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.

Jim Prentice’s flood of words

Jim Prentice

Although the calendar reads September 2014, some Calgarians would be forgiven for thinking it was June 2013.

Since Jim Prentice was anointed as this province’s new leader, the latest in the 43-year Conservative dynasty, there has been a flood of promises and policies, including sudden decisions on flood mitigation itself.

The government is going to work on a water management agreement with TransAlta and is planning to dam a section of Springbank for a dry reservoir, which has residents a little miffed and garnered one hell of a passive-aggressive response from Mayor Naheed Nenshi. “With respect to the two flood mitigation measures for Calgary that were announced by Premier Prentice today — namely the dry reservoir in Springbank and the direction to negotiate a permanent water management agreement with TransAlta — it is difficult for us to comment in detail since the City of Calgary has not yet been consulted with respect to either proposal and our experts have not yet seen any engineering studies,” wrote the mayor.

In addition to pointing out the possible failings of the plan, due in large part to other elements and agreements not being in place, Nenshi’s posting highlighted the continued maltreatment of cities by a paternalistic provincial government that still governs as though we’re an agrarian society. This does not bode well for the much-discussed city charters that I’ve heard are effectively dead.

But the flood of words isn’t just about shoring up the banks of Alison Redford’s old riding of Calgary-Elbow, where residents are still fighting with the government for flood relief, and where Gordon Dirks, the so-far unelected minister of education, is running for a seat.

The torrent from the premier’s office is reaching biblical proportions — something preacher Dirks can understand — with Prentice desperately trying to prove to a skeptical public that the PC party has changed and that all those promises of accountability and openness will totally happen this time. Swear. Starting with not giving away sole-source contracts to friends to deal with communications during events like the flood.

The premier has outlined five priorities that someone should fact check to make sure they weren’t plagiarized from any of the hundreds of conservative campaigns fought across North America in a given year. Conservative fiscal policies? Check. End entitlements and restore public trust? Roger that. Maximize value for our natural resources and respect property rights? Yup. Quality of life, including leading in health care, education and skills training (but not something silly like social sciences)? That’s there too. And then down at the bottom, hey what’s that? Oh, “establish our province as an environmental leader.”

It’s worth digging into that last outlier. Fortunately, it’s just a click on the Prentice website before we read: “we will not damage the competitiveness of our oil and gas industry by unilaterally imposing costs and regulations.” That’s under the “environmental leader” banner. His whole rationale for environmental protection is to get more oil to market. Other harmful activities appear not to exist in Prentice’s world.

Like a tailings pond breach spewing its toxins into a waterway, we can expect a strong push from Prentice to get our oil out the door. He mimics his old boss Stephen Harper, calling for Alberta to be a global superpower in energy, which should prove challenging given rising global stockpiles, U.S. supply increasing exponentially, forecasted increases in Mexico, and no efficient way for our glut of production to reach the markets.

Prentice’s first weeks in office have produced the same flood of words we hear whenever a new Progressive Conservative takes the provincial reins, and all these years later people are starting to tire of the debris built up from the empty words. Our access to information is a joke, and so too is the treatment of our cities. Dissent is considered dirtier than a barrel of bitumen and there’s never really been a plan to wean us off the oily teat. We’re wholly dependent, locked in to a volatile market at a time of profound societal shift. Just look to the treatment of our colleges and universities if you want any indication of how the government views education outside of science and technology.

But here’s the thing: floods aren’t all bad; they flush a system. Last year’s flood cleansed the Elbow and the Bow of the rock snot clinging to our waterways’ pebbles and stones, providing a hopeful metaphor for the upcoming byelections and eventual provincial contest. There’s no telling just how a flood will play out, but we all know there’s plenty of muck to get rid of in this province, and after 43 years it’s pretty easy to see who’s to blame.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Ric McIver and the extremists

Ric McIver

When the Peace Bridge opened in March of 2012, crowds gathered to celebrate. Politicians and citizens all swarmed both ends of the controversial bridge, eager to be amongst the first to cross. Just prior to cutting the ribbon, there was a blessing by a First Nations elder — recognition that Calgary sits on traditional Blackfoot territory.

I was at the opening, perched on the rocks at the south entrance to the bridge where the dignitaries had gathered. Unfortunately, I was also perched beside Artur Pawlowski, known to many as the man behind Calgary’s Street Church.

As the blessing started, Pawlowski began to loudly mock and condemn the Siksika elder. I called him out on his lack of respect. For those who’ve had any experience with the man and the fervent believers from his church, it will come as no surprise that he did not relent. This is a man blinded by a religious ideology steeped in intolerance and intransigence. He said that First Nations were the interlopers in this land, and so was their heathen religion. He told me to learn my history.

This is what happens when ignorance takes hold and shackles any semblance of rational discussion. What do you say to a man who thinks Christian Europeans setttled this land before the Blackfoot? What do you say to a man who gathers in public and at ceremonies (including infiltrating last year’s Stampede parade) just to court controversy and offend those around him?

What makes this story relevant is the recent controversy over Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Ric McIver’s participation in the Street Church’s March for Jesus on Sunday, June 15. Many have called out McIver for supporting this group, focusing on its rabid homophobia. The Street Church claims, among other things, that gays and lesbians are agents of Satan who participate in perversion.

These are extreme people. They villify anything that does not match their outdated, and often strange, points of view. They shun First Nations beliefs, they shun homosexuality, they shun everything that does not pigeonhole into a narrow vision of the world. There is no sense in engaging with them, and there’s no redemption for a politician who supports them.

The questions around McIver’s support of their activities is indeed troubling. Why would he participate in this event? (His excuse that he was celebrating his Catholic beliefs rings hollow.) What are his views on human rights in Alberta? Does he believe that LGBTQ rights should be curtailed based on the extreme religious views of groups like the Street Church? This is not a group we want our leaders to be involved with, if even just by association.

Just days prior to McIver’s participation in the March for Jesus, he stressed his strong support for a controversial section of Alberta’s Human Rights Act which allows parents to pull their children from classes where topics, including homosexuality, will be discussed. “We defend parents’ rights to make a decision about the moral ground and education that they raise their children with. To me, that’s what is in the legislation now,” he told the Calgary Herald the following day.

McIver posted a defence of his participation in the March for Jesus to his Facebook page, which claimed that he supports diversity. Apparently, this includes those who would discriminate against others. Without a hint of irony, McIver says he will “continue to attend events celebrating the diversity of Alberta.”

Much of what he says in his defence reeks of the abandoned and much-maligned Wildrose policy supporting so-called conscience rights, which essentially says that people should have the right to discriminate against others based on their religious convictions. That policy was largely responsible for the defeat of the Wildrose in the last provincial election and was eventually disowned by the party. Albertans rightly rejected a government-in-waiting that would discriminate under the guise of inclusion and tolerance. If that’s what McIver stands for, then PC voters should do the same with him.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

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?

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.”

Theatre Outré outrage unfounded

theatreoutre_01

** Update **

Theatre Outré has released a new statement that contradicts its earlier claims. The new post says the theatre is not closing and says there are no issues with the city or their landlord, but only with the alleged homophobic neighbours in their building. More on that if we can confirm the content of the letters.

**

Outrage over the closure of a Lethbridge queer theatre space, Bordello, has been picking up steam on social media throughout the day after the company, Theatre Outré, posted a damning letter on its website. The outrage, however, might be a wee bit overblown.

In the company’s post, it claims that homophobic letters from two tenants in the building where Theatre Outré is developing a new theatre space has changed the city’s mind when it comes to the company’s right to operate. “A bureaucratic process, which we were close to finishing, was road-blocked and our venue, therefore, is no longer allowed to operate for the purposes of theatre performance until we receive approval from a city council,” it reads.

“Unfortunately, in the span of just the past few days, ignorant and homophobic neighbouring tenants in the McFarland Buidling have made it clear in various ways that we are not welcome in their midst. Two hateful, hurtful and defamatory emails were sent to our landlord questioning our integrity based on moral grounds and challenging our co-existing alongside their businesses, including an insurance broker and a music school for children.”

The post goes on to point out some horrible things that were in the letters, which have justifiably outraged many. If true, the allegations are troubling. The authors of the alleged letters are outed on Theatre Outré’s website.

The one problem in this context, according to Lethbridge city councillor Jeff Carlson, who is also friends with the members of Theatre Outré, is that the letters have nothing to do with the issues around the space.

“The club Bordello has operated for a couple of years in Lethbridge now, they’ve just moved to a new location and apparently they didn’t bother to get any business license or development permit,” says Carlson.

“The city relies… a lot of it is complaint driven. Our development staff doesn’t drive around trying to find where businesses have popped up. So what happened is two people came down and said ‘do you know about this?’ And they said ‘actually no, we don’t have a development permit.’ So we started the process and that’s where it’s at. They just need to apply for the permit and I think everything will be fine.”

Carlson, as any city councillor would be, is troubled that the city will be given a black eye over this situation and stresses that Lethbridge is not an intolerant place. He does, however, acknowledge that intolerance does exist, as in any other place. But again, “it has nothing to do with their development permit.”

He’s also concerned that the post went up without the courtesy of a phone call from his friends at Theatre Outré and says he could have calmed this situation down before it heated up.

Carlson has not seen the letters in question, but a friend who is a board member of Theatre Outré and another who works with them from time to time read him sections of the letters over the phone. “They also read me parts of the landlord’s response which I thought was really professional and excellent and supported the Bordello,” says Carlson.

The other claim made by Theatre Outré on their website is that they will be forced to be licensed as an “adult theatre,” another claim that Carlson finds puzzling. He says the only place he’s seen mention of that is in the homophobic letters written by the building tenants.

“We’ve had productions of Hair and Oh! Calcutta! where there’s nudity on stage and we didn’t make our local theatre companies classify themselves as adult theatre, so no, I don’t think that definition applies at all,” he says.

“The two definitions I think will be most applicable would be either private club, like the Moose Hall or something like that, or entertainment establishment, and unfortunately they’ve applied for neither as far as I know.”

And how long is the process once you do apply?

“I think our development officers were trying get them through so it would be done by February 11th. It’s not overly onerous for something like this.”

Theatre Outré has not responded to repeated requests for comment.

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?