plans, just as they had by the past expansion of Northlands.

It was only a short 15 years ago that City Council approved the Northlands Redevelopment Plan, which allowed Northlands to bulldoze the four block single detached residential area known as West Bellevue and three blocks of North Cromdale. The 2003 Northlands ARP literally paved West Bellevue into the parking lot that sits on the west side of Wayne Gretzky Drive.

I am not sure what the best new use of the land would be, but I do not know anyone who thinks leaving the Coliseum boarded up and abandoned would be good for the neighbourhood. But an empty and abandoned lot fit for gravel and Used Car Dealerships is also not ideal.

The $15.5 million to $25 million projected cost to demolish the Coliseum may give some Councillors sticker shock, but it is pennies compared to the public funds invested into the downtown Roger Place arena.

As recent city council candidate Kris Andreychuk and University of Alberta professor John McCoy wrote in the Edmonton Journal on Oct. 20, 2017:

“Allowing the Northlands site to sit idle and empty will not only create an eyesore in a storied area of the city — the arena where we became the City of Champions — it will also stimulate a host of community-safety issues and drive away the small business owners who are the lifeblood of the community.

These are not easy times in Edmonton. But what cannot be denied is the resilience and entrepreneurial spirit of Edmontonians and their ability to find solutions to our collective challenges. Northlands is a test for the City of Edmonton and local developers — there is much at stake and we need to get it right.”

Michael Phair and Mayor Don Iveson at the unveiling of Michael Phair Park (photo from @doniveson on Twitter)

Honouring a great Edmontonian with Michael Phair Park

It was a sunny day and there was a great turnout to honour a great Edmontonian at the dedication ceremony for the new Michael Phair Park on 104 Street north of Jasper Avenue in downtown Edmonton.

A strong advocate of urban renewal, Michael Phair was elected to Edmonton City Councillor from 1992 until 2007 and was the first openly gay elected politician in Alberta. He now serves as Chair of the University of Alberta Board of Governors.

The dedication ceremony was also attended by some notable politicians, including Mayor Don Iveson, Councillor Scott McKeen, and Alberta’s Finance Minister Joe Ceci.

The infamous Penthouse Press Conference on May 1, 2015.

Five CEOs hold a press conference in a penthouse boardroom

It was a case of political friendly fire.

With only days left before Election Day, the anti-NDP fear campaign was in full-gear but this shot might have been the final nail in the coffin for Alberta’s 44-year old Progressive Conservative Party government.

On May 1, 2015, five prominent Edmonton business leaders and PC Party donors, including then-University of Alberta Board of Governors Chairman Doug Goss, held a press conference in the penthouse boardroom of a downtown office building to warn Albertans against rejecting the Progressive Conservatives in the May 5 election.

The press conference was held the morning after PC leader Jim Prentice spoke to 1,500 guests at a $5,000 per table fundraising dinner at the Shaw Conference Centre. Even as the international price of oil had already started a sharp decline, he warned the dinner guests that a New Democratic Party government would be a blow for the corporations in Alberta.

The businessmen sat united in their opposition to NDP leader Rachel Notley‘s promise to raise taxes on corporations from 10 percent to 12 percent. Before the election was called, the PCs had proposed increases to personal income taxes and the introduction of a health care levy, but refused to touch corporate taxes. [note: Albertans overall still pay the lowest taxes in Canada, even after the NDP implemented increases following their election win].

A public letter released by the businessmen and their prepared statements at the press conference were fairly reasonable from a conservative business perspective, but the moment the men began answering questions from the media the event went off the rails.

One of the men questioned why he was being asked to pay more. “I have someone telling me that I need to pay more tax. Why is it me? Why the corporation?

Another claimed that corporate donations to children’s hospitals and charities would halt if the corporate tax rate was increased.

While I am sure this group of philanthropists and community leaders sincerely believed they were helping their friend, Mr. Prentice, these were very rich statements coming from a group of men who were sitting around a boardroom table that might have been worth as much as my house.

Sometimes your best friends can be your worst enemies. In this case, these PC donors (and soon after, the Postmedia-owned newspapers in Alberta) inflicted a considerable amount of damage on the PC Party campaign during the final week of the election. It was an incredibly tone deaf message to send to an electorate tired of years of Progressive Conservative mismanagement, infighting and scandals.

The penthouse press conference solidified the narrative that as the economy was slowing the PCs were putting the needs of the wealthy and their corporations before the needs of ordinary Albertans. It appeared as though the conservatives had forgotten how to be populists.


This post is the third in a series remembering some key moments from Alberta’s historic 2015 election. May 5, 2016 marks one year since that election. Read the first and second instalments. 

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.

Cheer for the athletes but don’t be naive: the Olympics are about politics

The mascots for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games.

The mascots for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games.

National leaders covet the opportunity to host the international event and multi-national corporations invest billions of dollars in advertising to its massive world-wide audience. Competing in glorious national stadiums and sports centres in between commercial breaks, the athletes appear to be little more than commodities. Make no mistake, the Olympic Games are political by nature.

Controversy over Russia President Vladimir Putin‘s support for deplorable laws targeting Russia’s LGBT community has caused a media storm in advance of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games.

These laws have led many commentators, human rights advocates and celebrities to call for western countries to boycott of the Sochi Games.

The University of Alberta’s Kristopher Wells has argued that Canada should boycott the Sochi Games:

Given the ongoing and deeply tragic human rights abuses occurring in Russia, an Olympic boycott is not only necessary, it is of vital international importance. A boycott is not simply a message to Russia, it is a powerful statement to the world. There must be human rights for all, or there can be human rights for none. We are one world, with one heart and one love regardless of sexual orientation.

Critics of a boycott point to the negligible impact that western countries had when choosing not to send their athletes to the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics. Others suggest that the public attention raised by the Sochi Olympics could “ease the plight” of Russia’s gay community.

With less than ten days before the Sochi Games’ opening ceremonies, there is little reason to believe that any western country will ask their athletes to boycott the events.

As repugnant as these laws are, the western world should not be shocked. Russia is not a liberal country and the legacy of the Soviet Union and the brutality of its government is real. The Putin government has a long history of human rights violations, cracking down on opposition critics, exploiting migrant workers and limiting press freedom.

Six years ago, I decided to personally boycott of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. I did my best to avoid television coverage the Beijing Games and did not shy away from writing about why I took that position.

The People’s Republic of China is notorious for its poor human rights record and its tendency to stifle freedom of speech among its citizens. I chose not to reward the People’s Republic’s public relations opportunity with my attention.

I am undecided whether I will extend a personal boycott of the Sochi Games. If I do choose to boycott, it will be in protest of the Russian government’s oppressive government. But I also feel a general indifference towards the entire event.

The $50 billion price-tag for the Sochi Games seems so needlessly excessive that perhaps it is time the purpose of the Olympic Games needs to be rethought. The “spirit of the Olympic Games” that we hear about every two years may live in the hearts of the athletes and their families, but it’s a reality that quickly diminishes when you put some thought to it.

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Back to Alberta politics… the Court of Queen’s Bench has ordered a temporary stay on the controversial Public Service Salary Restraint Act (formerly known as Bill 46). This judicial decision temporary delays the planned January 31 implementation of the new anti-labour law which would allow the Redford Government to bypass the neutral arbitration process and impose a contract on public service employees represented by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees. The judge will return with his decision on February 14.