Alberta MLA Sandra Jansen latest in long string of female politicians to face abuse

 

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Credit: CBC

Alberta MLA Sandra Jansen isn’t the first female politician to look at a screen and see words like “bitch” and “bimbo” and “dumb broad” staring back at her.

Jansen, who recently crossed the floor from her longtime home in the Progressive Conservative party to the ruling NDP, stood up in the Alberta legislature Tuesday and read aloud some of the comments she’s received since changing parties.

“Sandra should stay in the kitchen where she belongs.”

“What a traitorous bitch.”

“Now you have two blond bimbos in a party that is clueless.”

“Dumb broad, a good place for her to be is with the rest of the queers.”

It was a remarkable break from parliamentary language and, at least in the heat of the moment, had its desired effect — MLAs from all parties took to their feet in applause.

It also presaged an announcement that Jansen — who left the PCs over what she said was bullying and harassment at a recent party policy convention — would receive a security detail due to the threatening nature of some of the messages she’s received.

READ THE REST AT CBC CALGARY

Alberta’s uncultured minister

Maureen Kubinec

One could be forgiven for assuming that Alberta’s minister of culture would have some semblance of the arts and the province’s arts community, but by all accounts, that’s not the case. If there were any doubts, this recent interview in the Globe and Mail should remove them.

The fact that Maureen Kubinec hasn’t seen a live performance in over a month (the last night of The Magic Flute in Edmonton was February 5) is troubling for a minister that should be out in the creative community. Scrolling through her Facebook page, the only mention of anything to do with the arts is a condolence message with a link to a Global story on the death of Michael Green. Scattered throughout her feed are snowmobile outings, announcements for upgrades to seniors facilities, flag ceremonies and more.

Now to be fair, Kubinec is responsible for culture and tourism, not the arts, but it’s a sure sign of just how much this government cares about the sector when this is the minister they put in charge. It would be nice to see an urban MLA in this role, rather than a farmer (and no that isn’t a dig against farmers, I’d make a terrible agriculture minister), or at least one that doesn’t favour Reader’s Digest over literature.

Perhaps the most troubling part of the short Globe interview is her final answer, essentially saying the arts are about to be gutted, but it’s okay because of bootstraps and all that blather. “I’m just going to give you a quick example: I’m a farmer; that’s what I do for a living,” she says, apparently forgetting her six-figure cabinet salary. “And when we’ve had a tough year, it’s not easy, but it’s made us stronger.” The arts in this province have long suffered from dismal and unpredictable funding and it hasn’t made the scene stronger. It’s made some — mostly large organizations — better at finding a few alternate sources of funding, but not much and not to many and certainly not stable. It’s an insulting and thoughtless comment and it’s a sign of the carnage that’s to come.

There have been whispers — accompanying those saying Kubinec doesn’t know or understand the arts scene (has anyone in that scene even met her yet?) — that culture will no longer be in its own dual ministry, but will be subsumed by a larger portfolio (Service Alberta?). It’s a paranoid thought, but one that should raise alarms in light of this government’s radical steps to restructure the province and impose austerity for all but the wealthy and the corporate.

Kubinec’s interview certainly does nothing to alleviate those concerns.

Out(road)rageous: $5 billion could go a long way

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We seem destined to always talk about transportation. Public transit, including the long-sought southeast LRT line and the nuances of where to put the north-central line; the mess that is Calgary’s taxi system; bike lanes; pedestrian safety improvements; two-way roads through the Beltline; and now the revelation that the southwest portion of the ring road will cost somewhere in the neighbourhood of $5 billion.

It’s been about 50 years since the first studies were done on a ring road for Calgary, and the southwest portion has always been a contentious issue. There’s the Weaselhead natural area and the Elbow River as well as the Tsuu T’ina reserve to deal with. Negotiations with the Tsuu T’ina Nation stopped and started until a deal was finally inked last year as the rest of the ring road neared completion.

This is the kind of thing that makes all the other transportation debates seem kind of quaint.

First there is debate as to the efficacy of building ring roads. It’s been proven over and over again that building roads only invites more traffic rather than doing anything to effectively relieve congestion. It contributes to sprawl, pushing people ever further to the margins. Does Calgary need a better way for people to get from one end of the city to the other? Probably, but there’s no indication that this will serve that purpose in any meaningful way. It will benefit those trying to escape to the mountains from the south, and will provide a trucking route through the southwest, but aside from a bit of relief on some central roadways, this will just invite more traffic and more sprawl.

But let’s say for the sake of argument that we need the ring road and that it will speed up cars travelling across our sprawling city.

What we don’t need is another major thoroughfare crossing over our water supply and tainting the Weaselhead natural area. If you haven’t been lucky enough to ride your bike or walk through this natural park at the end of the reservoir, you’re missing out. Pathways and walking trails wind their way through trees and scrub along the Elbow River — it feels miles away from the city at its doorstep. What’s not missing from the idyllic scene is a highway bypass roaring over the river and the reservoir wetlands.

But it seems like it’s going to happen anyway. The debates about protecting the headwaters of our drinking supply are over, the land deals have been made, the plans largely put in place. So let’s talk about the price tag. You can get a lot for that kind of money.

The $5 billion is for the remaining 41 kilometres of the ring road, from Highway 22X near Spruce Meadows to Highway 1 near Canada Olympic Park. We’ve already built 63 kilometres for the relatively paltry sum of $1.9 billion.

As has been noted elsewhere, the $5-billion price tag just happens to be the same figure that’s tossed around for the entire north-central/southeast LRT line — from Panorama Hills all the way to the South Health Campus. Heck, you could cut the ring road cost in half and still be able to build the southeast portion of the LRT route.

The city’s Route Ahead plan calls for a $13-billion investment in transit over 30 years to keep up with Calgary’s growing population. Five billion gets us a long way there.

Of course there’s been another transportation option that has been whipping critics into a frenzy: the Centre City cycle track network, a plan calling for protected bike lanes through downtown and the Beltline. Hands have been wrung, tears have been shed and prophecies of doom have been prophesied by those how don’t even blink when major interchanges are built.

If we were to take the cost of the southwest portion of the ring road and apply it to protected bike lanes, we could build 1,786 lanes equivalent to the proposed First Street S.E. lane, or approximately 5,000 kilometres worth of cycle tracks based on the estimate of $1 million per kilometre. We’d basically blanket the entire city in protected bike lanes. Hell, we might even have enough left over to install in-pathway heating to keep the ice away.

In other words, there are far more effective ways to utilize $5 billion if what we’re really interested in is easing congestion and providing transportation options for the citizens of Calgary — improved pedestrian safety, separated and marked bike lanes, transition to two-way streets in the Beltline and investment in bus rapid transit and LRT lines, to name a few. But those options would be considered social engineering, right?

City of Calgary to tackle affordable housing crisis

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There is at least one thing that almost everybody agrees on: there is a housing crisis in Calgary and we need more affordable housing. The devil, as they say, is in the details.

The mayor has made the issue a priority and now the city is taking its first tentative steps towards creating an affordable housing strategy. A report was presented to the priorities and finance committee on March 4 outlining some of the issues in Calgary and some possible strategies to address them.

“Today’s report was really about starting us off on a process…. I hate to say community-wide discussion because it will be more than that, but to really examine the whole affordable housing system, the relationship between the federal, provincial and city governments, as well as the role of the private sector and the role of non-profits,” said Mayor Naheed Nenshi during the committee meeting.

While all members of the committee appeared to agree that steps need to be taken to address the current lack of housing, and voted unanimously to move forward with a strategy, the concern centred on finances — no one wants to be left with responsibility without the dollars to back it up. This is of particular concern with both the provincial and federal governments scaling back funding for affordable housing.

“It’s disappointing that we see no interest at the federal level, because cities can’t go it alone, and the issue is larger and requires a more complicated solution than what we can provide with property tax,” says Coun. Druh Farrell in an interview the day prior to the meeting.

The issue will be brought up with the province during negotiations on creating city charters.

The city and the agencies that provide housing are not able to keep up with demand. The combination of high rents, the flood, continued migration to the city and an aging population are all taking their toll, with over 3,000 applicants on the Calgary Housing Corporation’s waiting list.

The city’s exact role would have to determined, but the main thrust of the report places the city as a facilitator between the various housing organizations and developers to ensure that Calgary’s affordable housing stock grows in a way that best serves the community.

The city would likely resort to a combination of tools to grow the stock, including tax incentives, inclusionary zoning and mandated minimum affordable housing units in new developments.

Farrell, who appeared frustrated at Tuesday’s meeting with the lack of momentum on this topic over the years, says it’s time for more radical solutions to address the crisis. She would like to see rules around condominiumization (where lost rental stock would have to be replaced elsewhere), discussions about rent control and mandated affordable housing in new developments, but says the city would need provincial approval for such moves.

“We’re committed to affordable housing,” she says. “What we’re not seeing, we’re not seeing the market provide affordable market housing and that is one of the big struggles in Calgary.”

Of course, when dealing with issues of housing and homelessness, it’s not as simple as throwing up affordable units and walking away. There are various levels of need under the umbrella of affordable housing, from those working and unable to afford Calgary’s sky-high prices, to those who require services and support in transition from homelessness.

Judy Lapointe lives in a Calgary Homeless Foundation building operated by the YWCA in Lower Mount Royal. The former computer programmer, who now lives on AISH, is stressed at the moment because her building is transitioning to a more secure facility housing people with greater needs, and essentially forcing those tenants already in the building to move. This has left her suffering from anxiety.

“About three weeks ago, they gave everyone in the building notices that they have to move,” says Lapointe. “Our worker was on vacation at the time, so you just traumatized trauma victims and provided zero support whatsoever.”

She is critical of the foundation, accusing it of not listening to tenants, not providing enough warning for evictions or building changeovers, and for programs she says set you up for failure. “I’m so sick to death of being told that I’m mentally ill, when my behaviour is a reaction to mentally ill programs,” says Lapointe, who lists delusion, schizophrenia, paranoia, bipolar and personality disorder as her diagnoses. “Nobody would be acting normally and healthy if you’re in a box that says you’re set up to fail.”

Louise Gallagher, communications manager for the Calgary Homeless Foundation, which supports the city’s move to a housing strategy, says all those currently in Lapointe’s building will be provided housing and that the organization tries to work with all residents to address their concerns.

That level of complexity in dealing with individuals is just one aspect of the housing issue, highlighting just how long it might take to muscle through details at city council. But with more people moving to Calgary, a rental market with approximately one per cent vacancy and the average price for a single family home sitting at $482,529 in February, this is a problem that is going to continue to grow.

“Like it or not, this is a democracy, and when the problem affects the majority, the majority will create the change, but not until it reaches the majority — and we’re nowhere near that yet,” says Lapointe. “But the rate and speed at which it’s happening, it won’t take long.”

Cut the public affairs bureau

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The latest provincial budget comes out on March 6 and the opposition is already circling, with Wildrose leading the charge. On February 25, Alberta’s other right wing released its budget recommendations. No surprise, there were lots of savings to be found in the bullet points (see, it’s easy!).

It was bullet number 4 that, as an editor, caught my eye: cut the size of the Public Affairs Bureau in half [$10 million]. Ten million!

For those of you who don’t know, the PAB is the sprawling communications branch of the government, which is mandated to be a non-partisan disperser of information. You know, for the citizens. Of course, after 41 years of Progressive Conservative rule and some tweaking by the late Ralph Klein, the PAB is anything but neutral and has grown exponentially, from $10 million in 2002-03 to nearly $20 million today.

The PAB has inserted Conservative boilerplate into press releases (now seemingly replaced with touting the Building Alberta Plan, a $1.7 million branding exercise praising Alison Redford and featuring the blue and orange of the PCs), it relentlessly praises the Conservative agenda, and its spokespeople are well-trained professionals adept at not really answering the question. It amounts to a taxpayer-funded political campaign that never ends. The government stresses that it has introduced press secretaries for cabinet ministers in order to handle the more partisan communications, but the PAB, which reports to the government’s executive council, is still controlled by the Office of the Premier.

When we ran a story on the PAB in 2011, we couldn’t get Redford on record and said so in our story. The day it was published, Stephen Carter, then the premier’s chief of staff, phoned to yell profanities at me. It was an indication of just how twitchy this administration is when it comes to the topic, and that was before they started shovelling millions of extra dollars into it.

The fact that you can cut $10 million and there’s still $10 million left over should be of deep concern to Albertans who want unbiased information about what our government is doing. At a time when newsrooms are being slashed, those that spin the news of the day are getting paid a lot of money and have a lot of resources at their disposal. In fact, 77 people who worked in communication (not all in the PAB) for the Executive Council in 2013 made over $100,000. The government is doubling down on information control.

Needless to say, the opposition parties aren’t big fans of the bureau. They’ve been on the losing end of slanted government communications for years and are eager, at least while still sitting in opposition benches, to hack away at the flacks. Some, like the Alberta Liberal Party, would do away with the whole thing. Some, like the NDP and the Wildrose, would greatly reduce its size and scope, hopefully leading to an organization that obeys the government’s own code of conduct, which states “partisan political matters are the exclusive domain of Ministers and their offices….”

Of course, the fact of the matter is that this government desperately needs to spin what has become a horror show. Slashing of post-secondary budgets after promising increases, walking away from its obligations to fund the Epcor Centre, excessive and entitled travel expenses, the depletion of our savings and the near psychotic promotion of out-of-control growth in the oilsands (including millions spent to lobby U.S. lawmakers over a private company’s pipeline), among so many other examples — Redford and her crowd have been a dismal failure. Rather than owning up to it, or trying to change, they shovel money into “issues management” while dismantling collective bargaining and reducing pensions in the public sector.

Losing a chunk of one’s pension, however, isn’t really anyone’s fault but those who chose to work in the wrong area of government. Had they decided on communications rather than, say, tracking down royalty payments, they could walk away with a padded bank account, and maybe even a $40,000 severance package. But you’d think with all of those communications professionals, someone could have at least picked up the phone and told the Alberta Union of Public Employees they were gutting their benefits. Sorry, I mean, “recalibrating union members’ golden handshakes for the benefit of all Alberta taxpayers. #WeAreAlberta. #ResponsibleChange.”

Citizens on the backburner: it’s all about the oil in Alberta

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Imagine if you could run roughshod over the laws and be comfortable in the knowledge that you’d only get in trouble about one per cent of the time, and when you did, it amounted to a miniscule fine. What would you do?

You’d probably behave like the oil companies operating within Alberta.

In a recent report by Kevin Timoney and Peter Lee, and reported on by the Canadian Press, the authors sorted through thousands of government documents which they tirelessly compiled through Access to Information requests. What they compiled was a list of 9,262 environmental infractions — about 4,000 of which broke a facility’s licensing conditions — in the oilsands region since 1996. The government reaction to those 4,000 punishable incidents? They took enforcement action against 37.

According to the Canadian Press, the median fine was $4,500. For an oil company.

We’re not just talking about an employeee spilling a bit of solvent on the ground either. These incidents include leaks into the Athabasca river, the same body of water the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers insists is only contaminated by natural occurrences of bitumen. Nothing to see here folks, carry on.

The majority of the violations concerned air quality, seven per cent concerned water. One in five was due to a failure to file mandatory reports for regulation and data collection.

That last point leads to the fact that the researchers were confronted with sloppy, incomplete data from government records. The government, which insists it is watching and protecting us, doesn’t have a damn clue what’s actually happening in our biggest and most destructive industry. How do you enforce something if you don’t know what’s happening?

It’s just the latest and most blatant example of a government that doesn’t care as long as it gets a cheque, and an industry that’s all-too-willing to twist and bend and break the rules in order to pursue ever-increasing profits. It’s not hard to imagine boardrooms full of laughter at what companies can get away with in this province, and the minimal costs they must pay to do so.

Another recent incident points to the lack of knowledge, lack of care and lack of permitted citizen oversite in oilsands operations. In this case, the underground leaking from Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. operations on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range.

The leaks, which are confounding regulators as well as the company, are caused by underground steam injection which melts bitumen and allows it to travel to the surface through pipes. It has been touted as a greener alternative to open-pit oilsands mines, but it also involves more water and energy.

The current leak, which was reported on June 24, is the fourth such leak attributed to CNRL to occur in the area. This is the first to affect a body of water, however. According to an article in the Globe and Mail , Alberta’s Energy Regulator — the attempt to rebrand the old regulator, the Energy Resources Conservation Board — says the bitumen is flowing into a slough, seeping up from underground, not leaking from pipes. Nobody is quite sure how it’s happening, or how to stop it.

It took 25 days for the regulator to tell the company to stop steaming in the area. It also took the regulator almost a month to inform the public that it had forced the company to stop steaming in another nearby lease due to three similar spills in the spring. Conveniently, the company told theCalgary Herald that it was finished with steaming in the area for the year. Thanks heavens they didn’t lose any income.

It’s not hard to see how it all comes together. It’s the classic dilemma of a government that is beholden to one industry. Sure there’s lip service paid to economic diversification from time to time, but we all know what drives this economy and what dictates government (in)action. The evidence continues to mount of a government that doesn’t care about the environment, or getting a decent payout for citizens from the companies that rent our land.

Transparency is an empty catchphrase, accountability is non-existent and the profits, at least for the companies, continue to mount. All while the government invests our money in PR spin for the industry.

How does it feel to be a second-class citizen?

Alberta’s craft brewers in war of words with importers

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It could be labelled as an ideological battle, but that might be too exteme. Is it a story of the hometown hero versus the outsider? Is it about fairness? Selection? Consumer choice? Well, this battle of the beers is technically about all of those things.

Alberta’s small brewers are trying to pressure the provincial government to change the rules for beers imported from other jurisdictions, which can mean Belgium or B.C.

As it stands, small- and medium-sized brewers get a tax break in Alberta, whether they brew here or not. It can mean a difference of 78 cents per litre. The problem is, other provinces don’t offer the same incentives, meaning Alberta’s craft brewers are at a disadvantage compared to their peers.

If a brewer from Alberta wants to enter the B.C. market, for example, they’re faced with a protectionist provincial system.

The latest salvo in the war of words in this debate is from craft beer importers and some liquor store owners. Vern Raincock, president of beer importer DeLancey Direct, doesn’t want to see the rules changed, at least not in Alberta. After all, it will affect his bottom line. He worries the increased costs will mean a reduction in Alberta’s excellent beer selection.

“I do understand the frustrations of the Alberta craft brewers, but I think that we’re going about it wrong,” says Raincock.

“What we need to do is work with the Alberta government, as well as the federal government, in closing down these barriers to trade within our own country.”

So, everyone wants the same thing. Sort of. The craft brewers and Raincock want a level playing field for brewers in Canada, but whereas the Alberta craft brewers want to add protections similar to those imposed on them in other provinces, Raincock wants those protections eliminated from the country entirely.

“Let’s get government out of the way of all brewers in Canada — not only the Alberta government, but all governments,” says Raincock. “Let’s have an excise tax rate like is done in the United States. Once the label is approved federally, we should have the ability to move it anywhere we damn well please and just pay one entity.”

As one would expect, there isn’t a lot of disagreement on this point, at least theoretically.

Jim Button, from Village Brewery, says Raincock’s suggestion is great as a long-term goal, but doesn’t address the disadvantage small brewers currently face in this province.

“Well, in a perfect world, that’s the way it should be, because if we go to any other province, we’re having the exact same situation that we’re suggesting they have,” he says in reference to changing Alberta’s tax structure.

“The last thing we want to do is block anybody, we just want to create an environment where it makes (craft brewing) actually viable.”

Button argues that it’s difficult to make a profit as a small brewer in Alberta, and if we want more breweries producing craft beer here, the rules have to change to ensure the brewers are competitive.

For Raincock, it goes beyond taxes; it’s also about enforcing rules and making sure the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission (AGLC) cracks down on alleged graft in pubs and restaurants.

“The other issue too is that we know that hockey tickets and other graft have been offered by major brewers within the province, and I don’t believe the AGLC is monitoring the situation where a small craft brewer enters a bar and is told, basically, that there’s no sense selling draft beer here because the lines are owned by somebody else,” says Raincock. “That’s commonplace in Alberta.”

The argument around tax incentives has picked up steam since August of last year, when 11 small Alberta brewers sent a letter to Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk asking for the rules to be changed. The government intially promised action, but has yet to deliver.

The craft brewers’ letter calling an end to the Alberta tax break was followed by another letter sent on behalf of Canada’s National Brewers, representing the big producers in the Canadian beer market, which essentially supported the craft brewers. The letter said Alberta’s system was set up to encourage the growth of craft brewers, create a strong craft beer sector and offest economies of scale. “Over time, the Alberta tax subsidy has grown from a program that achieves these three objectives to one that unfortunately achieves none of them,” reads the letter.

Although surprising at first blush that the big boys are supporting the little Alberta competitors, it comes down to what this fight is all about and who the real competitors are — the cheap beer producers.

“You can imagine, that’s where all this started,” says Button.

A two-pronged attack on creativity

If you want to see the kind of mind that supports closing arts programs, in this case at Mount Royal University, have a look at two recent opinion articles. One by the Calgary Sun ’s Ian Robinson is a barely coherent demonstration of ignorance and simple-mindedness. The other, by the Calgary Herald ’s Karin Klassen, is an intellectually inconsistent, logically faulty and evidence-averse column that should make her editor blush with embarrassment. Those are the kinds of intellects that celebrate such things. That should scare you.

Although maybe you should be more frightened by the intellects in charge of the province, seeing as they actually make these kinds of decisions. Okay, so Advanced Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk and Premier Alison Redford didn’t order Mount Royal to close its jazz program, its theatre arts program or even reduce its engineering and nursing programs, but they did slash the budgets of Alberta’s post-secondaries to the bone, dropping the blame for the government’s incompetence on the doorstep of higher learning. That should scare you.

I’m almost at a loss for words that a case needs to be made for why we should have robust post-secondary schools with a diversity of programs, including ones that aren’t “commercially viable.” Have we really reached the point where I have to argue for the inherent value of things like philosophy, literature, theatre and music? Do I really have to highlight how important these supposed economic laggards are to our society? That should scare you.

It seems like the government is hell-bent on establishing a bland monoculture of a society, one focused on destruction for profit, rather than creativity and critical thinking for purpose. When a government decides that it wants to start lecturing schools on the types of programs offered, we’re in trouble. The fact that Mount Royal decided to pluck the low-hanging fruit of arts programs is shameful, particularly when it could probably find savings that would prevent any programs from being cancelled altogether. Is this a strategic move on behalf of the school to highlight the true costs of the Conservative cuts? That’s the only palatable theory.

When the provincial budget landed with a thud in March, Alberta’s cultural organizations and workers let out a collective, though quiet, sigh. At least arts and culture wasn’t decimated like in the Klein years. Sure, Epcor Centre operational funding is up in the air, the Student Temporary Employment Program that many organizations rely on for summer help was cut, and so too were the Community Spirit grants, but it could have been worse, right? Well, it is. First we have the Mount Royal cuts, then what? What will the Alberta College of Art and Design do to get its budget under control? What of the University of Calgary? It seems to be fine for the time being, but what if Redford and co. carry on cutting? There’s an arts department at the U of C that doesn’t get enough respect from the administration….

So while the government occasionally offers some meek statement on the need for economic diversification, we see their true colours in this short-sighted budgetary decision and its outcomes. While they continue to dole out hefty subsidies to the oil and gas industry, including lax royalty rates while those companies shatter what’s left of our ecosystems, they cut the very institutions that can contribute to a complete society, one where arts and critical thinking attract great minds, build a better city and retain workers, including those in the soaring energy towers downtown.

If all we’re left with at the end of the day are the kinds of intellects that pen missives celebrating a loss of culture, that should really scare us all.

Government closes program, blames Mount Royal College

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According to an email circulated to Mount Royal University staff by president David Docherty, and obtained by Fast Forward Weekly, the university was forced to close two centres that evaluated internationally educated nurses in Edmonton and Calgary, despite recent claims by minister of health Fred Horne.

In an interview with the CBC, Horne said the decision to close the program was made by the university. In the email from Docherty, however, he writes: “This statement obscures the true nature and depth of our discussion on this issue with ministry officials dating back as early as July 2012.”

Docherty goes on to explain that the provincial government would not commit to long-term funding of the program despite the need to renew multi-year leases on the required spaces.

“We felt it would be fiscally irresponsible to commit to new multi-year leases without a written commitment from the program funder,” writes Docherty. “We informed the government that without their funding commitment we were unable to accept the risk of signing multi-year leases for space for an unfunded program, and for which Mount Royal would be wholly responsible.

“On March 11, the government replied that they accepted Mount Royal’s notice to close the two centres though such notice was never submitted nor desired by our institution. The government further requested a detailed budget for winding down the program, which was due March 18.”

Docherty writes that the university agreed to host the program as “a service to Albertans based on a funding grant from Alberta Health.”

The loss of the program will make it more difficult for immigrants with nursing credentials to work in Alberta.

Howard May, a spokesperson for Alberta Health, could not offer any information on the closing of the program or whether program funding will be reinstated. He reiterated the statement that Alberta Health accepted the closing of the centres “in light of their inability to reach a lease agreement that aligns with the long-term goals.”

May says it’s not the result of a program funding cut and that Alberta Health is looking at alternatives for the program down the road, but he couldn’t confirm whether or not funding exists for the program at this time or will in the future.

“There’s an effort going forward to look at what an alternative might look like, but it’s too early to talk about a timeline for that…. It’s premature at this point.”

The elimination of the program is outside the recent budget cuts imposed on post-secondaries in Alberta. Mount Royal’s overall funding will be reduced by 7.3 per cent.

Big ideas we’d like to see

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When compiling this list, we asked ourselves: what kind of city, province and country do we want? What ideas would help get us there? This list is by no means comprehensive, but intended to start a discussion about where we’re going and where we should go. Have you got your own big ideas? Let us hear them in the comments section.

HIGH SPEED RAIL

Creating a high-speed rail link between Calgary and Edmonton has been on people’s minds since the ’70s, and yet there are no trains. Hell, there aren’t even slow trains. If the line was built using maglev technology, with a maximum speed of 300 kilometres per hour, the trip between Calgary and the capital would be reduced by over a third.

Reports suggest that the line could have huge economic benefits for the province, but the cost of constructing the line, the worries over the economic viability of the operation and the tricky question of buying the necessary land for the right-of-way, have all gotten in the way of the project moving forward. Estimates for the costs range from $5 billion to $24 billion (the aforementioned maglev being the most expensive option).

Obviously there are some serious questions here, but we’d still like to think that the long-dreamt-of line will one day become a reality, providing better transportation in what’s known as the Golden Corridor. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

LEGALIZE DRUGS

Seriously, just legalize the damn things already. Need some more taxable income? Legalize it. Want to combat crime and starve criminal organizations of vast sums of money? Legalize it. Courts tied up and police overworked? Legalize it. Want to help addicts rather than punish them? Legalize it. Interested in new job creation? Legalize it. The list goes on and on.

This one is just so damn obvious. Everyone knows that the war on drugs is a failure, it costs millions of dollars a year, it ties up our criminal justice system and it disproportionately targets disadvantaged Canadians, including First Nations. Politicians the world over never have the guts to say we should legalize, or at least decriminalize, drugs when they’re in office, but there’s a large number of them that say so as soon as they retire. We’re saying the government should legalize all drugs, but legalizing marijuana would be a good start. It’s not as though it’s a dangerous substance like, say, booze.

So what’s the federal government doing? Implementing mandatory minimum sentencing and laying the groundwork for a rise in incarceration and the associated societal degradation that follows. That’s just irresponsible.

FREE TRANSIT

Sounds radical, doesn’t it? At a time when the whole world is concerned about emissions and global warming, we should consider alternatives to the car in a more concerted way. Getting more people riding transit is a good start and what better way to create that incentive than to take away a major disincentive? Of course, nothing’s free. The costs for operating transit would have to come from somewhere, most likely property taxes or a hike in the gas tax.

Some mid-size cities have implemented free transit, mostly in Europe, to some success. Implementing it in a larger city would be difficult, but not impossible. If you want to tackle traffic issues, parking issues and pollution issues, and give a leg up to those who can’t afford cars or transit passes, this is a no-brainer.

CITY-WIDE WIFI

Sadly, it’s extremely difficult to operate in today’s economy without constant connection. So, should the city provide a service to its digital-age citizens? Yes. Fairly cheap to establish and maintain, with huge net benefits, a city-wide WiFi service, paid for like any other utility, would be a great equalizer and make Calgarians some of the most connected citizens on the globe. It’s a quality-of-life booster and a business efficiency measure all wrapped up into one.

Some cities in the states have city-wide (or close to city-wide) coverage, including Philadelphia and Minneapolis. In Canada, Fredericton has a city-wide system in place. Vancouver has been wrestling with the idea for years, but hasn’t yet implemented a plan. Calgary’s young population and penchant for all things digital makes us an ideal candidate for blanket coverage. Now, who to award the contract to…?

CULTURAL ZONING

Take a cruise through the city and try to count the number of vacant or under-utilized buildings within its limits. It might surprise you. Now consider that the most common problem facing artists and arts and culture organizations is a lack of space.

The city should relax zoning regulations for cultural events, groups and individuals within the city, making it easier for them to utilize these buildings and help grow our cultural scene with little or no investment. The now-defunct artist studios in the East Village fish market were a great example of temporary cultural space in an otherwise abandoned building, but we need to go beyond that. The city should make it easy for productions, musicians, art markets and cultural performances to be staged in unlikely places. The organizations will have more space, the costs will be lowered and citizens will have more opportunities to take in our local scene in surprising places.

TAKE MENTAL HEALTH SERIOUSLY

Our mental health system is a nightmare. It’s hard enough for people without mental illness to navigate its murky waters in order to help others find the help they need. Those without support are, well, screwed. There is a shortage of space in the limited psychiatric wards, there’s little followup and too often the solution is to medicate and then ignore.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 20 per cent of Canadians will experience mental illness at some point in their lives. This is a huge number and exemplifies why we need more, and better, help. It also goes to show that the stigma attached to mental illness is problematic. We need frank and open conversations about mental health and we need the facilities, the practitioners and the access required to help those in mental distress.

TAKE AFFORDABLE HOUSING SERIOUSLY

This ties into the last idea, at least on one level. Many people who suffer from mental illness also struggle to maintain housing and employment. But that group isn’t the only one that needs help in this regard. The city has a policy on affordable housing, offering incentives to developers with a promise that our overheated rental and home ownership market will be able to accommodate those without the means to buy in. These incentives and the partnerships between the city and developers is not creating enough affordable housing. Providing a cheaper alternative should become a prerequisite of any large development deal.

Creating affordable housing should not be a cattle-penning exercise, putting up towers and herding poor people in. Housing works best when there is a mix of incomes and lifestyles, and the only way that’s going to happen is if the provincial, federal and municipal governments step up their game. The creation of the Affordable Housing Task Force by the province in 2007 was a good first step and its recommendations resulted in the creation of 3,615 units in Calgary as of September 2011. But that’s not enough. The cost of living in Calgary is rapidly outstripping the ability of anyone who doesn’t work in the oil and gas towers downtown to rent or own without breaking the bank. If we’re not going to consider rent controls, we need to get better at creating more affordable spaces.

MAKE DEVELOPERS PAY

Mayor Naheed Nenshi tried to make this happen, and managed to get a partial deal, off-loading some of the costs for constructing new infrastructure in far-flung suburbs to the developers who reap the financial rewards. In 2010, that subsidy has resulted in $1.5 billion of debt, half of the city’s total. Although it’s great that council passed the motion requiring developers to pay half the cost of extending that pricey infrastructure to the edges of the city, we think that the balance is still off. Taxpayers should not be subsidizing sprawl and we should not be building housing on the periphery that is artificially cheaper. And no, there is no contradiction with our call for more affordable housing. That need is required, with or without more expensive suburban homes.

CONTEMPORARY ART MUSEUM

Let’s not mince words. It’s absurd that Calgary, a city of over one million people, doesn’t have a collecting contemporary art museum. There have been efforts over the years to establish one, but the plan always seems to fall apart. The latest effort is by the Museum of Contemporary Art Calgary (formerly the Triangle), which signed a memorandum of understanding with the former standard bearer, the Institute of Modern and Contemporary Art. This is an effort that Calgarians and all three levels of government have to get behind.

World-class exhibitions are bypassing Calgary on a regular basis, and despite some excellent programming at places like the Glenbow (no, seriously), we are being starved of more impressive, innovative and historically significant work. A strong architectural presence in the inner-city showcasing big exhibitions and internationally recognized work is a much-needed notch in our cultural belt.

PROTECT WATERSHEDS

The provincial government recently released its land use plan for the Lower Athabasca Region. It is the first land use plan that is focused on the major watershed areas of Alberta. Although there is some good news in the plan, including setting aside an additional 16 per cent of the land base for conservation, it doesn’t go far enough. The government should create a binding document that is fierce in its protection of our water.

The next regional plan, which is open to public input until December 6, focuses on the South Saskatchewan region, which encompasses Calgary. With logging activity just west of the city in our own watershed, and with population pressures increasing, it’s imperative that the government comes up with strict and enforceable regulations around our water — in terms of use, habitat protection and, if need be, moratoriums on industrial activity in sensitive areas.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.