Tag Archives: ableg

The more things change, the more they stay the same

Canada’s pre-eminent public intellectual John Ralston Saul famously wrote, “The rising power of specialist groups increasingly ties this train to what is called utility. In order to attract money from and for these groups, universities are now reorganizing themselves to serve directly a variety of very specific interests. The thousand year struggle to create independent centers of learning and free thought is rarely mentioned.”

Much like the society Saul talks about, Alberta has began to reorganize its post-secondary education to serve specific interests.

Furthermore, Alberta has consistently proven in its budgets and in its actions that education is not much of a priority at all. One out of every three students in Alberta go on to attend post-secondary education out of high school, and overwhelmingly, the cited reason for not attending is affordability. This should come as no surprise as Albertans have consistently paid tuition that is among the highest in Canada. Last year, Alberta was rated third, behind New Brunswick and Ontario and in 2008 we were fifth.

While the Alberta government has complained about transfer payments and taxation, post-secondary education has consistently been de-prioritized and commercialized. Long gone are the days of glorified liberal education institutions. Learning for its own sake has been sacrificed to Rexall, Shell, and prominent banks. Instead of students lust after Stein, Meade, and Keohane, we see students entering university to get degrees to obtain jobs. Our government has consistently told students that debt is a four-letter word. That is unless it is in the form of student loans.

The mid nineties brought drastic cuts to all aspects of post-secondary education, as it did elsewhere. Universities were cut at the knees, and institutions responded in this new consumer-driven market by raising tuition, and hoping students could beg, borrow or steal enough to attend their institutions.

Students responded by increasing their student loans, by getting part time jobs while they committed less time to their full time studies, and by simply dropping out when times got too hard. The University of Lethbridge, like much of Alberta has a 30% first-year dropout rate, and once again the primary reason cited is affordability. When the average student is graduating with $25,000 in student loans, loans held by our federal and provincial governments, they are easily deterred.

Much like in the early nineties, students who cannot afford to continue their education due to impending tuition increases are looking at minimum wage jobs, if they can get a job at all. Alberta’s unemployment rates are increasing steadily, and now is the time to pursue education if you’re fortunate enough to be able to afford it. On top of this, unemployment affects young people disproportionately.

Sadly, this last round of clear deprioritization and detrimental budget cuts is only shocking because of its herd-like behaviour; following the leader off a cliff. Duncan Wojtaszek, Executive Director of the Council of Alberta University Students (CAUS) and a former student executive at the University of Calgary Students Union from earlier this decade commented “The province is passing its financial hardship to students in the form of new debt. The government was saying no area was sacred, but a $54 million dollar cut to scholarships and bursaries, not including the loan forgiveness plan was not communicated to students in any way.”

Wojtaszek’s experience with Alberta politics and post-secondary education funding is diverse and lengthy. Yet, this budget was an unexpected hardship, with Wojtaszek saying that this budget “disproportionately affects students.”

“Last time around the cuts were to the entire system, this time it appears that the government is passing off all their cuts to students in the form of student debt,” Wojtaszek continues. “Institutions are making it up through increased tuition and increased fees. All sacrifices are being aimed at students, whereas last time they were at the community as a whole.”

The precedent-setting cuts made in the early nineties when then-premier Ralph Klein was crowned king of this oil bearing land rippled out, and it put post secondary education institutions behind in ways they are still struggling to make up for. Crumbling classrooms, unmaintained buildings, and poorly conceived residence buildings are a result of slashed stable and renewable maintenance funding. Low-grade technology is the result of having to prioritize one thing over another, and, as the operating grants shrink our class sizes will balloon. Wojtazsek notes that “It is certainly evident that it will put us further behind, but what remains to be seen is if it is a one time blip or if they will be systemic and permanent.”

Anand Sharma, former Chair of the CAUS in 2002/2003 spent much of his time fighting the same issues that current PSE advocacy organizations are still fighting today in Alberta. He remembers “Institutions facing tough decisions, raising tuition consistently.”

“Already we have an issue with whose getting a PSE in this province. Those who want to go can’t go, and have to join the workforce to be able to afford it,” Sharma says. “People are entering PSE later and later. Government continually underfunds PSE, and our institutions are not working with students to really tell the government that what is happening.”

The priorities from the late nineties and early 00’s are the same ones student advocates hold today: maintain the tuition cap. This is so universities cannot raise tuition to pay their Presidents multi-million dollar retirement packages, and fight differential tuition so that universities cannot raise tuition in fields like law, medicine, and pharmaceutical science by over 40%, as proposed by the U of C and U of A. Sharma comments that, “ten years from now, the people who are going to attend are going to be the wealthiest whose parents can pay their tuition. Programs like medicine and dentistry will be even more expensive.”

The truth is that Alberta does a disgraceful job of ensuring their citizens are the best educated and that our economy is diverse and sustainable. This budget round, $54 million was cut from scholarships, bursaries, and grants. The Alberta Loan Relief program was scrapped altogether, a program that used to give students who couldn’t find high-income careers immediately the ability to defer their loan payments or have them forgiven if their financial situation was dire enough. Yet, as low-income students suffer, the government of Alberta can afford to fund another $100 million to Carbon Capture and Storage. Sharma’s statement that, “It doesn’t matter if you’re on the left or right, prioritizing education is a no brainer. It is a win-win for the economy or the province. It was very short sighted” rings true when we see this hegemonic and out of touch government remain in place.

The history of continual de-funding is embarrassing, and yet we seem to have learned little from it. Alberta has experienced a brain drain during even tougher economic times than this. Incredibly promising future researchers and intellectuals have gone to provinces that regulate tuition and ensure that accessibility and affordability are more than pretty words next to a slogan that rings hollow.

Last year, the Alberta government touted the phrase “knowledge economy”, this year the new phrase is “commercialization.” Primary research, intellectual freedom, and learning for the sake of knowledge seem closer and closer to being bygones. Library lights fall, residence buildings are vacated routinely for bed bug fumigation, and our class sizes have become bigger. Students, Albertans, and university administration need to tell our elected government that we want a province that is knowledgeable, and sustainable; not a province that sends our greatest minds elsewhere, as it has the last 15 years.

“The university needs to be champions for PSE and funding for PSE, and often they are appointed by the government and they don’t feel they can be as vocal. A lot of people don’t know until there kids have to go into PSE.”

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A Rose, Is A Rose, Is A Rose. Or Is It?

My Summer Vacation, An Essay.

By Jennifer Prosser, Features Editor, The Meliorist

Thursday September 10th, 2009. Volume 43, Issue 1

A burning and reoccurring memory plagues those of us subjected to the curriculum shortcut known as the “what I did on my summer vacation” essay. The road to hell is paved with best intentions, and this particular exercise of creative writing is the mortar.  Children glorify summer vacation the same way comic book fans glorify Joe Shuster, (unintentionally the crossover there may be greater than anyone can correlate). For two months, a ‘good childhood’ becomes a mere afterthought to actual living. Endless days stretched out with sunsets and sunrises being the only controls. Unprovoked and unrequested, creativity is valued and rewarded by both peers and adults. Intrinsically, an overwhelming sense of pride is felt after a particularly good fort is built, or a hard novel is finished or a rousing game of Red Rover ends in a hospital trip, as these things often do. It is the rush of freedom that is remembered fondly in our later years, as we wistfully and longingly look at swing sets and hula-hoops. Regardless of one’s summer responsibility level, nothing holds a candle to the never-ending freedom that is summer vacation.

As we as individuals grow and as our community grows with us, freedom begins to take on new meanings. Freedom becomes an entrenched right for many of us. It also becomes something bigger, much bigger than we often realize. So big, sometimes we cannot see it from end to end. My summer vacation was dominated by encroaching threats to this freedom. Threats to the very thing held so dearly by so many of us. Threats to an ideal many live by and die for.

This summer instead of a celebration of freedom, the chance to realize long lost days of youth, I watched as our freedoms became slowly but surely constricted within our province and our country. Ideals of universal freedom become muddied with the lines of right and wrong, and beliefs in universal truths became shaken with exposure to radically different perspectives. Everyone lives in a construction of his or her own ideals and experiences. We all draw different lines in the sand, all believing them to be in the right place and in the right sand.

The 27th sitting of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta saw major change and a forced compromise of previously made choices. Constricted by the market, Alberta could no longer carry out the multi billion dollar spending plans and instead had to content itself with a new $25 Million logo and a $2 Billion commitment to green washing, known in Alberta as Carbon Capture and Storage. It also was expecting to satisfy itself with a quiet summer and the recognition of a fundamental human right, enjoyed by every Canadian citizen. The right to have your sexual freedom both protected and recognized.

Introduced into the Legislature as Bill 44 in April of 2009 and passing third reading at approximately three am on June 2nd, 2009, this Bill included sexual orientation as a human right under the Human Rights Commission of Alberta as per the Supreme Court decision made eleven years ago, which currently overrules provincial judicial decisions in this matter. The specific amendment reads  “striking out “or family status” and substituting “, family status or sexual orientation”.

However, this inclusion came with a caveat, the enshrined right for parents to pick and chose the education their child receives through Alberta schools. Section 11 of the Humans Rights, Citizenship, and Multiculturalism Act has been amended to read: A board as defined in the School Act shall provide notice to a parent or guardian of a student where courses of study, educational programs or instructional materials, or instruction or exercises, prescribed under that Act include subject-matter that deals explicitly with religion, sexuality or sexual orientation.” This notable phrasing allows parents to pull their children out of any education program which threatens/contradicts their religious beliefs, including discussion on sexual orientation and/or sexual education. In this writers opinion, it is a clear statement of the lack of belief that Alberta Government has in protecting and accepting the right of Albertan’s to exercise the sexual orientation of their choice.

The issue many Albertans have taken with section 11 of Bill 44 is not that it enshrines the right of parents to limit and control their children education, it is that by including this section within the Human Rights Commission we are subjecting our educators to the potential of lawsuits and charges under the Human Rights Act and not under the School Board Act where they can be dealt with internally, within the K – 12 sector. While this bill only reflects the current rights of parents as enshrined within the School Act, it does perpetuate the negative stereotype of Albertan narrow-minded culture. Section Three of the Alberta School Act reads:  “All education programs offered and instructional materials used in schools must reflect the diverse nature and heritage of society in Alberta, promote understanding and respect for others and honour and respect the common values and beliefs of Albertans. For greater certainty, education programs and instructional materials referred to in subsection (1) must not promote or foster doctrines of racial or ethnic superiority or persecution, religious intolerance or persecution, social change through violent action or disobedience of laws.”

Understanding that in Alberta, many of our members of the Legislative Assembly have “family values” high on their endangered species list, section 11 shifts freedom both away from the educator, but also from the parent. Parents, while they may have more legitimacy to limit their child’s education, they also have less control in ensuring their children are being given a worldly education, one that includes discussion and education on sexual health, sexual orientation and religious content.

Freedom is to be extended to all equally; this includes the freedom of speech. The freedom to express your opinions and the freedom to use mediums such as editorials, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and a soapbox if you have one to expound on your own personal thoughts and concepts. However, the interpretation of this freedom is as controversial as you can make it and in the case of an elected official member this summer, this freedom was called into question with his misogynistic comments as published in his blog.

Voltaire infamously wrote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. With public officials saying nothing less in public than they would in their homes, they are doing nothing less than exercising their right to speak in public. The same right this paper presently employs; the same right many enjoy through Twitter and Facebook accounts, and the same right we are enjoy by conversing with others in public spaces. The elected Member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta in question here had previously been an active individual using social media tools to engage people far and wide. While he may tweet comments I personally find offensive, he is thinking them regardless and he was elected; mind, body and soul, to represent the people of Calder and Alberta.

The greater issue at hand is that his comments speak to a culture of narrow mindedness and ignorance. The same culture that is perpetuated within Alberta with such pieces of legislation as Bill 44. Accommodation is not equality and believing that to be true is simply laziness and unwillingness to create positive change around you. While I find this members comments offensive and sadly all too representative of the lax mindset many people have to what the true meaning of equality is, I also firmly believe he was well within his right to say it and well within his freedom to continue to blog, tweet and speak without the supervision and control of the Progressive Conservative party. A few days after this particular story leaked, a CTV poll had asked if readers/viewers believe that this member should resign. Where Alberta once had a Premier, with a rather high approval rating, who drunkenly threw loose change at residents of the Calgary Drop-In Center and now we are calling for resignation of an MLA who exercised his right in this country to voice his opinions? How fickle we have become.

Freedom is a contestable word. When does one persons freedom impact another negatively, and if so, who is in the right? These lines in the sand all nothing more than that and even as children we understood that while we may have the freedom to run amok for twelve glorious hours every day, that did not give us the freedom to destroy the community we called home.

[The full text of Bill 44 can be found on http://www.assembly.ab.ca/. Currently, this bill is slated to be given royal assent once the house rejoins session on October 24th, 2009 however many Progressive Conservative Associations have raised vocal opposition and on Edmonton, one association has been successful thus far in bringing MLA’s onside to opposing the amendments as they are currently written. ]

[Doug Elniski, the MLA in question who made the above comments on his blog post is a mere backbencher and despite the “McCain/Palin poster in his office and his Smart car, he will likely remain as such for a majority of his hopefully short political career.]

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The needle and the damage done…

Last night, the third reading of Bill 44, proposed amendments to the Human Rights Act in Alberta, passed 35 votes to 7 against in a “free vote”.

The conversation last night over Twitter and Facebook was lively and engaging, with private citizens, on both sides of the spectrum and the issue, discussing the implications this has on our province and verbally expressing their political wishes to their elected representatives. Many excellent points were raised, both for and against but with a clear majority of people, highly educated people (despite Min. Blackett’s perceptions) rallying against this Bill and against the principle of school room censure. Besides just the fast paced world of electronic discussion, letters and petitions were tabled in the house yesterday before the vote got underway, all from clearly concerned citizens (myself and @davecournoyer included) by various members of the legislature, notably Laurie Blakeman who tabled 84 separate letters against Bill 44.

Alas, it seems that it was not enough to sway those 35 members of the legislative assembly who blindly toed the party line and voted in favor of this highly unpopular bill.

Although I am clearly against the principle of Bill 44 and believe it to be bad legislation, I am more appalled at the lack of consideration members took to their electorates thoughts and desires.

To the members of the legislative assembly, please take heed. “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than you have dreamt of in your philosophy”.

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My letter to my MLA re: Bill 44

Below is my letter recently sent to my MLA for Lethbridge West, Minister Greg Weadick and Minister Lindsay Blackett and Hon. Premier Ed Stelmach.

Minister G. Weadick,

I am writing this letter to express my concern over Bill 44, the proposed amendments to the Human Rights Act of Alberta. My concern lies with a specific section of Bill 44 as well as the overall intent and message of this Bill.

I would like to start by commending the Alberta Government for legislating sexual orientation rights within our Human Rights Act and I do see it as a substantial step forward in the right direction. This is an overdue response to the Supreme Court decision and reflects the values within Alberta’s diverse and inclusive culture.

There are several key reasons why, as a citizen of Alberta, I do not support this bill in its current format and urge you to exercise your free vote in this matter to vote against Bill 44 in its current state and work towards amending it to reflect the original intent of the change.

As a citizen of Alberta and a rather recent graduate of the Alberta Catholic School system, I see this as weak and redundant legislation, included to serve as a political statement regarding Alberta’s attitude towards ‘progressive cultural change’ but not a change in the way the Alberta School System operates.

Firstly, the inclusion of sexual orientation protection explicitly in the Alberta Human Rights Act is a reflection of a Supreme Court of Canada decision made eleven years ago. This inclusion, while in name is fundamental to reflecting the diverse and progressive culture within Alberta, does not significantly change the legal rights of same sex couples in Alberta. However, piggy backed on this inclusion is the enshrined right for parents to pick and chose the education their child receives through Alberta schools. The notable phrasing that allows parents to pull their children out of any education program, which threatens their religious beliefs, including mentions of sexual orientation in sexual education is a clear statement of the lack of belief that Alberta Government has in protecting and accepting the right of Albertan’s to exercise the sexual orientation of their choice. This is a significant cultural statement, one that has been picked up on by international and national media and quickly becoming an embarrassment and poor reflection of Alberta and people within.

Secondly, this legislation is entirely redundant, which has me wondering why the elected Government of Alberta is so interested in pursuing this bill, despite the vocal and populist opposition to it. As the people of Alberta, outside the Progressive Conservative caucus, do not look to be actively supporting this bill, it seems antithetical for the Alberta Government to insist on passing a bill with the purpose to “protect rights” already protected, and in a section of legislation which does very little in terms of change and progression.

While this bill only reflects the current rights of parents as enshrined within the School Act, it does perpetuate the negative stereotype of Alberta housing narrow-minded culture. Section Three of the Alberta School Act reads:  “All education programs offered and instructional materials used in schools must reflect the diverse nature and heritage of society in Alberta, promote understanding and respect for others and honour and respect the common values and beliefs of Albertans. For greater certainty, education programs and instructional materials referred to in subsection (1) must not promote or foster doctrines of racial or ethnic superiority or persecution, religious intolerance or persecution, social change through violent action or disobedience of laws.”

Notably, the principle of the statement is that the curriculum is to reflect the “diverse nature and heritage of society in Alberta, promote understanding and respect for others….” Parent’s already have the right to take their children from classes that they feel are inappropriate or explicitly go against their religious beliefs, and as you represent Lethbridge, a city which has a significant religious class, one that is diverse in its beliefs but similar in its faithful nature, this is a right exercised often. It is clear that parents are well aware of ability and their right to direct the nature of education their child receives. The inclusion of this right within the Human Rights Act only serves to reflect a negative and perpetuated culture of ignorance and exclusion, but gives nothing to parents that they do not already have. Indeed, it seems this Bill serves to regulate teachers and the school system further and allow less freedom of education, here in a province whose slogan is “Freedom to create, Spirit to achieve”.

Lastly, I am taken aback by the lack of consultation about this amendment, especially as many groups have come forward with strong opinions and those opinions do not seem to be taken into account. There has been a great deal of public discussion on this topic, free forums such as public media (newspapers, notably The Edmonton Journal) and web media such as blogs, twitter and Facebook have all hosted discussions on Bill 44 open to any and all. I personally have participated in several of these discussions and have been vocal about my personal opposition to Bill 44 and appreciate the level of engagement several of your caucus members have participated in.

I understand the third reading of Bill 44 will be happening this evening and I sincerely hope you take this letter into consideration when choosing your vote in this matter. I would be happy to engage you and any other elected member of the Legislature in this matter further and can be reached via e-mail at jenn.prosser@gmail.com. I have cc’ed both Min. L. Blackett and Hon. Premier E. Stelmach on this letter to express my concerns to a broad membership of the Progressive Conservative caucus. Thank you for your time and I look forward to a response.

Sincerely,

Jennifer Prosser

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