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Alberta government promises historic health spending blitz in provincial budget


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EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says the provincial budget will include an unprecedented blitz of health-care spending powered by a roaring, re-energized economy.

Kenney announced $1.8-billion in long-term spending Wednesday to increase beds, operating rooms and labs at the Red Deer Regional Hospital.

He said it’s the vanguard of a monumental health-spending package coming Thursday in the 2022-23 budget.

“If there’s one thing we’ve learned through the past two tough years of COVID is that we need greater value for money in our health-care system. We need more beds. We need more capacity,” Kenney said in Red Deer.

“In tomorrow’s budget, (Finance Minister Travis Toews) will present a historic investment to increase health-care capacity in Alberta — an increase that is only possible because of a growing and dynamic economy.”

Alberta’s COVID-19 pandemic left the province scrambling at times to open ad hoc intensive care spaces to accommodate waves of patients as hospitals were pushed to the brink of collapse.

Kenney said the pandemic highlighted the long-standing issue of the province spending comparatively more and getting comparatively less in health care.

“We must have the courage to ask ourselves why we have fewer physicians and nurses, ICU beds and acute-care beds per capita than many countries that spend significantly less relatively on health care,” he said.

The financial means to make changes is now available, he said.

The premier said his government’s belt-tightening, along with tax reductions and targeted business program incentives, has got the economy humming across the board — from non-renewable resources to high-tech ventures to film and TV productions.

Alberta’s mainstay oil and gas economy, moribund or wheezing during the dog days of COVID-19, has taken off. The benchmark North American price, West Texas Intermediate, sits at about US$90 a barrel. There are some forecasts that it could go above $100.

Economist Trevor Tombe said Kenney’s financial austerity has indeed boosted the bottom line.

But Tombe added that oil and gas remain the fundamental drivers in a province that traditionally relies on volatile resource prices to fund even day-to-day operations.

“Unlike many other jurisdictions, Alberta’s budget fortunes are not really all that tightly connected to economic activity. It’s really just tied to a commodity price,” said Tombe, who’s with the University of Calgary.

“We may very well see higher natural resource revenues this coming year than at any point in Alberta history, and that is just an enormous turnaround from the $18.2-billion deficit that we saw projected in the budget this time last year.”

Toews has signalled the government will remain prudent in its budget predictions for oil and gas prices.

“There is an expectation from many that we’ve hit the jackpot, that we can, once again, spend like there’s no tomorrow,” Toews wrote this week in a newspaper editorial.

“We know where that gets us. Recurring deficits year after year, higher debt-servicing costs and less money available for health, education and social supports.”

The Opposition NDP says while the bottom line is bountiful, ordinary families are not getting a share of the wealth.

In fact, says leader Rachel Notley, families are feeling the pinch even more due to rising inflation, food prices and policy changes by Kenney’s government that have led to higher fees across the board — from school costs to tuition to exploding utility bills.

She said Kenney has compounded the misery with inflation de-indexing changes that have effectively increased taxes for families and clawed back money from the most vulnerable.

“Under this premier, families have been hit with too many fee and tax hikes to count,” Notley told Kenney during question period Wednesday.

“And with inflation at an all-time high, this premier’s sneaky tax grab and his freeze on low-income benefits makes things worse.”

Kenney has promised Thursday’s budget will include rebates for those facing high natural gas costs.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 23, 2022.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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Edmonton police use DNA phenotyping to find sex assault suspect

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By Angela Amato in Edmonton

Edmonton police say they are using DNA phenotyping, for the first time in its history, in trying to solve a sexual assault.

DNA phenotyping predicts physical appearance and ancestry from unidentified DNA evidence, and police use that information to narrow suspects and generate leads in criminal investigations.

Det. Colleen Maynes says the method is a last resort after all other investigative avenues have been exhausted.

“This was a vicious assault,” said Maynes, adding she doesn’t want to see the perpetrator act again.

A woman lost consciousness after she was violently sexually assaulted by a man who followed her from a bus stop in the central Spruce Avenue neighbourhood in March of 2019.

She sustained serious injuries and was found wearing only a shirt when it was -27 C.

“This survivor deserves justice,” said Maynes.

There were no witnesses, surveillance video, public tips or DNA matches in the case.

Detectives enlisted DNA technology company Parabon NanoLabs in Virginia to help in the investigation. The lab has provided DNA phenotyping to help with other files in Saskatchewan and Ontario.

Most DNA testing in Canada goes through the RCMP’s lab. Maynes said this can take a long time, as the RCMP deals with cases across the country and doesn’t have the resources or technologies that other labs do.

“We are lacking with that technology here in Canada,” said Maynes.

Paula Armentrout with Parabon said that since 2018, its labs have helped solve 230 violent crimes in North America, although not all of them used DNA phenotyping.

DNA phenotyping is not exclusive to sexual assault cases. The analysis has also been used to find possible suspects in murder cases and to identify remains.

With a computer-generated snapshot in the Edmonton sex assault case, DNA phenotyping determined the suspect to be a Black man with dark brown to black hair and dark brown eyes who stands about five-foot-four.

Armentrout said the turnaround for this type of analysis is about 45 days after receiving a DNA sample.

Police said the suspect’s description may impact a marginalized community. After consulting with community stakeholders and considering the severity of the assault and the threat to public safety, police released the details with a computer-generated image.

Any leads generated from the image will require further investigative steps, said Maynes.

“It is by no means an immediate path to accusing a suspect,” she said. “What it does is potentially give us leads in a cold case, and we can follow up with DNA testing from there.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 4, 2022.

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Former head of Alberta Human Rights Commission suing justice minister over dismissal

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By Bob Weber in Edmonton

The former head of the Alberta Human Rights Commission is suing the province’s justice minister for wrongful dismissal, claiming Tyler Shandro caved in to carefully orchestrated political pressure.

Collin May’s statement of claim alleges members and supporters of the Opposition New Democratic Party feared May would expose sexual harassment problems at the commission that occurred when they were in government.

“This made the plaintiff a threat, and he was subsequently targeted by political opponents weeks before he was scheduled to start his term as chief,” the document says.

New Democrat justice critic Irfan Sabir called the charges a distraction.

“Collin May published overtly racist and Islamophobic views,” he said in an email Tuesday.

“The UCP government belatedly held him accountable for that. Mr. May’s innuendo is merely an attempt to distract from his own behaviour.”

May, a Calgary lawyer, was hired as chief of the commission on May 25.

Questions about his appointment began almost immediately. Some criticized his lack of experience in human rights law and others pointed to a book review he wrote in 2009 in which he quoted statements saying Islam was a fundamentally violent religion.

That review drew concerns from the National Council of Canadian Muslims. Members of the NDP caucus also called for May’s resignation.

The statement of claim accuses NDP supporters of stockpiling May’s book review years ago, then carefully co-ordinating and managing the public outcry against him to engineer his removal.

“The NDP were clearly co-ordinated for the purpose of smearing the plaintiff’s character,” the document says.

It goes on to allege the New Democrats went after May because they were afraid he would renew sexual harassment allegations against two senior members of the commission who had been appointed by NDP leader and then-premier Rachel Notley.

“(May) learned that there was also a culture of pervasive sexual harassment within the NDP during Notley’s time as premier,” says the claim.

“Notley therefore could not afford to have the public learn that … her own appointees had also allowed for a culture of pervasive sexual harassment and bullying.”

The document says Shandro neither defended May nor emphasized that the commission is an arm’s length agency, which he has no direct control over. In fact, it alleges senior officials in Shandro’s office were so insistent on getting May to apologize for statements he says he didn’t make that May had to block their numbers on his cellphone.

As well, the lawsuit alleges May was forbidden from meeting with Muslim organizations by Muhammad Yaseen, Alberta’s associate minister of immigration and multiculturalism. It says May was told to wait to await ministerial direction, which never came.

“Minister Shandro’s office was heavily involved in facilitating the smear campaign against Collin May,” said May’s lawyer Kathryn Marshall in an interview.

The situation got so bad that May received threatening phone calls at his home. May’s law firm removed his phone number from its website and for four days in July, the lawsuit says, May and his partner were afraid to leave their Calgary home.

“The (commission) and the defendant did nothing to support (May) during this difficult time,” the lawsuit says.

It says that on Sept. 15, May got a letter telling him his job was over on a “without cause” basis.

A spokesman for Shandro declined to comment, saying the matter is before the courts.

Marshall said May had signed a five-year contract on the same basis as any other civil servant and was not given the basic rights he was due under Canadian law.

“It’s not about deflecting criticism or playing political games,” she said. “This is about getting my clients’ rights enforced.

“(The government) fired him and are now falsely alleging he resigned.”

The lawsuit seeks to recover the money May would have earned over the five-year term as well as damages to his reputation — about $2.1 million.

The allegations in the statement of claim have not been tested in court.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 4, 2022.

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960

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