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Alberta United Conservative Party leadership contenders square off in first debate

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Two of Alberta’s pacesetters in the United Conservative leadership race squared off over a provincial sales tax Wednesday night in the first party debate.

Former finance minister Travis Toews, questioned by rival Todd Loewen over previously not rejecting the concept of a provincial sales tax, said he has never considered implementing one.

He said the only candidate who has considered it is Danielle Smith, who as a journalist wrote a newspaper column almost two years ago suggesting such a tax may be necessary to get Alberta’s finances back on a firm footing.

Smith, in response, said as a journalist she mused about a lot of things and the situation has changed, with multibillion-dollar deficits now turning into multibillion-dollar surpluses due to rising energy prices.

Smith has said she now rejects a sales tax.

Smith, Toews, and Brian Jean are considered the front-runners in the race for the Oct. 6 leadership vote to replace Jason Kenney as party leader and premier.

They were among seven candidates on the stage at the HALO air ambulance hangar at the Medicine Hat Regional Airport.

In introductory statements, candidate Loewen said the party must find a way to rebuild trust with its members.

Rajan Sawhney and others took aim at Smith numerous times, saying Smith’s promise to pass a bill giving Alberta the power to reject federal laws and court rulings would bring “chaos.”

“That is creating a politically risky environment and that is going to affect everything,” said Sawhney, who quit as transportation minister to run in the race.

Toews said Smith’s proposed Alberta sovereignty law is illusory and won’t solve differences with Ottawa.

Candidate Rebecca Schulz, the former children’s services minister, told Smith that she is “writing cheques you can’t cash.”

Jean, a UCP backbencher, called it a “fiscal fairy tale.”

Smith disagreed, saying it is the federal government that has unfairly tied up Alberta through policies that strangle development of its wellspring oil and gas industry.

“Ottawa has created the chaos,” said Smith.

Smith, the former Wildrose party leader who does not have a seat in the legislature, grabbed attention early in the race when she said if she wins the leadership she will bring in a bill this fall to give Alberta the power to ignore federal laws and court rulings deemed not in the province’s interest.

She has said she would also begin creating a provincial police force to replace the RCMP and launch a provincial revenue collection agency – two steps needed to give teeth to her proposed Alberta sovereignty act.

Legal scholars say such a bill would be illegal, unenforceable, and a dangerous dismissal of respect for the rule of law.

Government house leader Jason Nixon and Toews, who has the support of almost half the UCP caucus, have said they doubt the house would even pass such a bill.

Smith has said such legislation is critical to send a message to Ottawa that Alberta is serious about protecting its turf and to derail any possible future laws restricting freedoms tied to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sawhney, Toews and Jean also went after Smith for stating in a recent podcast that responsibility for early-stage cancer is within a patient’s control. Patients and health professionals have called that profoundly misinformed and cruel.

Smith told the debate audience her comments were expressed “awkwardly” and that she only meant to say preventive health measures are just one more way to help detect, prevent and combat early-stage cancer.

Sawhney said Smith’s comments ring hollow and she needs to apologize to cancer survivors.

Smith countered that when it comes to apologies, she wants to hear one from Kenney’s cabinet members for imposing lockdown rules during COVID-19 – a response that brought a round of applause from the audience.

UCP backbencher Leela Aheer, speaking to the economy, said the government needs to do more for Albertans facing high costs due to inflation starting with re-indexing income supports for those in need.

This is the only scheduled debate before the crucial Aug. 12 cutoff for members to sign up if they wish to vote in the leadership contest. A final debate is set for Aug. 30 in Edmonton.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 27, 2022.

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Alberta

Alberta commits $20.8 million over the next four years to fight human trafficking

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By Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton

The Alberta government is providing $20.8 million over the next four years to implement recommendations from a star-led task force on human trafficking.

Country singer Paul Brandt, chair of the Alberta Human Trafficking Task Force, personally thanked Premier Jason Kenney during the funding announcement Sunday at Edmonton International Airport for his willingness to prioritize the issue, and for putting faith in Brandt to lead the group.

“Premier Kenney’s longtime personal dedication and commitment to the issue of human trafficking is authentic and is admirable,” Brandt said.

“He’s the only political leader I’ve met in my 17 years of advocating for trafficking victims and survivors who took the time and initiative to personally write a plan to address this horrific crime.”

The money will establish an office to combat trafficking as well as a centre of excellence for research and data collection — recommendations the government accepted when the task force presented its report in March.

Justice Minister Tyler Shandro said the goal is to launch the office by next summer.

Other task force recommendations that will be supported include a new grant for community projects and Indigenous-led and culturally appropriate services. Civilian positions that will focus on supporting victims and survivors throughout human trafficking investigations will also be funded.

“Human trafficking is far more prevalent — way more common — than the stats would suggest because it’s a hidden crime,” Kenney said at the announcement.

“It festers in the dark. There are victims who face fear, shame and self-doubt and some who will never report what they’ve gone through.”

The task force was appointed in May 2020 and engaged with nearly 100 experts and survivors of trafficking to provide guidance on how to best implement the government’s action plan to fight human trafficking.

The government has said human trafficking includes sexual exploitation, forced labour trafficking and trafficking in human organs or tissues.

Kenney, who will be replaced as premier when his United Conservative Party selects a new leader on Thursday, noted he started fighting human trafficking over 20 years ago when he was an MP and joined a group of international parliamentarians on a coalition to fight the practice.

Later as Canada’s immigration minister, he said he took steps to make it easier for human trafficking victims who had migrated to Canada to obtain safety and protection.

In winter 2019, he said he committed the UCP to a nine-point action plan to combat human trafficking, which led to the Protecting Survivors of Human Trafficking Act, which took effect in May 2020.

Brandt said it was exciting to be part of the funding commitment at the airport, where he said he stood in 2019 for a partnership with the facility and other groups in the Edmonton region to fight trafficking, which he called “modern day slavery.”

“It has been our dream that special focus and permanent funding would one day become a reality. Today is that day,” Brandt said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 2, 2022.

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Alberta

Alberta announces combined $187 million in addictions and homelessness funding

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By Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton

The Alberta government has announced more than $124 million over two years for addiction and mental health services in Edmonton and Calgary, with another $63 million aimed at reducing homelessness in the province over the same period.

The funding for Edmonton and Calgary will go toward increasing treatment spaces while expanding addiction services, with $70 million earmarked for capital spending and $54 million to assist operations.

A 75-bed, co-ed long-term treatment facility is planned to be operational in Edmonton by the end of 2023, while a similar facility is to be built in Calgary by early 2024.

The $63 million is to support steps outlined in the government’s action plan on homelessness.

Premier Jason Kenney stressed his government’s recovery-based approach to the addictions issue when he announced the funding Saturday, calling British Columbia’s recent move to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of hard drugs in January “reckless.”

“In the area of addressing addictions, there are many that believe recovery is a false hope. It’s not possible, and instead what we should do is actually to facilitate dangerous addictions rather than to offer an off-ramp to freedom from addiction,” Kenney said during the announcement at Edmonton’s Herb Jamieson Centre.

“The whole point is to give people a fighting chance to escape from the grips of addiction so they have the opportunity to build a new, safe fulfilling life.

“Recovery works. It’s not a new concept or an untested Utopian theory,” he said.

Under the Alberta plan, the number of winter shelter spaces will be expanded in communities like Edmonton, Wetaskiwin and Lethbridge, and in rural communities where there is an urgent and unmet need.

All provincially funded shelters will also provide round-the-clock access seven days a week, while funding will be equalized between community-based organizations in Edmonton and Calgary.

The funding will include $5 million to create up to 450 additional shelter spots in Edmonton, bringing the number of emergency spaces in the city to over 1,000.

The plan also includes $2.5 million in 2022-2023 to test the so-called service hub model in two pilot programs in Calgary and Edmonton. These six-month long programs will connect people directly with support and services such as addictions recovery, housing and emergency financial support, beginning this fall.

Meanwhile, the addictions funding will be used to increase the ability of direct outreach teams through Edmonton police and Alberta Health Services to provide support and overdose prevention services. The same expansion of services will also be carried out in Calgary.

Edmonton police chief Dale McFee lauded the fact that housing options include support for mental health and addictions as he personally thanked Kenney for the new funding.

“This is the biggest single investment that I’ve ever seen over the course of my career in actually addressing the system versus putting more money into silos that are actually generating a lot of the problem,” McFee said at the announcement.

Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said the funding would tackle the root causes of homelessness, and also praised the fact the province was delivering on a request to provide enhanced plans when prisoners are discharged from corrections facilities.

In July, the city requested a hub where social workers, firefighters and peace officers could work together to reduce crime and address a spike in violence downtown, in nearby Chinatown and and on the transit system.

“These investments show our collaborative approach is working, and together we are making life better for struggling Edmontonians,” Sohi said at the announcement.

But NDP Critic for Seniors and Housing Lori Sigurdson said in a news release that Kenney’s government has cut funding for housing, noting buildings that could have opened months ago are sitting empty because the government hasn’t provided operational funding.

“The money announced today does not even begin to address the deeper need for permanent supportive housing, social housing and affordable housing in this province,” she said.

According to the province, over 6,400 Albertans were experiencing homelessness— including nearly 4,000 using emergency shelters or on the streets — as of Jan. 31.

Alberta saw more than 1,600 opioid-related deaths in 2021.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 1, 2022.

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