The pundits are out in full force as the federal election campaign fires off its first salvos. Warren Kinsella, a top Liberal politico, wrote in Ottawa’s The Hill Times (June 1) that the 2015 federal election “is the NDP’s to lose.” He argues that Mulcair’s image as someone who is “serious and progressive” trumps Trudeau’s image as “progressive and new” and Harper’s image as “experienced and serious.” The country seems to be in the mood for change. Gary Mason, writing in The Globe and Mail (June 11) agrees that “the whiff of change is in the air,” but he sees little comparison between Notley’s electoral advantages (tired regime, great television debate performance, withered Liberal Party, seriously weakened Wildrose, etc.) and what Mulcair has to face ( resurgent federal Liberals under Trudeau, for example) in crafting a federal win. The question is whether the desire for change is strong enough to unseat Harper.

I interviewed knowledgeable political observers outside of Alberta on their thoughts on the impact of the Alberta election on the federal campaign, what Mulcair and Trudeau might learn from Notley’s political persona, and whether a national strategic voting campaign makes any sense in defeating Harper. On the first question (the Alberta impact) John Harvard, a former Liberal MP who lives in Winnipeg, believes that federal voters who had viewed Trudeau as the likely successor to the Harper government will give Mulcair “a fresh look” because of Alberta but he isn’t convinced that will necessarily last. Nelson Riis, a former NDP MP for 20 years, considers the Alberta election “a game changing event in Canadian politics.” For him the electorate that wants change has to decide “who can defeat the Tories.” He hopes it will be the NDP. Left-wing activist Judy Rebick believes that current polls that show a three-way race offer hope, but that Mulcair needs to keep his party to the left because that is where the electorate is moving. Toronto pollster, Marc Zwelling, founder of the Vector Poll ™, is cautious about translating the Alberta win to the federal scene. He argues (based on a recent Abacus Data poll) that Albertans saw themselves as removing a party that “disgusted them, not embracing the NDP.” He expects the Alberta election to have a “nil” effect on the federal election.

Zwelling does not think that either Mulcair or Trudeau “can change quickly or credibly into something they are not.” This means that Notley’s political persona, which served her well, is not easily transferable and Mulcair and Trudeau are saddled with their current images. Rebick acknowledges that “Notley’s personality was a big hit with Alberta voters” with her authenticity being the key. And like Zwelling she doubts that Mulcair can be made to appear “less stern and more human” and Trudeau “a little more weighty.” Riis is not as interested in personality. He considers “a clear understandable message” as the key, suggesting that a party’s platform is as important, if not more so, than personality. Harvard admits that “a politician who needs to work on his ‘human side’ has problems.” While someone like Trudeau can “light up a room,” according to Harvard, Mulcair lacks the magic touch. The problem for Trudeau is convincing voters that “behind his sparkle lies substance.” Both leaders come with at least one serious drawback.

What about strategic voting on a national scale? Harvard believes that “strategic voting is almost certainly doomed to failure” because neither the NDP nor the Liberals see an advantage for them. They both want to win at each other’s expense. Of course this is what the Tories are counting on. The whole idea of strategic voting is to stop splitting the vote that gives Harper the advantage. Rebick is also sceptical about strategic voting. First, it can breed political cynicism; second, she thinks it favours the right over the left (e.g. vote for Trudeau because he is better than Harper), and finally people may lack sophistication in voting strategically and so vote counter-productively. “With a bigger voter turnout,” she argues, “we wouldn’t have to worry about splitting the vote.” So her strategy for removing Harper is getting more people to vote. Zwelling also argues against the value of a national strategic voting campaign. He says that “given the low credibility of polls among the general public it’s hard to imagine that strategic voting proponents could sway enough voters.” He wonders if enough voters would trust the data presented to them on whom to vote. Zwelling has been polling for more than 25 years so his warning comments on strategic voting as an electoral game-changer need to be taken seriously. I do take them seriously, but I still think there is an argument for strategic voting’s usefulness in the upcoming federal election, if for no other reason, than my worry that there may not be a landslide (no Trudeau-mania or Orange Wave), and so the Tory strategy will succeed. Here’s my argument.

Canada’s regional, linguistic, cultural, and demographic differences, not to mention socio-economic and historic ones, mean that any federal political message must have a very broad appeal. Harper is running on two words—economy and security—and he has been working hard (in his ads, legislation, and foreign jaunts) to convey that message loud and clear. His opponents have yet to coalesce around one or two powerful, all-encompassing concepts that can arouse a majority of federal voters to create a post-Conservative era the way Alberta voters have. The upcoming federal election will go to the party with a message that resonates and an appealing leader. In some cases the message and the personality may not be complementary. In Alberta’s case it was personality that mattered more than policy. In the federal case it may be the opposite, in which case, Mulcair may have a real chance at becoming Prime Minister. Otherwise Trudeau has the upper hand. Because of the diversity of political voting patterns nationally, the fact that neither Mulcair nor Trudeau has the perfect combination of policy and personality, and the lack of a “disgust” factor the way there was in Alberta, the chance of a landslide is not high. Ergo strategic voting.

While those I interviewed found strategic voting on a national scale to be problematic and clearly it was not strategic voting that worked in Alberta, where we got a landslide of change, I believe there is a case for provincially-based strategic voting groups across the country. Being provincially-based means these groups are closer to the political reality on the ground and their recommendations might have more appeal because of that. With the divide and conquer strategy in full play by the Tories and their stranglehold on two key political concepts, it is important to identify seats where the Tories can be defeated. Even a dozen key ridings might make the difference. A national strategic voting campaign, headquartered in each province, could be that final piece that gets rid of Harper and ushers in a new era. If the polls indicate there is no clear front-runner, then strategic voting websites for the centre-left make sense. Of course, my preference is for an anti-Harper landslide, but if there isn’t one in the offing, we will have to vote strategically.

George Melnyk was a member of the Calgary chapter of the Democratic Renewal Project during the 2012 Alberta election, continued with, and is currently one of its contributing editors.


Alberta farmworkers die. A lot.

Sometimes they are smothered, like Kevan Chandler was back in 2006, when a grain crust let go in a silo he was cleaning near High River. He left behind a wife and kids.

Sometimes they get killed by machinery, like when Yvon Poulin fell into a bailer that had an inoperable safety system in 2004. He was a 17-year-old kid.

And sometimes farmers just plain kill their workers for making mistakes, like when Charles Beauchamp stabbed Terry Rash to death in 1999 for sliding a truck into the ditch near Taber. The killer of a 52-year-old grandfather got only four years in the clink.

Farmworkers also get injured in droves—after all, farming is one of Canada’s three most dangerous occupations. But Alberta’s government has no good data on farmworker injuries because injury data is derived from workers’ compensation claim statistics and Alberta farmers aren’t required to carry workers’ compensation insurance for their workers.

Alberta also excludes farmworkers from the ambit of occupational health and safety legislation. This means farmworkers have no right to know if they are working with carcinogenic pesticides. And farmworkers who refuse unsafe work can be summarily fired. And, if a farmworker gets killed, there is no investigation.

Alberta also has no child labour laws on farms. So 10-year-olds can drive a combine or weed fields all day long. And farmworkers can’t unionize. Basically, farm animals have more rights than Alberta farmworkers.

According to Justice Peter Barley—who undertook a 2008 judicial inquiry into Chandler’s death—“(n)o logical explanation was given as to why paid employees on a farm are not covered by the same workplace legislation as non-farm workers.”

The answer is money. It is expensive for farmers to pay decent wages, provide safety gear and carry injury insurance. The Tories—needing rural votes—were never prepared to compel farmers to provide bathrooms or dust masks or overtime pay.

Premier Rachel Notley has long been critical of the regulatory exclusion of farmworkers. In 2011, she told then-Minister of Employment and Immigration Thomas Lukaszuk that “Other provinces have concluded coverage for farm workers is necessary, and Alberta’s continued refusal is shameful.”

The key question is whether the NDs will do anything about the plight of farmworkers now that they have formed the government?

The early signs have not been encouraging. Newly minted ND Minister of Agriculture Oneil Carlier told the Western Producer that changes to farm unionization policy and labour standards are “not a focus for us at this time.” Instead of helping farmworkers, he indicated the NDs will focus on helping their employers with market access and transportation.

Rectifying decades of government inaction on farmworker rights simply must be a priority.

Inaction means farmworkers will continue to be routinely maimed and killed at work.

Inaction means the grieving families of farmworkers will continue to live in poverty.

Inaction means kids being exposed to chemicals that can give them cancer.

Honest to God, it’s time to act, Rachel.

Bob Barnetson is associate professor of Labour Relations in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Athabasca University. His research and publications focus on the political economy of employment in Alberta, paying particular attention to workplace injuries as well as child, farm, and migrant workers.


As astonished as almost everyone was when the New Democrats were elected in the 2015 provincial election in Alberta, that miraculous upsurge contains hope that, once again, a government in Canada will pioneer a major social program in an area of unmet needs: think the Saskatchewan CCF in 1947 with prepaid hospital insurance and then the same government in transition to becoming the NDP with prepaid physicians’ visits (medicare) in 1962. Or the Manitoba NDP with a universal homecare program in 1974. And then, turning to another party and province, there is the Parti Québécois with universal $5 a day daycare in 1997.

  New Democrats have a long history of believing in the efficacy of government.  In spite of all the hostility heaped upon the state in recent decades, New Democrats generally take the view that only government has the capacity to take on really big and complicated issues, and it has the resources to do at least a respectable job, maybe an excellent one.

  And what unmet needs could a care-oriented provincial government take action upon? No sooner had the NDP been elected in Alberta when a fine documentary series on mental health care in Canada appeared in the Globe and Mail, beginning Saturday May 23 with the headline, ‘We have the evidence … Why aren’t we providing evidence-based care?’  Written by a long-time feature writer for the newspaper, Erin Anderssen, its general thrust is that we now have decades of top-quality research on mental health, mental illness, treatment programs and so forth.  We don’t need to call commissions of inquiry.  We know how to do the work.  We just have no plan to pay for the needed services or organize them effectively. And, for example, we know that psychotherapy, which medicare does not cover, is very effective in assisting people who experience depression or anxiety. Many of those people, if they lack private insurance or deep pockets, visit general practitioners who lack the training to help them effectively but, of course, get to charge medicare for their visits. If that money was paid instead to psychotherapists, some good might be achieved. But psychotherapy is not covered under medicare, and GP care is; so that’s who people with mental health issues often go to with their concerns.

  Excellent work gets performed in narrow little niches of society.  Yet, so many of the problems faced by patients, families, health practitioners, institutions and governments are known and obvious, and left to fester.  We all just keep picking away at the margins of the known issues, gaining no headway, struggling to just barely keep alive the hopes of big, yet powerless chunks of the population.  Even professionals who practice in the area of treatments and therapies for mental health problems feel like they are rowing feverishly upstream in a racing river of victims and adjacent casualties.

  Fragmented services, alienated patients, frustrated employers, overloaded police and corrections services and the economy at large suffer huge costs.  Nobody denies that the problem exists or that the costs are huge.  But mental health issues sputter along, taking billions out of the Canadian economy every year.  Maybe it’s counter-intuitive, but good mental health programming is not about adding huge budgets to already-stretched finances.  It’s about using proven treatment methods to replace more expensive programs such as police, courts, corrections, hospitals, income security and social services. It’s also about stopping costly disruptions to employment, education and general community good order.

  It’s not as if Alberta is unaware of its part in the problems or costs arising from lack of integrated mental health therapies and other treatments.  Like all the provinces (and the feds) Alberta has had its research projects, reports, commissions, delegations, petitions and so on about treatments for mental and emotional illnesses.  Most have been shelved, as reports and projects often are, but there’s a recent one that takes the province on a parallel track to those outlined by Ms. Anderssen.  It’s called Gap Analysis of Public Mental Health and Addictions Programs,  (GAP-MAP) and it was published by the University of Alberta School of Public Health and the Government of Alberta in 2014.

 Perhaps not gripping to the lay reader.  Perhaps to the casual observer, the title shouts “For Professionals Only”.  But it’s actually a good read, in part because it gathers up all those loose threads and all those well-known bits of illogic and frustration, and then drives forward to solutions that can be achieved.  Its authors make a clear statement about their goals:  “To our knowledge, GAP-MAP is the first project in Alberta’s history that has attempted to produce a detailed, comprehensive, and systematic description of provincially funded addiction and mental health services in relation to population need.”

  They lay out for Alberta what Erin Anderssen laid out for Canada.  Her Globe and Mail report shows us the costs of continuing with the chaotic approach we have now.  She tells us who suffers, who is angry, who has given up.  Ms. Anderssen has the skills to give us a readable and engaging piece on how to recognize where the costs to our society appear and how to bring them to focus and re-balance if only we could communicate with each other.  The Alberta report does much the same thing for our province and our government.  Worth noting – the World Health Organization records and predicts similar things for the entire globe.

  Both Anderssen and the Alberta researchers lift us up to a level where we can see the administrative silos and their workings. They also go on to reveal how judicious viewing of the energy and money expended in certain areas could be shifted to others in ways that would ease the pains, bring equilibrium to an out-of-balance set of relationships and almost certainly cost less and work better than the current hodgepodge. 

  All but the most right-wing Canadians now accept that universal medicare has been a triumph for all of us and we have every right to shake our heads when we look at the bloated medical costs in the United States compared to our own along with their exclusion of millions of people from medical coverage and the relegation of millions more to insurance plans that cover very little and have huge co-pays. One of Canada’s finest moments came when Saskatchewan, a have-not province buoyed sporadically by agriculture and resource extraction, managed to build a universal medical coverage program paid for from taxation rather than using an insurance and market approach.  Medicare spread to the national level and is not only a touchstone of Canadian social policy, but is also an issue that politicians at all levels recognize as a “third-rail” if they threaten it.

  Though Medicare was, and is, a triumph, the drive for coverage in all health areas more or less stalled there.  When it was first brought into law, public control and evidence or data-based policy and practice in public health were among its foundation stones.  Unfortunately, the medical profession and ultra-conservative political forces acted to put a spike through the heart of evidence-based public health.  The Saskatchewan doctors’ strike of 1962 was settled only when the Saskatoon Agreement removed or diluted most of the key features of universal Medicare, leaving only its tax base and an arms-length administrative apparatus to sustain it.

  Long-held hopes that public medical care would be expanded to cover pharmaceuticals, optometry, dentistry, home care and, crucially, mental health withered on the vine.  A drive toward universal programs in those areas never gelled in the way Medicare took hold in Saskatchewan in the 1960s, then quickly gripping all Canadians, forcing the federal government to implement a national program.  The New Democratic Party birthed a single baby and the rest of the family of health care opportunities have not grown up in the meantime.

  Alberta’s newly-elected NDP government probably has the advantage of believing that government can actually work on problems like mental health.  Those new members of the Legislature belong to a political party that harbours some enthusiasm for the capacities and opportunities of governing.  They probably are sympathetic to the plight of those suffering from mental health problems and cognizant of the frustrations of those who try to do something about them.  Let’s hope that they have the courage to act. And let’s play our own role by writing our MLAs and our media to let them know that we would appreciate action on this front. Almost every family and certainly every community is affected by mental health issues. We need collective action!

  Ken Collier has worked as a rural social workers in northern BC, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. He taught social work and community studies at the University of Regina and served in various teaching and administrative capacities at Athabasca University.

Change Alberta’s Public Sector: A world turned upside down? by Kirk Niergarth

“Pressure without reason is irresponsible, but reason without pressure is ineffectual.”

So wrote Allan Borovoy who spent 40 years “raising hell” with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and died less than a week after the NDP’s majority victory in Alberta. Were he around to advise us, Borovoy would undoubtedly argue that the work of organization and activism should only be amplified after the election victory.   Governments, Borovoy once wrote, will more often be convinced to take action because of “political tension than by logical syllogism.”  Following that logic, pressure from left-wing Albertans is more important now than it was before the election.  Pressure from right-wing Albertans has already begun with “chicken little” protests over raising the minimum wage.

Pressure certainly, but reason too.  What can be reasonably demanded of our new government?  How can we create a real ‘Alberta Advantage’ as opposed to the current advantages for the highly advantaged?  Wouldn’t a meaningful advantage for Alberta be a healthy population with access to the finest medical services in the country? A first-class education system that helps people to live creative and fulfilling lives, with learning opportunities available to all who sought them not just those who could afford them?  A province that refused to accept that some of us live in poverty?  These advantages sound idealistic, but, in a jurisdiction with, by considerable margin, the highest median income in a rich country, they are not unreasonable.

Thinking that these goals will be attained with money alone, however, is only less naïve than the Wildrose party’s highly imaginative concept of improving public services by cutting them. For one thing, the fiscal constraints on the provincial government – albeit needlessly created by absurd public policy over the last 25 years – are nonetheless real and will take time to change.  Second, to effect these changes, the government will need the support of a public that has been immersed in the propaganda of the right-wing media for decades.  Though 40% of Albertans voted for the NDP,   a widespread, populist suspicion of government in this province remains.  The NDP, in promising not to institute a sales tax for evidently populist reasons, is clearly aware of this public attitude.  Party insiders perhaps occasionally read the Calgary Sun.

There seem then to be two alternatives.  The cautious course would be to govern in a way ideologically indistinguishable from the PCs and, presumably, make incremental changes (possibly over the next 43 years).  The other option is to foster major innovative overhauls for the delivery of public services in this province.  The risks here are substantial.  Failures would be trumpeted in the media and could alienate voters.  For long term success, however – which would mean re-convincing Albertans of the capacities of the public sphere – actual and substantial change must be delivered.

Change does not come easily to public institutions such as hospitals, universities, and school boards.  Their complexity creates what appear to be bloated bureaucracies.  Right-wingers suggest that the antidote is to mimic corporate sector organization. In fact the elaborate infrastructure of administration within the corporate sector is the current model for the public sector. This infrastructure is sorted according to byzantine, hierarchical charts akin to the family tree of a particularly enthusiastic genealogist.  Usually at the bottom of such charts are the people who most directly provide public service:  teachers, doctors, nurses, snow plow drivers, professors, janitors, etc.  Middle branches have many and varied leaves: legal advisers, risk managers, human resources professionals, ergonomic experts, accountants, data analysts, communications experts, information technologists, consultants of various stripes, and managers of all sorts.  Perched atop of the chart are the executive class – the presidents, vice-presidents, directors and so on.  Perhaps in some cases the elevation provides these birds with a superior perspective; from this worm’s eye view, however, it seems that they instead fly at some remove from the fundamental business of the provision of public service, answerable only to boards floating even higher in the stratosphere, somewhere among the clouds.

The corporate model that we have applied to our public services is fundamentally designed to foster hierarchy and subordination, and, ultimately, to accrue benefits to those at the top.  If mimicking the private sector is the goal, than it becomes entirely reasonable to believe that large salaries are required to recruit executives because, somehow, being a boss is just so damned difficult.  It can appear to be a wise investment to spend scarce dollars on a marketing strategy to communicate the value of a “brand” instead of, say, focusing on actually being excellent.  With a government (for decades) in a sensual tango with the corporate sector, it is little wonder that this mirroring has occurred.  Perhaps with a government with different priorities it would be possible to try something different.

Certainly, many managers and administrators in the public sector work very hard and provide valuable service.  As Charlie O’Brien, the Crownest Pass miners’ representative in the Alberta legislature, said of mine managers after the 1910 Bellevue mine disaster, “we do not hold the individual responsible for conditions that exist, but rather, that the conditions around us, our environment, is largely responsible.”  In other words, the problem is systemic.  Too often management acts as if the work force is made up of recalcitrant children, in need of policing and discipline.  How would our public sector institutions function differently if administrators understood that their primary role was to provide front-line workers with the agency, the autonomy, and the authority to provide outstanding public service through the institutions in which they work?  In sum, getting the hell out of the way.

This does not mean that administrators need to “consult” more with front line employees in the decision-making process.  “Consultation” as it is currently practiced is a veneer that is no substitute for genuine collaboration. Flip charts are opened, opinions are voiced, ideas are recorded (whether they are considered or not is another question) and then, somewhere outside of the flip-chart room decisions are made by those who are accountable only to the quasi-corporate board up in cloud cuckoo land.  Is it not possible that front-line workers could (outside of determining their own salaries) set institutional priorities and establish the budgetary parameters in which administrators would have to work rather than vice versa?  “Bottom-up budgeting” in which workers and clients set the agenda would have a fundamentally different mindset than the top-down model that is currently practiced because the starting point and priority would be the point of delivery, the fundamental raison d’etre of the institution.  It would require a relinquishment of control by senior administrators and a leap of faith that would be enormously difficult for them to take voluntarily.

For good reason, public sector administrators tend to be risk averse.  No one, naturally, enjoys being sued or wants to be known to have presided over an enormous screw up.  Unlike the pirates of the corporate world who, if gambles pay off, might commandeer even more obscene amounts of treasure, the captains of our public institutions prefer a calm sea, even a dead calm with no discernible forward momentum.  There are many ideas for improving healthcare and education in Alberta that do not require increasing budgets, but do require administrators willing to accept that risk and failures are the required costs of innovations.  It hardly seems intuitive that a provincial government should encourage risk-taking among leaders in the public sector, but how else will change occur?   In our current media climate, when scandal and perpetual outrage seem to dominate the market, it will be extraordinarily difficult to chart such a course – but while the political capital of the government is high they must make every effort to convey to the public that successes will not be achieved without failures and those that never make mistakes are only those who never get anything done.

Albertans, so the opinion polls say, value public services.  They can be convinced to pay for them, too, I suspect, if it is obvious that the goods are being delivered.  And, they can be.  Some seventy years ago in Saskatchewan, the Tommy Douglas administration was enormously ambitious, extremely effective, and economically responsible.  In part this was because of public sector workers and leaders who believed that things could be done differently, done better, and that they were part of a movement that was going to change the world.  They were naïve, perhaps, on the latter score, but their more modest successes led to real tangible gains for working people in Saskatchewan and, ultimately, Canada as a whole.  Pressure must be kept on the new government to make similar gains here.  And, the pressure is on all of us to help them do it.

 Kirk Niergarth is a historian and teacher in Calgary.