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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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Canadian Politics (Provincial), Published Articles

Mixed local response to proposed Alberta riding changes

Originally published in the Whitecourt Star

The changes proposed to the Whitecourt-Ste. Anne riding by the Alberta Electoral Boundaries Commission’s May 25 Interim Report has received a variety of responses from local political leaders.

The report recommends adding three new ridings — one in Edmonton and two in Calgary — to account for their growing populations.

To maintain the current number of seats in the legislature, the report suggests three amalgamations of northern Alberta ridings, including one that would split Whitecourt Ste. Anne in two.

Under this formulation, Whitecourt and Woodlands County would join West Yellowhead, and Mayerthorpe and most of Lac St. Anne County would be absorbed by a new riding, Ste. Anne-Stony Plain.

Whitecourt Mayor Maryann Chichak was generally supportive of the changes, which she said reflect the province’s demographic reality.

“I think Whitecourt-Ste. Anne had a feeling that there may be some redistribution in our area, based on the fact that last time the redistribution was done, we were a little low on the population,” she said.

Chichak said that having Whitecourt join the West Yellowhead constituency, “puts us into a situation where we are with communities that have very similar industries as ours,” namely oil and gas, and forestry.

Edson, Hinton and Jasper are the largest municipalities currently part of West Yellowhead, according to Elections Alberta.

“We share a lot of common goals and a lot of common issues that we can work on together collectively,” Chichak added.

County mayors react

Woodlands County Mayor Jim Rennie was similarly supportive of the proposed redistribution, but was not without his criticisms.

“The more that I have a chance to reflect on it, while the geography is certainly going to be a challenge, it really is going to be an energy powerhouse of a constituency,” said Rennie.

Edson, Hinton, Jasper, Woodlands County and Whitecourt all have abundant forestry, and excluding Jasper, are rich in energy resources, he said.

However, this wasn’t what Woodlands County suggested to the commission, given the vast geographical distance between the proposed riding’s municipalities, Rennie said.

“We were trying to find a geographically centred bit,” he said. “You don’t want to have these huge ridings, but I think the solution they came up with for Woodlands County was a pretty good one.”

This geographical concern is why Lac Ste. Anne County Mayor Bill Hegy said he opposes the proposed changes.

“The idea of trying to make all areas somewhat equal in population just doesn’t match the reality of the province,” said Hegy. “Our preference is for things to stay the same.”

He added that if the proposed changes do go through, he wants to see the entirety of Lac Ste. Anne County included in the Ste. Anne-Stony Plain riding, rather than a small western portion of the county split into West Yellowhead, as is currently proposed.

“We’d prefer having everything in one riding,” said Hegy.

Whitecourt-Ste. Anne MLA speaks

Oneil Carlier, the Whitecourt-Ste. Anne MLA, called the proposals “very preliminary.”

“People can expect some changes, but as the first draft, I think we need to step back and see where we might be with the final draft,” he said.

“Right now, it generates some interesting conversation, but it’s really too preliminary to make any decisions based on how that might affect any particular MLA,” added Carlier.

Ultimately, any final decision on riding changes will be made by the commission, which Carlier stressed is non-partisan.

“The commission itself is independent from government, so they make their determination based on what’s best for Alberta voters, based on a lot of things, not just demographics, but geography (and) types of industry,” he said.

Public hearings for feedback on the interim boundaries are scheduled on July 17 and 21 in Grande Prairie, Vermilion, Edmonton, Calgary and Brooks.

Albertans can also submit written recommendations to the commission until July 8.

 

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