Tag Archives: University of Alberta

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.