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Alberta

Danielle Smith defends sovereignty plan, cancer remarks in UCP leadership debate

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Medicine Hat – Danielle Smith, considered one of the front-runners in the United Conservative Party leadership race, faced sharp criticism Wednesday from debate rivals over her Alberta sovereignty plan and controversial comments on cancer.

Many of the seven candidates, including three who left Premier Jason Kenney’s cabinet to run in the race, criticized Smith’s proposal to immediately bring in a bill to give Alberta the power to ignore federal laws and court rulings deemed not in its interest.

They said Alberta must push back against the federal government, but said Smith’s plan is not only illegal and unenforceable — it would also create business uncertainty at a time the province is just getting back on its feet financially.

“It would be great to just wish away all our problems with this thing called the sovereignty act. We’re delusional if we think that’s going to happen,” former finance minister Travis Toews told Smith at the debate, held in the HALO air ambulance hangar at the Medicine Hat Regional Airport.

“We need a strategic thoughtful approach. That’s how we win.”

Rajan Sawhney, the former transportation minister, said such an act would fail in the courts and bring debilitating economic uncertainty.

Former children’s services minister Rebecca Schulz told Smith, “You are writing cheques you can’t cash and making promises you can’t keep.”

UCP backbench member Brian Jean called the plan “a fiscal fairy tale.”

Smith, a former radio talk show host and Wildrose party leader, rejected the criticism. She said her proposed act can pass legal muster and said it is the federal government that has created uncertainty in Alberta through policies that strangle development of the oil and gas industry.

“Ottawa has created the chaos,” said Smith.

Legal scholars say such a bill is not only illegal it is 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.

Polling suggests Smith, Toews, and Jean are the front-runners in the race that culminates in an Oct. 6 vote to replace Kenney as party leader and premier.

Smith was the focus of criticism from Toews, Sawhney and Jean again during the health policy section of the debate 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.

“I know cancer can strike anyone at any time,” said Smith.

Jean said after the debate that there was no misunderstanding in Smith’s remarks.

“She said it. Just apologize. I saw what the ramifications of that comment was and I don’t think it was appropriate.”

Sawhney said Smith’s comments ring hollow given she “doubled down” on her initial comments the day after she made them, adding Smith needs to apologize to Albertans.

“Those comments are very hurtful to any Albertan, any Canadian, who has lost somebody from cancer or anybody who is suffering from cancer right now,” she said.

Smith countered: “When we look at what happened over the last two years of COVID lockdowns, and I haven’t heard any apology from any of the cabinet ministers who imposed that on us for the last two years – I’d like to see an apology there.”

Smith was unable to finish her sentence as she was drowned out by whoops, cheers and applause from the audience.

The debate also focused on leadership, the economy, and the environment.

Independent legislature member Todd Loewen, expelled from the UCP caucus last year for criticizing Kenney, demanded Toews come clean on whether he would impose a provincial sales tax given that he has previously refused to rule one out.

Toews said he has never considered implementing one.

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.

After the debate, Smith brushed off the criticism, saying her two ideas are what Albertans are talking about.

“I thought it was a great discussion. I think you saw seven cabinet ministers up there and it’s just a matter for our members to determine which one will be leader.”

Sawhney said afterward that she had to stand up to Smith because the future of Alberta is at risk.

“I think tonight I really demonstrated that I am the alternative to Danielle Smith … this is a consequential election that is going to impact Albertans,” she said.

“I will not stand by and watch somebody make empty promises and make a sales pitch that can’t be delivered on.”

— By Dean Bennett in Edmonton with files from Bill Graveland in Medicine Hat.

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

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Alberta

Alberta promising changes to campuses amid university ‘woke’ free speech standoff

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By Dean Bennett in Edmonton

The Alberta government says changes are coming to further protect free speech on campuses as a former professor speaking out on so-called “woke” policies prepares for a showdown with the University of Lethbridge.

Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides says he plans to announce the changes in the coming days but did not give details.

He was responding to the case of Frances Widdowson, a former tenured professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, who was invited then disinvited to speak on campus this week about her concerns that a mob mentality and “woke policies” increasingly threaten academic freedom.

Widdowson has previously come under fire for her comments on residential schools.

“I understand past comments made by this speaker are controversial,” Nicolaides said in a statement Tuesday.

“But I believe it is important for our universities and colleges to foster a strong culture of free speech and diverse viewpoints, even when those viewpoints are deemed controversial, or even offensive, barring speech intended to incite hatred or violence of course.”

Widdowson, asked about Nicolaides’ comment, said in an interview: “I think that’s great.

“I think we need a public inquiry about what’s happening at universities.

“The universities are being run by woke activists who are completely opposed to the open and honest discussion of ideas on campus.”

Widdowson was fired from Mount Royal in late 2021 amid controversy over comments she made lauding the educational benefits of Canada’s residential school system while questioning whether abuses at the schools against Indigenous children equated to “cultural genocide,” as described in the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

Widdowson was invited by a professor to speak Wednesday and the University of Lethbridge granted space for the event.

About 2,500 students signed a petition pushing back on the university for hosting the speech.

University president Mike Mahon, as late as last Thursday, defended the decision to host Widdowson, citing free speech even if the university did not agree with her views.

However, on Monday, Mahon said after further consultation the offer of space was revoked because Widdowson’s views would not advance the residential schools discussion and would cause harm by minimizing the pain and suffering inflicted on First Nations children and families.

“It is clear that the harm associated with this talk is an impediment to meaningful reconciliation,” said Mahon in a statement.

Widdowson said she plans to deliver her speech in a public atrium on the campus Wednesday afternoon and has challenged school security to toss her out.

“I’ve never denied the harm of the residential schools,” she told The Canadian Press.

“People are distorting what I’m saying about it. My issue is residential schools were not genocidal. (They) were a misguided effort which often had serious problems.”

“I’ve been branded as some kind of hate monger,” she added. “I’m just arguing if we want to create a better world for everyone, a more co-operative world, we have to be able to speak truthfully about issues that matter.”

Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said Nicolaides is being distressingly tone-deaf and needs to reconsider his statements.

“The idea of having someone come and speak at the university … to a student body that consists of many Indigenous students about how they somehow benefited from residential schools is deeply troubling to me,” Notley told reporters.

“That the (United Conservative Party government) doesn’t understand how incredibly hurtful those ideas are to huge swaths of the Alberta population reveals their lack of understanding about the real experiences and traumas that treaty people in Alberta have been subjected to.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 31, 2023.

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Alberta

Alberta landowners fear repeat of orphan well crisis as renewable energy booms

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By Amanda Stephenson in Calgary

Once bitten, twice shy.

It’s an old adage that explains why Jason Schneider, the elected reeve of Vulcan County, Alta., is jittery about the renewable energy boom under way in his province.

Like many in rural Alberta, Schneider is still smarting over the way municipalities were left holding the bag when an oil price crash nearly a decade ago resulted in billions of dollars of unfunded liabilities left behind by bankrupt fossil fuel companies.

In Vulcan County alone, the landscape is littered with hundreds of wells with no owners that need to be cleaned up, and the municipality itself is owed more than $9 million in back taxes left unpaid by insolvent oil and gas firms.

So Schneider has a hard time looking at acre upon acre of massive wind turbines or solar panels without fearing a repeat of Alberta’s orphan well crisis, or wondering who’s going to fix everything if something goes wrong.

“These are large industrial developments, and the reclamation costs are going to be substantial,” he said.

“We can see the warning signs, and we are being ignored.”

Across rural Alberta, concerns are growing about the long-term implications of the province’s renewable energy boom — the speed and scale of which has been nothing short of stunning.

A province that not that long ago was largely reliant on coal for electricity, Alberta is now home to more than 3,800 MW of wind and solar capacity, 1,350 of which came online in just the last 12 months. An additional 1,800 MW of capacity is currently under construction, putting the province on track to meet or exceed the target it set in 2016 to generate 30 per cent of its total electricity from renewable sources by 2030.

In Schneider’s Vulcan County, which is home to both the country’s largest solar farm and one of Western Canada’s largest wind farms, renewable energy developments now account for more than 40 per cent of the local tax base, displacing oil and gas as the number one source of revenue for the local municipal government.

But while many in rural Alberta welcome the economic activity, and farmers and ranchers enjoy the extra income that playing host to solar panels or wind turbines can bring, others are sounding the alarm.

For example, the Rural Municipalities of Alberta recently passed a resolution calling on the provincial government to protect taxpayers from incurring costs associated with the potential decommissioning of renewable energy infrastructure.

Specifically, the association wants to see the government mandate the collection of securities for reclamation from developers before a project goes ahead. That way, municipalities won’t be footing the bill if a developer becomes insolvent and walks away.

“What we’ve learned, and what Albertans have learned, is that the cheapest way to get out of reclamation is going bankrupt,” said Paul McLauchlin, president of the Rural Municipalities of Alberta.

“Some of these solar installations are being installed by one company, sold to another company … I talked to a gentleman who’s on his fifth owner, and his solar installation has been there maybe two years. So we’re seeing small companies owning these, and whether they have the wherewithal for reclamation, that’s really what’s driving this conversation.”

In Alberta, the Orphan Well Association is an industry-funded organization tasked with decommissioning old oil and gas infrastructure and returning the land to its prior state. (It’s currently backlogged, in spite of a $200 million loan from the federal government. In 2020, the feds also provided $1 billion for well clean-up to active companies under Alberta’s Site Rehabilitation Program.)

But there’s no equivalent for the renewable energy industry, though renewable energy companies are required to provide an overview of how they plan to cover decommissioning and reclamation costs before they can receive the go-ahead for their project.

However, for a landowner, entering into a wind or solar lease is entirely voluntary. That’s very different from oil and gas, where under Alberta law, property owners are not allowed to refuse companies seeking to develop the fossil fuels that lie under the surface of their land.

Evan Wilson, director of policy and government affairs for the Canadian Renewable Energy Association, said that because solar and wind leases remain private civil contracts between the developer and the landowner, the onus is on the landowner to ensure the inclusion of some kind of provision to mitigate risks associated with the project’s end-of-life.

But he added many companies do offer landowners some form of reclamation commitment, either in the form of a letter of credit or bond.

“Landowners do have the ability to veto these projects being built on their land,” Wilson said.

“So that puts a lot of pressure on our members to ensure that landowners do feel comfortable with the terms.”

Sara Hastings-Simon, an expert in energy, innovation and climate policy at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy, said it’s understandable that municipalities have concerns.

However, she said it’s odd that there’s a push to enforce new regulations for the renewable sector, when the scope of the orphan well problem shows the oil and gas regulatory system could also use an overhaul.

According to the Alberta Energy Regulator, there are more than 83,000 inactive oil and gas wells in the province currently, and close to 90,000 more that have been sealed and taken out of service, but not yet fully remediated.

A report released last year by the Parliamentary Budget Officer estimated that the cost of orphan well clean-up in Canada will reach $1.1 billion by 2025.

“Obviously we need to make sure that all of our industrial development is done in a way that doesn’t offload costs to the public,” Hastings-Simon said.

“But it would make a lot of sense for the province to look at energy development holistically, rather than just picking the one that right now perhaps has more growth.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 29, 2023.

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