Book Review, Canadian Politics (Federal), Canadian Politics (Provincial), Environment, Published Articles

From revolving door to revolution in the patch

Originally published in the Monitor (Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives)

Why are ostensibly environmentally friendly governments, like the federal Liberals and Alberta NDP, still so attached to oil sands extraction, with its disproportionate impact on carbon emissions? Former Alberta Liberal leader Kevin Taft has an answer in his recent book, Oil’s Deep State (Lorimer, September 2017), and it’s one that many Canadians and Albertans will find unsettling.

Taft argues that the oil and gas industry has developed a stranglehold over federal and provincial governments, as well as large swaths of academia and the media, corroding Canadians’ ability to meaningfully address the threat of climate change. Ispoke with Taft about his analysis, how we got to this point and what the future holds for oil’s deep state.

Jeremy Appel: When we hear about the deep state it’s usually a reference to the power elite running the show in Washington, D.C., despite Trump’s alleged goal to “drain the swamp” of corporate influence. What do you mean by the term in your book?

Kevin Taft: When I finished the manuscript, the term “deep state” hadn’t hit the popular agenda very much yet. In fact, it was a concern of mine and the publisher’s that the term wouldn’t really resonate with people.

It’s a term that goes back to the 1970s and has been used commonly in Europe, Turkey, the United States and Canada. What’s happened in the U.S. since the Trump election is that the far-right has grabbed and torqued the term “deep state” for their own purposes, and that’s what happens with political language, unfortunately.

I tried to bring some theory to the idea of a deep state by connecting it to the notion of capture. There’s a long history of literature studying how democratic institutions get captured by private interests. The question I had is, what happens when a whole series of democratic institutions are captured and held by the same private interests?

What happens when the governing party, the opposition party, the regulators, the civil service, universities, for example, are all captured and held by the same private interest? I argue at that point you have a state within a state, which I call a deep state.

How did the non-renewable energy industry get so powerful in Canada in general, and in Alberta in particular?

It was a very slow process in Alberta. The oil industry here has been active for 100 years and gradually built strength. A key variable for Alberta is that we have a comparatively small population, so all of Alberta together has less people than metropolitan Phoenix or Seattle, and we own the third largest oil reserves on the planet. This little population of Albertans owns more oil than all of Russia or all of the United States.

It’s an overwhelmingly large resource for such a small population. As that resource is being developed, especially the oil sands, the economic weight of that has bent our democratic society into a warped shape. It gives immense power to the private interests who have managed to gain control of that resource.

It’s very difficult for a government to manage a resource as large as the oil sands without losing control of the resource. I think that the only country who’s done that really effectively is Norway. We had a chance. In his first term or two, Peter Lougheed actually stood up and waged a struggle with the oil industry. He wrestled a lot of control away from the industry and into the hands of the people who actually own the resource, which is the government and people of Alberta.

Those successes of the early Lougheed years began to decline in the later 1980s, and Ralph Klein’s election in 1992 led to a compete abdication of control of our oil resources, turning it over to the private sector. We’re going to pay a price for that.

What happened in the intervening years, from Lougheed’s battle with the industry to Klein’s subservience to it?

There was a broad shift in the social-democratic discourse through the 1980s. You had the rise, generally in the English-speaking world, of the right. You had Margaret Thatcher in the U.K. and Ronald Reagan in the U.S., as well as the Chicago school of economics, who became champions of markets and the private sector.

That was combined with a slowing in Alberta’s economy in the later 1980s and then a very deliberate and successful attempt, starting in the very late ‘80s and through the 1990s, by people in the industry, to take command of the Alberta government.

You had, for example, a whole series of energy and finance and other cabinet ministers coming from the oil industry, spending a couple of terms in cabinet and then going back to the industry. It’s no surprise that those people took the royalty and regulatory systems and turned them to the benefit of the industry.

How did your personal experience in Alberta politics inform your analysis?

My experience had a profound shaping of my view. When I left politics [in 2012], I really left it completely. It was a couple of years after I left that I was invited by a university in Australia to give some serious thought to the relationship between fossil fuels and democracy.

As I began reading, thinking and studying the theory, I realized that everywhere I looked, when I was in office, the oil industry was right there. Whether they were lobbying me, or when I walked over to the legislature they’d be lobbying the government, financing the political parties, funding the universities. Everywhere I turned, there would be the oil industry.

When you’re in the middle of it, that just seems normal. But after a couple years away, and doing more serious thinking, I realized it was the oil industry that was running Alberta, not the people of Alberta.

We have to remember the interests of the oil industry are not the same as the interests of the people of Alberta. That’s something Peter Lougheed said over and over again. The people of Alberta have to think like owners and we stopped doing that in the early 1990s. We’ve given up one of the most valuable resources on the planet.

More recently, Ed Stelmach attempted to raise royalty rates and the industry responded by shifting its financial support from his PC party to the upstart Wildrose. What does this tell us about the machinations of oil’s deep state?

Behind the scenes there’s a very well-orchestrated campaign by the oil industry to control the public agenda. The backstory to the rise of the Wildrose party is part of that.

I spend the first two chapters of the book talking about oil lobbyist and former Stephen Harper adviser Bruce Carson’s court case in Ottawa. All the documents, emails, bank statements and minutes tabled lay bare some of the behind-the-scenes efforts, and millions of dollars spent, by the oil industry to get a grip on the civil service, Environment Canada, Natural Resources Canada, the political system, through cabinet ministers and prime ministers, top civil servants, the universities and provincial governments.

Of course, the public would never have a clue that that happened if a court case hadn’t allowed the police to actually seize these documents and computers, and present the evidence in court. When I read through all those filings, it’s just stunning to see how systematically the oil industry works to orchestrate the public agenda, whether it’s pipelines, approval of oilsands expansion, undermining environmental initiatives.

This is not random chance. You can trace this back to a core, which is the command centre of the oil deep state in Canada—the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

What’s the way out of this situation?

Change in Alberta is going to be forced from outside. That change is going to come in a few forms.

One is that a very rapid shift in energy technology is going to unfold in the next decade. It takes away a good part of the market for Alberta oil, which will unfortunately bring Alberta’s economy to its knees, creating a political crisis in this province.

Another way out is the kinds of citizen actions that we’re seeing across the country and around the world—the actions of First Nations, court actions challenging the pipelines and escalating civil disobedience.

Frankly, a form of energy revolution is coming that will put the end to the oil industry, but that’s not going to be clean and tidy. It’s going to be a long and messy process.

Canadian Politics (Federal), Canadian Politics (Provincial), Opinion, Published Articles

Drug addiction should be a health, not criminal issue

Originally published in the Medicine Hat News

Canada is currently in the midst of an opioid overdose crisis.

The two most western provinces and territories — British Columbia, Alberta, Yukon and the Northwest Territories — have been hit especially hard, likely due to their relative proximity to China, where much of the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl is produced.

According to Government of Canada statistics from 2016, B.C. and Yukon each had more than 15 opioid overdoses per 100,000 people, while Alberta and N.W.T. each had between 10 and 14.9 overdoses per 100,000 people.

This epidemic had led to a recognition in some quarters that the current approach of criminalizing drug use hasn’t been remotely effective in preventing deaths.

Safe injection sites, which will soon be coming to Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge are a positive development in handling opioid addiction as a health, rather than criminal, matter, but if we want to address the root cause of drug overdoses, we ought to take the bold step of decriminalizing drug use full stop.

Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh acknowledged this bitter reality when he said that personal drug use should be treated as a “social justice” rather than “criminal justice” matter.

Critics will say that decriminalizing drugs normalizes their use, but this objection misses the mark.

Decriminalizing drugs, as opposed to legalizing them, simply shifts the burden of dealing with them from police officers and lawyers to public health officials.

When people are physically addicted to substances like heroin or fentanyl, illegality is not going to stop them from using.

The question is whether they’re going to share needles, and risk contracting HIV, buy impure drugs off the streets to get their fix, risking a fentanyl overdose, or engage in other criminal activities to get money for their addiction.

Decriminalization allows public health officials — people who actually study drugs and their effects — the latitude to deal with the opioid crisis in the most effective way possible.

Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, arguably the epicentre of Canada’s opioid crisis, has taken this approach.

Vancouver’s Crosstown Clinic not only provides opioid users with a place to do their drugs safely, but also prescribes them free medical doses to avoid overdoses and allow addicts to spend their money on necessities.

Naturally, there are many people uncomfortable with giving addicts their fix, but once one thinks about drug abuse as a health issue, it’s a perfectly sensible approach.

It’s not as if anyone can walk into the Crosstown Clinic and receive free heroin. They must demonstrate a need.

These are people who tried heroin alternatives like suboxone and methadone and still couldn’t get clean.

Not only does this program prevent needless deaths, but it allows the most severe addicts to function as members of society, rather than outcasting them as criminals and junkies.

Drug policy is in the federal government’s jurisdiction, so the provinces are somewhat constrained, but the Crosstown Clinic shows that municipal governments, with the province’s blessing, can do more to address the opioid crisis.

The Alberta Government acknowledges the need for harm reduction in its opioid crisis response, which includes safe consumption sites, peer support and drug substitution therapy.

This is a solid first step in the right direction, but the Alberta NDP should take the bold next step and do what it can as a provincial government to stop treating addicts as criminals.

If enough provinces take B.C.’s approach, then the federal government, which already supports supervised consumption sites, will take note and hopefully take steps towards reducing the bloated Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

Canadian Politics (Provincial), Crime, Human Interest, Published Articles

App will tell you all photo radar locations in major Alberta cities

Originally published in the Medicine Hat News

A University of Alberta computing science student has developed an app to track photo radar enforcement in major municipalities across the province, including the Hat.

Benjamin Lavin said his app was originally geared toward Edmonton, but in the past few weeks it has expanded to the city’s suburbs and other major cities — Calgary, Red Deer, Lethbridge, Grande Prairie, Fort McMurray and Medicine Hat.

“It started because I had heard that Edmonton had started releasing its photo radar information online,” he said. “I wanted to set a challenge myself to see if I could take this information and put it into a more usable format for people.”

In the Hat, photo radar locations are also published in the News.

“Once I launched it here in Edmonton I started getting emails from people all over the country asking if I would consider expanding the app into their city.

“I figured that expanding it to the rest of Alberta would be a good first expansion step.”

Developing the app provided Lavin with the opportunity to put his computing science skills into practice.

“It’s all information that the various cities publish online,” he said. “This is really just aggregating all of this information and putting it into a more useful format.”

The app is crowdfunded, meaning it’s free, but users can make voluntary donations.

“I wanted to design it as a public service, so it is a free app for iOS and Android, because I wanted as many people to use it as possible,” said Lavin.

MHPS concerned with distracted driving

Sgt. Clarke White of the MHPS Traffic Unit has no objection to aggregating publicly-available photo radar data, but expressed his concern that an app of this sort could contribute to more distracted driving.

“We’re not trying to hide anything, we’re just trying to use the (photo radar) to slow down motorists, regardless of where it’s sitting. We want the behaviours to change.

“My biggest concern with it would be the added distraction that the device is creating,” said White, adding that reducing distracted driving is one of the traffic unit’s top safety priorities.

“We all know that (when) that device buzzes or dings, it’s going to draw your eyes towards it.”

Canadian Politics (Provincial), Opinion, Published Articles

Rights of LGBTQ students should be non-negotiable

Originally published in the Medicine Hat News

U.S.-style culture wars are coming to Alberta.

United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney recently announced that he will oppose the NDP government’s new bill codifying support for gay-straight alliances in the province’s schools.

Bill 24, an expansion on Bill 10 from earlier this year, forbids teachers from divulging a student’s membership in a GSA to parents without the student’s consent, which will have the impact of blocking educators from potentially outing LGBTQ kids to their parents.

Kenney’s opposition to this common-sense measure is a blow to those moderates who hoped Kenney would pivot away from the social conservatism that has defined much of his political career after winning his party’s leadership.

Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown did just that after winning his party’s leadership with support from social conservative elements. He even marched in Toronto’s Gay Pride Parade.

Kenney has decided not to take this route, instead launching a full-scale assault against GSAs under the guise of parental rights.

The UCP weren’t allowed to participate in Calgary Pride until they demonstrate their commitment to LGBTQ rights. Kenney’s level of commitment is now on full display.

Kudos to Education Minister David Eggen for standing up for Alberta’s LGBTQ students. Is Bill 24 a political move designed to paint the Conservatives as stodgy social conservatives in the runup to the 2019 election?

Absolutely. But Kenney has so far done everything in his power to promote this view.

Politics aside, it is of the utmost importance that any potential future government has a difficult time reversing the progress the NDP has made for LGBTQ rights in the province.

It doesn’t matter what one thinks of the NDP’s fiscal record. The rights of the province’s LGBTQ students to join a GSA should not be subject to debate.

Kenney is a shrewd political actor. He wouldn’t have taken this position if there weren’t electoral gains to be made from it.

The Alberta Teachers Association, which Kenney accused of encouraging its members to join the nowdefunct Wildrose party en masse to block the merger with the PC party that brought about the UCP, wants to speak with the UCP leader to clarify his misconceptions about GSAs.

Kenney won’t bite, saying only that he’s spoken to “hundreds” of teachers who expressed their concerns, but the ATA represents 46,000 members across the province.

Kenney has been peddling blatant misinformation about GSAs. In a recent news conference, he suggested that they’ll be teaching sex ed.

GSAs are a social club, not a classroom. The only thing they’ll be teaching is that there’s nothing wrong with being LGBTQ, something that every party leader should support.

Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA Drew Barnes, who supported Kenney during the UCP leadership race, said that although he supports GSAs, he’s also in favour of notifying parents when their child joins one, barring extenuating circumstances.

Bill 24 does the opposite, prohibiting educators from notifying parents except in circumstances where the child is at risk. That’s as it should be.

Barnes and Kenney can’t have it both ways. Either they support GSAs, which allow LGBTQ students and their allies a space to gather away from any homophobia that is all too real in schools, or they don’t.

Notifying parents of a student’s GSA membership defeats this purpose, by possibly exposing them to homophobia at home.

There’s no justification to willfully run that risk, with all the progress with LGBTQ rights that have been made in recent years.

Canadian Politics (Provincial), Community News, Human Interest, Published Articles

Nuns welcomed home at St. Joseph’s

Originally published in the Medicine Hat News

Four nuns who worked at St. Joseph’s Home before 2012 made their return to the facility on Thursday.

Carmelite Sisters Gabriel John, Mary Peter, Mary Rita and Mary Regina were employed by St. Joseph’s Home prior to it being brought under the umbrella of Covenant Health.

They were accompanied by Fr. Frances Tran of the Diocese of Calgary, Covenant Health president and CEO Patrick Dumelie, former premier and chair of Covenant Health’s community board Ed Stelmach, and Covenant Care president Truman Severson.

Mary Rita, the home’s administrator for 17 years, said it feels great to be back.

“We feel right at home, just like we did when we were here,” she said.

“I am so grateful to Covenant Health for keeping it, inviting us back (and) making such a wonderful welcome at St. Joseph’s.”

Mary Rita said she got involved in seniors care for the same reason she joined the church.

“I was very interested in seniors care in helping people and making a change in their lives hopefully,” she said.

Stelmach, whose premiership from 2006 – 2011 gave birth to Alberta Health Services, said Covenant Health is looking to possibly open a new facility in town.

Covenant Health works in conjunction with AHS to deliver care in its facilities, offering seniors care through Covenant Care.

Dumelie said that although it’s a separate entity from the government, many of Covenant Health’s facilities are funded by AHS, like the Carmelite Hospice on the third floor of St. Joseph’s, named after the sisters.

“The sisters really started this in the ’50s and up until recently … they did it without any government support or funding,” he said, referring to the Carmelite Sisters broadly, rather than the specific nuns in attendance.

Stelmach said his experience with faith-based healthcare goes back to when he stayed in a Catholic Ukranian hospital in Andrew, Alta., after an injury when he was six.

“They taught me a lot about volunteerism and they taught me a lot about holistic healthcare — body, mind and soul,” he said.

“It’s got nothing to do with politics or religion. It’s about providing passionate care. The nuns’ doors are open to everybody.”

Canadian Politics (Provincial), Opinion, Published Articles

UCP leadership race has some Seinfeldian overtones

Originally published in the Medicine Hat News

The United Conservative Party leadership race is shaping up to be the Seinfeld of Alberta electoral politics. That is, a race about nothing.

Instead of concrete policy proposals, the contest thus far has been more about broader themes than specific policies.

It doesn’t help that one frontrunner, former PC party leader Jason Kenney, is openly refusing to release specific planks unless he wins.

His competitors — former Wildrose leader Brian Jean, Calgary-based attorney Doug Schweitzer and former Wildrose president Jeff Callaway — have each released a smattering of policy proposals here and there, but are mostly sticking to UCP talking points.

They all want to cut taxes and balance the budget (though how they plan to do both concurrently remains a mystery), tame a purportedly out of control public sector and punish British Columbia for opposing the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion.

Each candidate agrees on these themes, but has different means of addressing them, with the exception of Kenney.

Like George Costanza in the series of Seinfeld episodes when he and Jerry are pitching a sitcom to NBC, Kenney insists that the leadership show must be about nothing.

As the most recent Leader of Opposition, Brian Jean would be the show’s titular character. He’s also the most popular of the four candidates amongst Albertans, with 51 per cent saying he’s the most suitable to be leader, according to a ThinkHQ poll reported by Global News.

He and Kenney initiated the merger of their two conservative parties that sparked this race, just as Seinfeld and Larry David, on whom George is based, conceived of the sitcom.

Jean vows $2.6 billion in budget cuts, referendums on photo radar and equalization payments, and a full repeal of Notley’s carbon tax.

His wacky neighbour, the Kramer of the leadership race, is Callaway, whose signature proposal is to purchase Manitoba’s Port of Hope to get Alberta’s oil to foreign markets, given the B.C. NDP’s reluctance to allow more pipelines through its territory.

This harebrained scheme to purchase another province’s port is one the likes of which only Kramer could conceive.

Given his outspoken social progressivism, Doug Schweitzer is the Elaine of the race.

Elaine, portrayed by the now-legendary Julia Louis-Dreyfus, won’t date someone who’s anti-abortion and Schweitzer doesn’t want to lead a party that rejects a woman’s right to choose.

But Schweitzer is no Dipper. He wants to kick B.C. out of the New West Partnership if they don’t accept Kinder Morgan and radically alter the province’s income taxation to create two flat brackets — nine per cent for those who make less than $100,000 per year and 10 per cent for those who make more than $100,000 annually.

After the first leadership debate, Jean, Kenney and Callaway rushed to social media to declare themselves the winner, as if it were a boxing match.

Schweitzer was the only one not to unilaterally declare victory, which shows good character.

In a race about nothing, that goes a long way.

Canadian Politics (Provincial), Opinion, Published Articles

‘School choice’ unfair to public purse

Originally published in the Whitecourt Star

Charter schools, which are essentially publicly-funded private schools that parents receive vouchers to enrol their children in, are socially destructive institutions.

Alberta is the only province that makes charter schools a publicly-funded alternative to public schools by law. This has got to stop.

My main objection to charter schools is twofold — for students and parents, they drain taxpayer dollars from the public school system, preventing it from achieving its full potential. From teachers’ perspective, they weaken collective bargaining rights, as charter teachers are prohibited from joining the Alberta Teachers’ Association, which limits the union’s ability to fight for increased benefits for all teachers in the province.

UCP leadership frontrunners Brian Jean and Jason Kenney are both staunch supporters of what they call “school choice,” giving parents the opportunity to send their children to private schools on the public dime, an odd position for people who pride themselves on their fiscal prudence to take.

NDP Education Minister David Eggen is often accused by his political opponents of harbouring a hidden agenda against charter schools, but he’s done nothing thus far to prevent their proliferation.

When they were brought to Alberta as a U.S. import in 1994 by the hard-right government of then-premier Ralph Klein, there was a cap on the number of charter schools permitted in the province.

Interestingly, the previous PC government of the generally more moderate Jim Prentice vowed to remove Klein’s cap, but the NDP won the 2015 election with no such intention.

The theory behind charter schools is that they would encourage competition, forcing public schools to compete with them and adopt their stronger suites, like smaller class sizes. It’s hard for public schools to do this while they’re competing for funding with schools that have lesser obligations to their students and educators than they do.

For example, charter schools are under no obligation to accommodate students with special needs, as public schools are.

Charter schools also lack democratic accountability. Unlike Alberta’s Catholic and public schools, they don’t have a school board with elected trustees.

There’s the notion amongst charter school proponents that alternative teaching methods practised in charter schools will “trickle down” to the public school system. This assumes that charter schools are above public schools, which is itself problematic

If there are two school systems competing for the same pool of tax dollars, why is one of them considered to be superior to the other?

The answer isn’t more public funding of what should be private educational institutions, but disposing with the concept that certain types of private schools are entitled to public dollars.

The government ought to be funding the public school system solely. If parents want to provide their children with an alternative education, they can pay tuition.

The question of whether parents should be permitted to segregate their children through private education is a different story.

In an ideal world, everyone would send their kids to a strong public school system that is well-funded and respects everyone’s differences. One step towards that would be to cut off funding for charter education and use those funds to make Alberta’s public system as great as it can be.

If the NDP government is serious about increasing funding for public schools and supporting organized labour, they should start by cutting charter schools loose.