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

 

sandra-jansen-leadership

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

Microsoft Word - Final Report 090218.doc

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

NEWS-Affordable-2014-03-05T21-03-51-002093

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

VIEWPOINT-PAB2-2014-02-26T20-41-06-465289

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

VIEWPOINT-Oil-Spills-2013-07-24T20-46-59-350382

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

NEWS-Village-Brewery-sign-2013-05-01T21-10-02-503405

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.