Laura Kruse, Communications Officer, Public Interest Alberta
This is the worst kind of “I told you so.”
Just last week, I wrote about our current unprecedented moment -- the most severe public health crisis in a century, the collapse in oil prices, and millions of Canadians laid off and applying for employment insurance -- and outlined Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine and how shocks to our social and economic system are exploited by politicians to institute policies of deregulation, privatization, and deep cuts to public services and social programs. It seems that the United Conservative Party government has skipped their typical step of appointing an (allegedly) arms-length panel to do their dirty work for them, and has embraced the Shock Doctrine as gospel, rather than as a warning.
On Saturday, March 28, Minister of Education Adriana LaGrange announced a $128 million dollar cut to K-12 education under the guise of needing more funding to fight the coronavirus pandemic. This cut means that over 26,000 educational assistants, substitute teachers, and other support staff will be laid off, and join millions of other Canadian.
Support staff were not idly sitting at home, waiting for schools to reopen. They were aiding teachers’ transitions into trying to support their students from home. They were providing distance support to children with disabilities. They were keeping the still-open school properties clean and sanitized to protect workers from the coronavirus. Now, rather than providing these essential services to our public education system, they will be struggling to make ends meet during this already awful and frightening time.
If it seems odd that the largest mass lay-off in Alberta history was announced on a Saturday -- it is. The practice of delivering terrible news on a Friday night, weekend, or during another massive news event is called a “news dump” and is meant to bury the story quickly and avoid media scrutiny. And with social distancing measures in place, we can’t even organize a mass protest fighting this cut.
LaGrange says the cut is temporary, and a necessary response to the crisis at hand. This statement rings extremely hollow when you consider the next big move the UCP made. At the (again, suspiciously) bright and early time of 6 AM on Tuesday, March 31, Premier Kenney announced a $1.1 billion dollar investment into the Keystone XL pipeline, effective immediately.
I’m not an economist nor a mathematician, but to me, investing more than 8 times the amount of the cut the government made to education only three days before doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially at a time when Western Canadian Select oil is selling for less than $5 a barrel. But I suppose I’m working on the idealistic assumption that our government should work for the people, and not for oil companies and wealthy private interests. The math makes perfect sense when one considers the ideological bent of this government -- one of slashing all of our social safety nets and public services to the bone so they can hand them over to private industry. And this economic and social shock of the coronavirus has given them the perfect opportunity to do exactly that.
In the same week as the layoff announcements and the ramming through of the Keystone XL pipeline project using public dollars, Minister of the Environment Jason Nixon signed a ministerial order suspending the rules for environmental reporting, citing the pandemic as justification. He says industry is likely to face “hardship” if “forced” to comply with those rules. The suspension of these rules at a time when they’ve promised to “immediately” begin construction on a pipeline is a recipe for environmental disaster. While the government maintains industry will still be required to maintain records, no one will see them, and no changes or enforcement can take place.
Shaun Fluker, professor of environmental law at the University of Calgary states that, “[R]outine reporting requirements are...the bedrock of the regulatory apparatus.” This undemocratic change in the requirements for the oil and gas industry demonstrates once again the UCP’s commitment to profits over the lives of working people and weaponizing the coronavirus pandemic to assist industry to get what they want.
These kinds of shameful and disgusting acts at a time when working people are already experiencing such hardship make me shudder to consider what else they are capable of in the course of this crisis and in the aftermath. The conservative government in Ontario attempted to institute mandatory distance learning in their public school system (with for-profit companies swooping in to fill the gaps built into the system). Will the UCP use this disruption in Alberta’s classroom as a tool to privatize more of our public education system? The Alberta government has curtailed freedom of expression and dissent. South of the border, there are already plans to treat protesters of the Keystone XL pipeline construction as “domestic terrorists” and to stop them “by any means necessary.” Will the UCP take this step as well? It seems in line with their consistent commitment to valuing corporate profits for shareholders over the lives of working people.
The UCP, despite all their preaching about “belt tightening” and “fiscal responsibility,” can suddenly furnish oil and gas companies with billions in subsidies. We know that their hand-wringing about the fiscal cliff is just a show for their ultimate purpose -- defunding our public services to the point that they become easy pickings for the private market. We need to see it for what it is, and make plans for innovative forms of protest and disruption which we can still engage in during this time of social distancing and self-isolation. If we don’t fight now, we might be in for something a lot worse down the line.