Dr. Swann Debates Bill 29 – An Act to Reduce Cannabis and Alcohol Impaired Driving (Second Reading) – 15 November 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Wednesday, November 15, 2017.

Bill 29 – An Act to Reduce Cannabis and Alcohol Impaired Driving (Second Reading)

Dr. Swann: Thank you very much, Madam Speaker. Like many others, I haven’t had a great opportunity to research this important bill yet. I think it’s one that we’re going to have some lengthy discussions about, with, hopefully, more and more of the evidence brought to bear on the whole question of the timing of substance use, the combination of alcohol and marijuana and other drugs and their impact on capacity to drive safely, the age at which we in Alberta are going to see legalized use of cannabis.

What I am aware of, mostly through medical journal articles and interviews that I’ve heard, especially around the whole use of opiates and the combination, often, of some of these opiates with marijuana and indeed the synergistic effects of alcohol and cannabis, is that they are real concerns.

Having said that, I think we’re all aware that we’re embarking on new territory in Canada, including Alberta. I am one of those who feel that it was important to move towards legalization of cannabis, that prohibition has not historically been effective, and that the criminalization of this drug has contributed to a lot of suffering, a lot of crime, and a lot of damaged individuals when, in fact, it’s a very mixed bag. Cannabis has some significant medical benefits, and it has some significant harms when it’s misused and when it’s started too early.

I guess I’m influenced to some extent by the recent Canadian Medical Association Journal reporting that there appears to be very limited support for legalizing cannabis use or for regular use of cannabis under the age of 25 in the medical literature. That’s partly because, especially in males, the frontal cortex development is slower than in females. It is the area of administrative control. It’s the area of judgment. It’s the area of second thought. There is evidence that under 25, especially in males, there is much more significant risk of cannabis use. So I think it’s an area that we’re going to have to hear more research on, I hope, and have more discussions about.

Certainly, 18 is the very minimum where one would consider legalizing this, and I would argue and will argue that we should be having a very serious conversation about moving that up beyond 18 simply because of the immature brain and the susceptibility of that brain to the harmful effects, in some cases psychiatric effects, certainly serious psychological impairment associated in younger people with regular use of cannabis. It’s an important discussion to have.

I think it’s timely that the government has brought this forward, and it’s important that we have some pretty solid evidence presented here in this bill to help us make rational decisions about how we’re going to monitor and enforce standards of safety on the roads, measurements and penalties associated with the use and abuse of these substances.

There’s no question in my mind that our culture has come to the point where we have to take responsibility for the array of substances that we’re all having access to that have the potential for addiction, have the potential for harm, have the potential for some benefits. It’s finding that balance and ensuring that we invest really well in the educational process, both for young people and for older folks, who maybe think they know something about cannabis, who think they know something about the combinations and impacts of the combination of alcohol and other substances. I’m here referring to some of the psychiatric meds – sedatives, hypnotics, painkillers – that are being consumed by people in conjunction with, for example, alcohol or cannabis. Tobacco: another one that’s increasingly being associated with cannabis, with the mixing of the two and some of the harmful effects there that may or may not be recognized.

We’re in a brave new world. We’ve got a lot of important risks and benefits associated with this new wave of tolerance, I guess, and permissive use of these substances, and it behooves us to take our time to hear the best of the evidence.

It’s certainly increasingly being researched around North America. I heard a researcher recently at the University of Calgary speak about the fact that there is no safe level that she’s aware of of cannabis use in young people. She was referring to under the age of 25. She said that the evidence simply isn’t there yet that we know how to predict safe levels of cannabis in youth under the age of 25. That’s somebody who has spent her life researching primarily adolescent addictions and rehab programs for young people with mental health and addictions problems, including cannabis. She was very cautious in her recommendations at the nursing school about the earlier onset of cannabis use in young people.

While we’re debating the principle of the bill, I can fully support the direction we’re taking. I hope we can take the time to pull in some of the very latest evidence and that we will seriously look at the age of restriction and that this government might consider extending beyond the age of 18 because I think the evidence is not there for safe use at that age. Understandably, with the alcohol legal age being 18, it may in some ways send an inconsistent message, but until we know more about some of the negative impacts of cannabis on the young brain, I think it behooves us to really be careful and consider raising the age beyond 18 at this stage. We can always lower it later. It’ll be a lot tougher to raise it in the future.

I think erring on the side of caution would be my one recommendation, that we look at all the evidence and start to address the whole question of: what is the appropriate age, and what’s the evidence from around the world where they have had some different age legalization standards?

I look forward to the debate. I think it’s one of the most important bills that I’ve seen come before this Legislature, and it’s going to have long-term implications, as we’re all aware, since there’s nothing that has caused more suffering and death on our highways than alcohol and drugs. We’re now being asked to look very critically at this new dispensation under federal law that’s going to allow legal access to cannabis.

Thank you, Madam Speaker. I look forward to further debate.


Dr. Swann Debates Bill 20 – Beaver River Basin Water Authorization Act (Second Reading) – 31 October 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Tuesday, October 31, 2017.

Bill 20 – Beaver River Basin Water Authorization Act (Second Reading)

Dr. Swann: Thank you very much, Madam Speaker. I’m pleased to rise and speak to Bill 20, on the face of it a logical and sensible and, obviously, critical thing to do for health and for sustainability of communities, including a First Nations community. I want to add my caution, though, to that of the mover of this bill. The reason these bills come to the Legislature is because it’s a big decision. Transferring water from one basin to another has costs, and it has benefits.

I don’t think we in the Legislature necessarily appreciate the costs of continuing to transfer water from one basin to another. We’ve had five in the past. I was part of those decisions. They were in southern Alberta and related to some groundwater quality issues and quantity issues.

I think it behooves us to think about why we are continuing to have to provide interbasin transfers, which have some ecological risks. Those are contamination of certain species going into another ecosystem and potentially becoming invasive species, overriding certain species of fish, dominating the fish mix, and certain potential toxins, obviously, whether plant toxins or industrial toxins.

So there’s that dimension, and there’s the other dimension, which has to do with whether we’re conserving appropriately the water that we’re currently using in a particular basin.

The third aspect is: do we understand what’s happening to our groundwater? Why is the groundwater declining in that area? What are the factors that are contributing to its decline? Is it population demand, agricultural demand? Is it industrial demand? Is it a failure to conserve in places where we could be conserving?

Are we seeing the kinds of issues related to the Rosebud area, where fracking and coal-bed methane actually contaminated quite a significant number of people’s groundwater wells and therefore required trucked-in water and eventual new sources of water for these folks? What do we know about our groundwater? What do we know about what’s happening, especially in the new shale gas developments? We seem to have learned nothing from the 2006 fiasco in Rosebud, where after all this volume and this gas was coming up in people’s water wells, we suddenly realized that we didn’t know what the baseline gas was in those wells because we hadn’t been doing baseline groundwater monitoring.

We did 12,000 samples in that area, and 10 years later we don’t have meaningful results from those groundwater tests because the sampling techniques were different, the laboratories were different, the standards were different, and we can draw almost no conclusions from that whole Rosebud fiasco. Are we doing baseline groundwater monitoring now in relation to the shale gas developments? No. We’re leaving it up to the industry to decide whether groundwater is being protected or not, and only on complaints do we actually get in there and sample the water.

So I have serious concerns about our groundwater. I’m not saying that this particular transfer is wrong. I’m saying that we haven’t yet taken seriously the growing threat to both surface and groundwater in terms of our demands: agricultural, industrial, residential, municipal. We haven’t taken seriously the fact that, especially in the southern and eastern parts of this province, we’re headed for real trouble with climate change. We don’t know what we should know about our groundwater, we don’t know what the industrial impacts are, and I don’t think any of us believe that we’re conserving our water and using it to the best available opportunities.

Again, a note of caution that these issues come to the Legislature because we have the final say, and I don’t know how much information we have to make these decisions. We continue to pass them. This will be the sixth interbasin transfer. I don’t know if we’re asking the right questions of our ministry, and that includes the Energy ministry because the industrial activity in this province is second to none under the surface. Over 450,000 wells puncture through our water tables, and we don’t know what we need to know.

I met with a groundwater expert last week at the University of Calgary. He’s still trying to sift through and get some semblance of conclusions, some reliable conclusions from those 12,000 samplings that were done in 2006 and ’07 in the Rosebud area. He’s having a great deal of difficulty because of the problems I mentioned.

We don’t know the volumes of water available in our groundwater, which is the ultimate source of our surface water. We need to start asking some hard questions of our Energy and Environment ministries and ensure that we know what we’re leaving for the next seven generations.

I will be supporting this transfer but with great concern that we don’t know what we need to know to make these decisions. Thank you, Madam Speaker.


Dr. Swann Debates Bill 17 – Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act (Committee of the Whole) – 05 June 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Monday, June 5, 2017.

Bill 17 – Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act (Committee of the Whole)

Dr. Swann: Thank you very much, Madam Chair. I have an amendment to submit.

The Deputy Chair: Thank you, hon. member. If you could please just wait until I have the original. Your amendment will be referred to as A15. Please go ahead.

Dr. Swann: Thank you very much, Madam Chair. I’m very pleased to stand and speak to Bill 17, Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act, with an amendment I think that everyone here will find reasonable. It has to do with break times. I mean, to expect workers to work unlimited hours without a break – and I’m speaking here of paid farm workers – seems eminently unfair, non family friendly, and it flies in the face of all of the values that this government has said that they believe in. We’re suggesting here that we amend section 4 in the proposed section 2.1(1) by striking out clause (a) and substituting

(a) section 16 of Part 2, Division 3, Hours of Work;

Madam Chair, under the workplace standards everywhere else in Alberta after five hours of work it’s expected that a worker would get 30 minutes of rest, but unfortunately paid farm workers are exempt from any kind of provision for rest. I’m particularly concerned with young people, foreign workers, people who are vulnerable, people who may not want to ask for a rest because it’s not written into their contract. I don’t see how we could avoid at least putting in some concrete terms the recognition of the need for a rest break.

Under the current rest period for every other worker an employer must provide each employee who works five hours or more with at least 30 minutes of rest, whether paid or unpaid, unless there’s an accident or different rest provisions are provided or it’s not reasonable for the employee to take a rest period during that time. Well, that to me says that we have a double standard again.

I raised this issue about overtime pay, and now I’m raising the issue in relation to fair and safe work practices where people can have a break. We’re putting this provision in not only for an unfair expectation of, especially, naive workers and foreign workers; we’re also putting them at risk of injury if they push on and push on. In some farm operations it’s true that you just have to work overtime. But if we’re not putting into legislation some legislated protection for some kind of rest period, we are setting people up for injuries, accidents, and problems.

Further to that, I don’t think I need to add that this is a government that wants to be fair. They want to be family friendly. There is just absolutely no reason why you wouldn’t include in these important changes for employee standards and labour standards, some provision for rest. I rest my case, Madam Chair. I can’t imagine any refutation of that.

Thank you.

Mr. Nielsen: Thank you, Madam Chair. I appreciate the member bringing forward this amendment. Certainly, the spirit of the intention of this amendment is definitely a good one. One of the things that we heard within the working groups that have been working very, very diligently with our farm and ranch owners and the workers that they pointed out is that this type of amendment might kind of push things a little bit too far, that they’re unable to adapt to this. You know, that was one of the recommendations that was brought forward to us. The government looked very, very seriously at this. You know, as the title says, the fair part – what we have so far is a very big gain. As the system begins to grow and we see where things are maybe not working as well, we can certainly start to adjust for those.

It’s very, very reluctantly that I would not be able to support this amendment at this time. Again, I do want to thank the member for bringing this forward. I certainly understand the intentions of it. I would have to ask members of the House to not support it at this time.

The Deputy Chair: Thank you, hon. member. Are there any other members wishing to speak?

Dr. Swann: Well, that’s very unfortunate, Madam Chair. It strikes me that this government has been cowed by industrial agriculture. They got such push-back on Bill 6 that they’re now backing away from the most fundamental worker right of all, a chance to rest when folks are tired. On one hand, they seem to have said that it’s time for a change in Alberta, but somehow it’s a step too far to ensure that young people and new Canadians especially are treated fairly in the workplace. Folks could work 28 days straight under the current legislation with only one day off and no rest periods. They could work 18 hours and have no break under the current legislation.

It’s really disappointing to me that they would take the big step, certainly, to bring in Bill 6 and ensure some kind of safety, some kind of standards, and then exempt farm workers just because of the aggressive ag coalition and their throwing their weight around in the rural areas and, presumably, intimidating this government in terms of its election and political future in the rural areas.

Again, I think that any reasonable person looking at it would say that rather than err on the side of putting no constraints on employers, especially industrial agriculture, we should at least put something in there that suggests that there is a recourse for an employee who feels vulnerable to losing their job and at the same time feels vulnerable if they carry on under the conditions that they’re being asked to continue under. It flies in the face of what this government says is fair and family friendly and all because they’re afraid of push-back from big ag, which has continued to dominate the scene since these working groups were established.

Again, it’s not only disingenuous to say that we have reluctance to address these needs; some of the accidents, injuries, and even deaths will be on your watch if you are unwilling to even look at a modicum of required rest for, especially, young people. We’re now allowing 14- to 16-year-olds to do certain duties on farms. Quite frankly, even an 18-year-old who is new to industrial agriculture will be very reluctant to push against the employer and say: “This is unreasonable, to expect me and others to work in hour 18 when I haven’t had a break and when I feel like I’m numbed out. I can’t even think straight, and I’m not going to expect anything from you.” Ninety-five per cent of employers would never do this, obviously, but the reason we make legislation is to cover the 5 per cent of people that are not reasonable, that are not responsible, that are not thinking of their workers. They’re thinking of themselves and their own bottom line.

So I encourage the government to rethink this. Even enshrining something for the protection, the rest protection of paid farm workers would send a message: “We recognize that people are human beings, and they have a right to a break, whether they are a paid farm worker or any other worker. We value your health. We value you as a person. We recognize that you have the rights of every other worker in this province to be safe and take the rest breaks as you need them.” I would encourage the government to rethink this as it smacks of political opportunism, and I don’t think it will escape most paid farm workers that this is not a fair or family-friendly decision.

Thank you, Madam Chair.

The Deputy Chair: Thank you, hon. member. Are there any other members wishing to speak to amendment A15? The hon. Member for Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville.

Mrs. Littlewood: Sorry. I cede the floor to my colleague.

The Deputy Chair: The hon. Member for Edmonton-Decore.

Mr. Nielsen: Thank you, Madam Chair. Sorry for that small confusion there.

You know, I guess I just wanted to point out for other folks here some of the folks that were part of the working group that brought forward these recommendations. We had members such as Blaine Staples, a Red Deer county producer, U-pick and agritourism operator; Stuart Theissen from Strathmore, a producer, a cow-calf farmer and grain feedlot operator; Susan Schafers, a Stony Plain egg farmer; Laurie Fries, a Wainwright mixed livestock producer. The list is a lot longer as well. I certainly don’t want to belabour the point here, but this was just some of the folks that were part of that working group other than sort of the big agribusiness as well.

They were also onboard with trying to – you know, with the new rules coming in, we didn’t want to make things too hard going forward and wanted to ensure that our farm and ranch sector thrives going forward. Certainly, as that happens, we’ll be able to probably have more discussions with these groups and businesses in order to go forward and again try to build consensus, like we did this last time, about any changes that they might want to look at in the future.

The Deputy Chair: Thank you, hon. member. Are there any other members wishing to speak? The hon. Member for Calgary-Mountain View.

Dr. Swann: Madam Chair, thank you. Again, we’re talking about a thriving agriculture sector on the backs of exploited people. I don’t get that. It flies in the face of your values and your stated goals in Bill 6. Yes, we want it to thrive. In fact, it will thrive better if they don’t have lawsuits and accidents and deaths because a few bad apples are forcing people to work significant hours and overstrain themselves and take on things in poor judgment. It doesn’t wash. It just doesn’t wash. I think these folks will be wearing egg on their faces if they continue to argue that it’s not right for 95 per cent of the workers in the province but that it’s okay for the 5 per cent or 10 per cent that are described as paid farm workers. It doesn’t make sense.

The fact that quite a few owners and operators said, “Yes, this is okay with us”: where are the farm workers? What is their voice in this? In fact, it’s been barely heard on some of these panels because farm workers are still too intimidated to speak out, demand their rights, and ask for equal consideration in all this. It’s disappointing.

There it is, Madam Chair.

The Deputy Chair: Thank you, hon. member. Are there any other members wishing to speak to the amend-ment? Seeing none, I’ll call the question.

[Motion on amendment A15 lost]


Dr. Swann Debates Bill 18 – Child Protection and Accountability Act, 2017 (Second Reading) – 1 June 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Thursday, June 1, 2017.

Bill 18 – Child Protection and Accountability Act, 2017 (Second Reading)

Dr. Swann: Thank you very much, Madam Speaker. I’m pleased to speak to Bill 18, the Child Protection and Accountability Act. I’ve been around for a few years and have been involved in both the 2014 child death review panel as well as, obviously, hearing and reading reports over the last decade on children in care who have died and have been reviewed by the Child and Youth Advocate. It was roughly, I think, seven or eight years ago, after considerable pressure from the public and from the opposition parties, that the PC government finally agreed to make the Child and Youth Advocate independent, not simply reporting to the minister and telling the minister what the minister wanted to hear and having the unfortunate perception, if not the reality, that reports were sanitized to not offend or embarrass the minister of the day. So I give credit that the PCs, after so many years of not being willing to face the music, created an independent office called the office of the Child and Youth Advocate. That was progress.

I think it’s fair to say that we all recognize that there is a particular population of people who are most vulnerable in this society, that are most disadvantaged, that come out of homes that are most broken and vulnerable. Violence, drugs, poverty, a host of issues create the conditions in which parents cannot cope or cannot deal responsibly with their responsibilities. Given that roughly 10,000 children are reviewed annually by child services, they somehow have to make assessments in each case on whether these children would be better in or out of their homes and, if out of their homes, where out of their homes, in kinship care, in foster families, guardians of the government initially. In some cases all of these alternatives prove to be unsatisfactory for various reasons. Either the child can’t cope with the particular situation, or the family can’t cope with the child, or some combination of social and environmental circumstances requires the child to be again disrupted and moved to different situations.

With that having been said and the dominance of First Nations folks in this population and our long history of betrayal and abuse in terms of services for First Nations and the intergenerational trauma that we’ve heard so much about, in part thanks to more and more awareness and a government today who has been courageous enough to highlight this important, long-standing trauma and the long-standing impacts of this trauma on the kids and the families, what we’ve come to today is the review panel, that I think has to acknowledge that critically important work, very sensitive work, traumatic work for those of us who hear stories either at the panel or in our everyday lives, in our offices about things that aren’t what they should be.

I guess that with the view that we are, in fact, just three months into this review and the government has already come forward with significant changes to the process and the focus of the child death review, I am mightily encouraged by having a bill before us already. I did not expect this until the fall. It’s not perfect, but it’s a big step forward in terms of clarifying a unified approach instead of three different organizations reviewing deaths, overlapping, creating some perception of gaps, conflicting in some ways, redundant in resource use.

All of this is to say that this is progress. We’re now going to have the office of the Child and Youth Advocate review all deaths, whether in care or within two years of leaving care. That’s progress. We’re going to see, for example, more timely reporting. He or she, whoever the advocate is, has to report within six months on the progress of every death that they’re reviewing. They are going to have to complete a report within one year instead of in some cases seeing these dragged out for years and years, with tremendous ongoing suffering within the family, who can’t resolve issues completely without closure and the help of the office and its report. We’re going to see cultural advisers for the first time required in every case of a death review. These are signs, to me, of a government that’s listening.

I think it’s important in the context of this whole complicated business of dealing with children to think about the various impacts on these children and families, whether it’s their biological family, their family of guardianship, the influences of their community, their school culture, Alberta Health Services and their involvement with that child and family, the social services system and its involvement, the police and their involvement with that family, not to mention the fact that these families grow in a cultural context, a social and economic context that is creating the conditions for significant risk, significant disadvantage. So to blame one system, I think, is really to miss the point, and to focus all of our attention on one system is to miss the point. Every aspect of government and community, not to mention the federal government, which has a huge role here, has to be working together to focus and hone their supports on families and individuals that are at risk.

It may be the case, as our hon. colleagues in the Wildrose and Conservative parties have said, that there isn’t enough transparency in these reportings either from the office of the Child and Youth Advocate or in terms of the panel work that we’re doing. It may be that there is a need for more recording of statements, perhaps, and more access to the panel discussions by the whole population of Alberta. But, frankly, Madam Speaker, we are a very effective panel, from my point of view. We’re hearing from everybody we can think of. We’ve had in camera sessions that enable people to speak their minds with confidence and confidentiality. Whether they’re past employees of child and family services, whether they’re DFNAs, designated First Nation agencies, whether they are police, whether they are adoptive families, guardians, we’ve had a wide range of people tell us the good, the bad, and the ugly about what they’ve experienced. Some of them are very ugly stories, and they have not minced words about what they see and what they try to do.

I think, all things considered, that in my 12 years here I see significant progress. I don’t see a perfect bill. I see a tremendous amount to be grateful for in terms of a ministry that is putting tremendous resources into and a willingness to be open and transparent with anything that we request. I guess I would argue that we’re in a process. It’s a complex process. It’s focused on one tiny aspect of what we’ve considered to be important in terms of child and family services, and we’re making that better, and we will continue to hone that. There may be some good amendments that we will put forward in the next stage of the bill in terms of greater transparency, more accountability for people at the top of the ministry, but this to me is significant progress. Based on second reading and the principles of what we’re trying to do here, I have significant satisfaction.

Thank you, Madam Speaker.

The Acting Speaker: Thank you, hon. member. Are there any members wishing to speak under 29(2)(a)? The hon. Minister of Indigenous Relations.

Mr. Feehan: Thank you, Madam Speaker. I’m very interested in what the member has been speaking about. He made reference to the fact that there had been difficulties over the years with the reports from the children’s advocate. They haven’t always been listened to. At least this is a step forward and progress in the future. I’d be interested in hearing a little bit more about his experience with why it didn’t work with the previous children’s advocates. I know that reports came out from John Mould and John Lafrance indicating significant difficulties in the past. Many of the things that are being moved forward right now are reflections of things that have been asked for for many years, and I know that the member has experience with those previous children’s advocates and has some depth of knowledge. We’d like to hear a little bit more about that.

Before I sit down, I also want to add that he has made reference to some of structural issues, noting that this one ministry cannot solve the problem and that there is a much larger and greater demand out there to change real circumstances in the lives particularly of indigenous people, as I’m concerned about, in order to reduce the number of children coming into care. So I’d be interested as well about some of the other larger structural changes that the member might like to see as we move forward in trying to build on the work of this particular act and to do so much more than what we’re doing in this one instance.

Thank you.

The Acting Speaker: Thank you, hon. minister. The hon. Member for Calgary-Mountain View.

Dr. Swann: Thank you, Madam Speaker, and thank you to the minister for those insightful comments and questions. I have been working in prevention services for 25 years, and it’s very clear to me that we as a society have not embraced prevention. We have not looked deeply at the origins of illness, disability, premature death, injury in a serious way that tries to get at root causes. We deal with symptoms. We deal with crisis very well. I guess it’s been frustrating for me and for many in this culture to say, “Yes, prevention is where we should be going,” and then seeing the budgets go 95 per cent towards crisis and intervention after the fact. The opiate crisis affecting First Nations in a big way is a symptom, another symptom that we’re going after in a big way well after the problem has shown itself.

I want to say with respect to the previous child and youth advocates that they did their best under the circumstances that they were given, given the political realities of reporting to a minister, of being paid for by the minister’s budget, being overseen by the minister’s staff, being subject to the political whims and sensitivities that were there. Was the Child and Youth Advocate doing their full scope and role? No. They couldn’t. I would argue the same thing is happening with other advocates in our province: the Health Advocate, the mental health advocate, the Seniors Advocate, and now the disability advocate. If we’re serious about wanting to advocate for special groups and vulnerable groups, they have to be independent.

I’ve seen tremendous progress since this Child and Youth Advocate became independent in terms of the depth and the clarity and the hard-hitting nature of the reports that force government, like this particular panel has been forced, to review things and look for change and find out why changes aren’t being made when the Auditor General himself has made recommendation after recommendation after recommendation. All this to say that the process of I guess I would call it administrative change, political change has to come about through a progressive increase in pressures and the political will that comes not only out of the office of the minister but comes out of the public and all the bodies that are adding to the pressure to do the right thing.

With respect to some of the many challenges that we’re now moving into, phase 2 on the panel, looking at the more systemic issues that relate to child and family services in the province and how we could improve those and reduce the failure rate of those taken into care, prevent those in some cases from getting into care, supporting families in their own locations, supporting First Nations people in kinship care and following up with these families after the death of a child, I mean, that’s another area where we are simply ignoring . . .

The Acting Speaker: Thank you, hon. member.


Dr. Swann Debates Bill 17 – Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act (Committee of the Whole) – 31 May 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Wednesday, May 31, 2017.

Bill 17 – Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act (Committee of the Whole)

Dr. Swann: Thank you very much, Mr. Chair. I’m very pleased to stand and speak to an amendment to the Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act, Bill 17, and will circulate the amendment.

The Acting Chair: This will be referred to as amendment A5. Please proceed.

Dr. Swann: Thanks very much, Mr. Chair. Well, I’m pleased with almost all aspects of this act, but this is one of the issues that I think either the minister has overlooked or has been subject to strong lobbying by the agriculture coalition, by some of the large landowners and industrial agriculture operations.

I would hope that we might consider paying overtime to people who work overtime. It’s a basic principle of employment. It oper-ates in all other industries. Indeed, we made significant progress with Bill 6 in getting some basic health and safety rights and workers’ compensation and recognized farm workers as equal to all other workers in this country. I applaud the government for finally bringing that good legislation in. I therefore was a bit shocked to see exemptions for overtime for farm workers, when exploitation has been the history of farm workers for a hundred years, and clearly it’s going to continue in some, not all, workplaces where there is unethical or exploitive leadership. By exempting farm workers from this overtime pay, it’s a clear indication that the agriculture coalition has had a lot of influence in the working groups. In fact, I know they’ve dominated some of the working groups and softened the right to equal treatment in the workplace for paid farm workers.

The opportunity here is to recognize that these rights under both our Constitution in Canada and as part of the charter of human rights, which gives all workers the right to a safe workplace, to compensation for injury . . . [interjection] Who’s whistling?

Mr. Cooper: Sorry.

Dr. Swann: I don’t need that. Thanks. I’m having enough of a time concentrating.

. . . the opportunity to recognize these rights and not treat them as second-class employees. It’s disappointing, and it’s certainly unjust. It’s saying that some workers are more equal than others.

Now, I recognize that farm work is different, that ranch work is different, and that it indeed may be reasonable to expect farm workers to work a 10-hour day and not expect overtime, but when we get beyond 10 hours in a day or over 60 hours in a week, surely we could recognize overtime as we do in other workplaces. I doubt that there’s a single person in this Legislature that would not expect to be paid a fair overtime wage when it got to over 10 hours in a day or 60 hours in a week. I really doubt that any of us would feel fairly treated if the boss said: sorry; you’re going to just have to work overtime and accept regular pay. That opens the door to exploitation. It opens the door to increased injuries and accidents when people are fatigued. When they feel unjustly treated, they’re going to be rankling and stressed and not feeling good about themselves or their workplace, and that is not good for anybody.

It’s understandable that change is challenging in the ag sector. Paid farm workers are already exempt from time-off provisions under this bill. They don’t get the same time-off provisions in a week or in a month. They’re exempt from that. Surely, then, we could recognize significant overtime, beyond 10 hours a day and beyond 60 hours a week. That seems pretty fundamental, especially to a government that talks about equal pay for equal work and human rights in the workplace. They certainly have championed that for unionized workers, and I know they believe that all citizens should have the right to form unions. These are some fundamental rights that we fought and died for over generations here, and we’re now finally dragging the agriculture sector into the 21st century on these issues. Giving them second-class status as far as hours of work and overtime is disappointing, and I hope that the minister can find a way to acknowledge in this bill that something has to be addressed in terms of overtime, even if not the usual over eight hours of work in a day or 44 hours in a week. Let’s at least compromise a bit and extend the right of agriculture operations to only start paying overtime after 10 hours in a day and 60 hours in a week. That’s not a big sacrifice to the industry.

I’ve made my pitch, Mr. Chair, and I think that all fair-minded people will see the wisdom of this not only in terms of health and safety but in fairness and just treatment of paid farm workers. I’m not talking about family members. I’m not talking about extended family members. I’m only talking about those who are hired to do a job as they would be hired to do a job in any other sector of society and have a reasonable expectation that if they’re pushed beyond 10, 12, 14 hours a day, which I know many farms require at certain times of the year, they should be paid reasonably and, if not equitably with other jurisdictions, at least get some recognition that overtime requires extra recognition.

Thanks, Mr. Chair.


Dr. Swann Debates Bill 206 – Child, Youth and Family Enhancement (Adoption Advertising) Amendment Act, 2017 (Second Reading) – 29 May 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Monday, May 29, 2017.

Bill 206 – Child, Youth and Family Enhancement (Adoption Advertising) Amendment Act, 2017 (Second Reading)

Dr. Swann: Thanks very much, Mr. Speaker. An important bill to be sure, Bill 206, the Child, Youth and Family Enhancement (Adoption Advertising) Amendment Act, 2017. I appreciate all of the comments of those in the House who have had personal experience with it. While I have not had personal experience in that sense, I certainly, through my two daughters, have had two international adoptions, one from east Africa, Uganda, which I participated in very actively, and the other through my other daughter, who adopted two from Haiti: certainly, lengthy processes and challenging to deal with the other governments on these issues.

I think, like others who have spoken, that there’s a tremendous need for more openness and access not only for the birth parents to feel like they can connect with the adoptive parents but also for the adoptive parents to be able to be more public about their desire to connect with the birth parents. This bill proposes to amend the act to allow licensed adoption agencies in Alberta to publicize the profiles of prospective adoptive parents, bringing Alberta in line with B.C., Ontario, and the Yukon.

Presently Alberta couples seeking open adoptions are not allowed to create public profiles of themselves on websites such as canadaadopts.com. Conversely, profiles of children that are up for adoption are featured on television and Alberta human services’ website, leading critics to charge that there is an inconsistency in the law. I think that’s part of what this worthy bill is trying to amend. I won’t take a long time to comment on it, but under the Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act there is an incon-sistency that needs to be addressed. There’s really no reason why prospective adoptive parents should not be permitted to advertise online as long as proper safeguards are in place.

In this context, I guess, my daughter has advised me – and she’s head of Christian Adoption in Canada – that without going through an agency, there is a risk of misrepresentation of adoptive parents, a need to ensure that they not have access directly to the birth parents. A lot of birth parents considering putting a child up for adoption are doing their research and communications online today – and that’s fine; it makes sense – but without a home visit and without proper counselling for the birth parent, it’s really open to abuse. Those are the concerns, I’m sure, that we are all wanting to see addressed. There’s a reason why there are so many regulations and oversights, and there’s a reason why birth parents get counselling to be clear on the full implications of what they’re doing, the emotional as well as the legal implications of what they’re doing. It behooves us to do this carefully, to make sure that we are protecting the interests, particularly, of the child and the birth parents.

I mentioned counselling for the birth parent or parents to make sure they’re clear and have some ability to go through a grieving process in a mature and responsible way, ensuring that there’s no money or other incentives being exchanged for the placement of a child, ensuring that a proper home study is done so that the adoptive parents are found to be legitimate, capable, that the setting is appropriate and healthy, and that, by all means, information is shared through a reputable agency. The birth parent then can work through the agency to get the full contact information. I guess the concern is that there need to be appropriate checks and balances, and I think we’ll be dealing with those perhaps and some suggested amendments, then, as we get through to other stages of the bill.

Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker.


Dr. Swann Debates Bill 16 – An Act to Cap Regulated Electricity Rates (Second Reading) – 24 May 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Wednesday, May 24, 2017.

Bill 16 – An Act to Cap Regulated Electricity Rates (Second Reading)

Dr. Swann: Thanks, Mr. Speaker. I’m pleased to speak to Bill 16, An Act to Cap Regulated Electricity Rates. I think it’s important to call it what it is. A cap suggests that there’s a limit. Indeed, the government is putting a limit on what people will pay in the short term, but clearly they’re hiding the real price of electricity from consumers when it goes over 6.8 cents.

When it goes over 6.8 cents to produce, somebody’s going to have to pay it. So why not be honest with people? Why not send them the true price of electricity so that we will all change behaviour if we need to? We will start to look at more efficient appliances. We will start to look at different ways of using our electricity and, potentially, make the changes they say that we’re needing to make instead of hiding it and passing it on through taxes and through, I guess, whatever’s left of the carbon levy, although it’s been relegated to so many different areas, I’m not sure how that will go.

Frankly, Madam Speaker, it’s disingenuous to pretend that we’re actually going to protect people. If we really are trying to protect vulnerable people from high electricity prices, help them financially, those who need the help, but don’t fail to give Albertans the true cost of our electricity. That, I think, troubles me as much as anything because we’re already racking up other debts, but here we’re hiding a debt instead of being honest with people about where we’re going with this.

Since 2001 Albertans have been able to choose to receive their electricity either from a retailer that’s regulated by the AUC or from a competitive retailer. The regulated rate option was established to provide a default option for consumers who decide not to choose a competitive retail product. To be clear, the regulated rate option does not ensure a single low rate; rather, rates change from month to month depending on the real price of power.

In 2006 the regulated rate regulation was changed to encourage customers to switch to competitive retail products and foster devel-opment of the competitive retail market. But retail statistics from the Alberta Market Surveillance Administrator indicated that as of last year about half of residential customers had switched to competitive contracts and half remained on the regulated rate option. That means that despite the availability of the product from competitive retailers, consumers did not choose that option. Fair enough. However, the problem with the current regulated rate option is that it actually leads to higher electricity costs for consumers.

When the electricity market was deregulated, the promise that was made was one of low energy costs and reduced price volatility. However, the deregulated market clearly did not deliver that in all cases. Something definitely needs to be done. In fact, over the many years that I’ve served here as MLA, one of the most frequent concerns of constituents was the high cost and volatility of energy bills. Clearly, the default option for electricity needs to be afford-able and protect consumers, but it also has to send an honest price to people so that they can change their ways.

I support the government’s efforts to create a market for renew-ables and diversify our electricity generation. However, simply putting a cap on the regulated rate option is not the answer. It could potentially, I believe it will, cause serious problems down the line, as prices inevitably increase with all of our expensive new infrastructure. Consumers should always have a price reference based on the actual costs in order to make efficient and effective consumption and investment choices. If energy costs are deemed to be too high, vulnerable folks can be reimbursed with rebates and subsidies, but we should never mask the true price signal. Otherwise, we could end up moving much closer to Ontario’s reality.

A price cap will not reduce the cost of electricity. It merely defers payment to another pocket, to our children, to our grandchildren. It will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the viability of the competitive market. It basically sends the wrong message to real competition and incentives for people to build new stuff and to try and get into the game of producing electricity and getting some income in a business. As I said, it won’t change behaviour and it won’t change purchasing if we stifle the real price.

Funding the RRO from carbon revenue is the worst possible policy that the NDP government could have picked. The RRO retailers will continue to get what they always got, which is quite high revenue, but rather than reforming the RRO, which is what I suggested in Motion 502, the government took the political way out, hiding the real price from Albertans. The four-year time frame of the regulated rate option cap appears to be more about political expediency than fixing the system. The only change that happens is that the NDP government removes the risk of a price spike during the next election. I think that’s disingenuous.

The important question is: what is the NDP’s real motivation? It must be contemplating other changes such as turning back the PPAs to the owners, converting the coal plants to gas, which would significantly increase prices in the next four years. It has to because making these changes will be expensive. Fair enough. But let’s start paying it now and not pass it on to our children and our grand-children and take it out of a new tax. We’re going to have to start paying some of these extra expenses.

Specific recommendations that I think I’ve made before in relation to the regulated rate option. Number one, preserve and enhance the integrity and operation of some competitive retail. Most economists believe that competition rather than regulation has the best chance of achieving economic efficiency. I’m one of those. A competitive market will force down prices and encourage inno-vation and change behaviour.

Alberta has embarked on a program to restructure the electricity market by setting an objective of 30 per cent of renewable energy by 2030 and implementing a capacity market. I applaud that. A highly competitive retail market will help ensure that the benefits of changes in the wholesale market will be transferred to retail customers.

The second recommendation: preserve the ability of consumers to choose the retail service that best meets their needs. Don’t treat Albertans like ignoramuses. It’s very unlikely that a single product or service can meet the needs of all consumers, so let people choose what is best for them. It’s because of their interests, needs, and preferences that we have new businesses in Alberta who can meet some of the unique needs of every person.

Funding the RRO from the carbon revenue: I’ve said that already.

Electricity is no different from any other product. For example, some consumers prefer fixed prices and are willing to pay a pre-mium to eliminate volatility, some prefer variable prices to obtain the lowest costs, and some consumers simply don’t care and are price takers. That’s their choice. Consumer choice is a key feature of Alberta since it was regulated in 2001, albeit not as well as it could have been managed. I’ve made some suggestions about how the regulated rate option, in particular, could save people $12 a month if we did a flow-through option instead of the current approach.

It’s worth noting that consumers already have the ability to protect themselves from volatility and can choose a retail product that best serves their needs. The implications of the government’s strategy is that it eliminates the incentive for consumers to make any decision or to make any changes. That’s not really what we want. It makes consumers who don’t choose a competitive retail product for whatever reason into free riders. In other words, the regulated rate option people will get subsidized by the carbon tax if the price goes over 6.8 cents. The rest of us will be paying for those on the regulated rate option. Guess what people are going to choose? It unfairly penalizes consumers who have made the effort to educate themselves and try for more efficient, competitive retail options.

The third recommendation: drop the requirement that consumers should know the price of energy in advance of consumption. The RRO is based on the presumption that consumers should know in advance the price of energy before it’s consumed. While this is an important principle for virtually all other consumer products, it is not for the purposes of electricity prices. Electricity is an essential good that consumers cannot function without. I know of no consu-mers who can monitor the RRO price prior to consumption. As a result, consumers tend to be price inelastic and consume electricity regardless of price. Consumers tend to respond more to price trends and price spikes when making decisions about the purchase, management, and consumption of their energy.

The fourth recommendation: the RRO should be renamed the default rate option. The name of the RRO is a misnomer. RRO is not a regulated price in the traditional sense. Default rate is a more appropriate description and reflects exactly what it is, a rate that applies when consumers decide not to choose a competitive option.

The fifth recommendation: the default rate should be based on the pool price. As I spoke about in Motion 502, the pool price is the actual cost of power and ultimately is the price paid by consumers. All other prices are derivatives of the pool price. Because the pool price is the cost of power, it will tend to be the lowest price over time.

While other prices may be lower from time to time, particularly the forward price, the long-term tendency is for the pool price to be the lowest price because it represents the actual cost of power. The price differential between the pool price and the forward price fluctuates and is based on the time value of money and other factors related to varying perspectives amongst buyers and sellers concer-ning the future price. The spot power floating rate likely includes adjustments for its consumer load profile and other costs related to the risk of supplying the floating rate, and the RRO rate includes the risk and return premium that increases the cost of power.

There are many reasons supporting the use of the pool price as the default rate, but three reasons stand out. Number one, the pool price will tend to be the lowest cost over time. Number two, the pool price will serve as a benchmark. It will allow consumers to accurately compare the cost of energy products among different retailers. Number three, the pool price is the closest thing we have to a price signal that will guide consumers in terms of making effective energy efficiency decisions and policy-makers in terms of resource allocation in the Alberta energy economy.

The number one issue related to the use of the pool price as the default rate is the fact that it is the most volatile price. As I said, if it’s too volatile and vulnerable people need to be supported, then let’s support the vulnerable people. Let’s not compromise the whole system on the basis that volatility might compromise our most vulnerable.

Government has implemented two structural changes in the electricity market that will have a profound impact on reducing future pool price volatility. This will happen because the transition to renewable energy will likely be financed by capacity payments to cover the fixed cost of generation. As the reliance on capacity payments grows, it will change the composition of the pool price into a weighting of capacity payment plus energy costs. In effect, the pool price will be self-stabilizing and will substantially con-tribute to the realization of the government’s pricing objective.

One possibility that could accelerate the transition to a capacity market is the recent proposal by ATCO and TransAlta to convert coal-fired generating plants to natural gas. If adopted, this proposal would accelerate the phase-out of coal plants, thus achieving our transition to a low-carbon economy sooner than anticipated, but the method of financing this transition is still unknown. Using capacity payments for this has the benefit of providing a way to facilitate project financing that is acceptable to financial lenders. In addition, this will benefit consumers in terms of helping to stabilize the pool price.

The proposal is not without its challenges, however. For example, how will the capacity payment be determined in an environment where a fair competitive price might not be available in this particular instance? The capacity market will take time to develop. In the short term there are, fortunately, several very effective and low-cost ways of mitigating the volatility inherent in a pool price. Two of these methods are price caps and fixed prices.

A final comment on the use of the pool price flow through as the default rate is the significant reduction in regulation burden. The regulatory process surrounding the review and approval of the RRO is complicated and time consuming. It requires significant commit-ment by stakeholders, consumers, retailers, and regulators in terms of money and staff. Adoption of the pool price as the default rate will eliminate all of that requirement.

Madam Speaker, I am once again appealing to this government to reconsider eliminating all price signals to our people. It may not be a perfect system that we have, but let’s retain some element of the price signals so that people actually get real, honest feedback on how their use of energy is costing them and costing the environment in that sense. You don’t have to eliminate the deregulation comp-letely. You have the best of both worlds right now. By putting a price cap and not taking advantage of a different way of calculating the regulated rate option, I don’t think you’re getting what you want. I haven’t been able to get that through, but I hope the govern-ment is listening and will consider those options further.

Thank you, Madam Speaker.

 


Dr. Swann Debates Bill 14 – An Act to Support Orphan Well Rehabilitation (Committee of the Whole) – 23 May 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Tuesday, May 23, 2017.

Bill 14 – An Act to Support Orphan Well Rehabilitation (Committee of the Whole)

Dr. Swann: Thanks very much, Mr. Chair. I’m pleased to speak in committee on Bill 14, An Act to Support Orphan Well Rehabil-itation, clearly a win-win, with the federal government offering to front the interest, at least, on a significant loan to industry. At the same time we’re going to create jobs and clean up some important liabilities for all Albertans, particularly our children and grand-children, with the Orphan Well Association. Presently the orphan well fund can only be used to pay for suspension, abandonment, and related reclamation costs in respect of orphan well facilities and sites.

The bill also proposes to authorize the President of Treasury Board and Minister of Finance to make loans. In its current form the Oil and Gas Conservation Act does not specifically allow that. This is obviously enabling legislation that will potentially be a win-win for employment, our economy, and these important delayed and deferred cleanup costs, that hold a potentially fairly large liability for future generations. The government is making the changes to allow a $235 million loan to the Orphan Well Associ-ation, to allow the fund to repay the loan.

As has been stated, there are 83,000 inactive wells and 69,000 abandoned. In March of this year the Orphan Well Association had an inventory of 2,000 orphan wells to go through closure activities. It managed only 185 wells last year with an annual budget of $30 million. It’s scheduled to increase to $60 million in the 2019-20 fiscal year. This will entirely be covered by industry levies.

I have only a few questions that don’t appear to be clear in the current bill. It authorizes the loan money to the Orphan Well Association but doesn’t specify a loan ceiling or a repayment schedule apart from the 10-year, full repayment. It’s not clear how that’s to be shared, especially with companies that are perhaps struggling financially, and whether, in fact, at the end of the day, we will see the big companies stepping up with their share and the smaller companies again deferring and declining. Those are some specific details, but it seems to me that Albertans deserve to know how and in what manner the loans will be repaid, and we have a right to know at the start just what those terms of repayment are in the interest of protecting taxpayers from undue risk. They should be written into the bill.

This loan should also be a one-time deal, and it should reflect that, that this is not a pattern for future decades. While Premier Notley insisted that the $235 million loan doesn’t replace the orphan levy or the polluter-pay principle . . .

The Acting Chair: Hon. member, refrain from using names.

Dr. Swann: Sorry?

The Acting Chair: Refrain from using names. You used the Premier’s name.

Dr. Swann: Oh, thank you. Yes.

Bill 14 is worded in such a way that the door is being left wide open for government to make future loans. That needs to be addressed, too, I think. In terms of honouring the polluter-pay principle, we need to ensure that is clear, that this is not setting a pattern for future defaults, I guess, by the industry.

Bill 14 is also not prescriptive about what any loans to the orphan wells can be used for. I guess, if the price of oil happened to jump by double, I would wonder whether some of this money already given could then be used for other purposes besides the purposes of abandonment and reclamation. Without it being more specific, I wonder if we are again not quite holding them sufficiently to account.

Finally, I think there is a reason to call for this bill to have a review process, to within one to two years report back to Albertans to let us know how this fund is being used and how effectively it is accomplishing the goals it set out to do. It’s part of due diligence, accountability. It also, in my view, should be written into the bill, certainly, before any future lending is given. It seems to me that within the next one to two years it would be good to know what’s working and how well it’s working.

Those are some of the concerns in an otherwise laudable bill, that, as I say, is a win-win for Albertans, for our environment, and for our workplace. Thank you, Mr. Chair.


Dr. Swann Debates Bill 205 – Advocate for Persons with Disabilities Act, 2017 (Committee of the Whole) – 23 May 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Tuesday, May 23, 2017.

Bill 205 – Advocate for Persons with Disabilities Act, 2017 (Committee of the Whole)

The Chair: We are currently debating amendment A1. Are there any further speakers to this amendment? The hon. Member for Calgary-Mountain View.

Dr. Swann: Thank you, Madam Chair. I would like to propose an amendment, and I have spoken to both the minister and the Member for Calgary-North West about the concerns with the current proposed amendment from the government.

The Chair: Hon. member, can I just clarify? Are you proposing a subamendment to amendment A1?

Dr. Swann: Yes.

The Chair: Okay.

Dr. Swann: My understanding is that unless the government withdraws its amendment, this would not be . . .

The Chair: Just clarifying that it’s a subamendment, to get the terminology right.

Dr. Swann: Okay.

The Chair: Go ahead.

Dr. Swann: Well, I have the appropriate number of copies, Madam Chair. My understanding is that – yeah. Well, I’ll propose it as is. It seeks to establish the advocate for persons with disabilities as an officer of the Legislature instead of an advocate within the ministry.

The Chair: Hon. member, if you could give me a second until we have the original here at the table so we can make sure we’ve got . . .

Dr. Swann: Sure.

The Chair: Hon. member, I’ve been advised that this is not in a subamendment format. It’s an actual amendment, so we have to deal with amendment A1 first before we can get to your proposed amendment. It’s not in order to move it right at the moment. We have to finish up with amendment A1.

Dr. Swann: Could I speak, then, to the amendment and why I think . . .

The Chair: You could speak to amendment A1 if you wish, but you can’t move another amendment while we’ve got A1 on the floor.

Dr. Swann: Well, I guess my argument, then, would be that I would request that the minister withdraw his amendment to allow the debate to happen on this amendment because otherwise there won’t be a debate on the independence of the advocate. That would be my argument, Madam Chair. Could I proceed?

The Chair: Go ahead if you want to speak to the amendment, and you can, you know, make your case, as it may be. Absolutely.

Dr. Swann: Thank you. I understand that the establishment of an advocate for persons with disabilities under the ministry is being proposed. I am suggesting that the advocate be independent of the ministry and that the advocate be an independent officer of the Legislature.

The amendment obviously cannot be introduced at this time because there is an amendment on the floor which would preclude the opportunity to have this debate. It raises the whole question of informing the government of amendments when they have the ability to stop that amendment by anticipating the proposal of an amendment.

Let me first say that I fully support the establishment of an advocate for persons with disabilities. It’s laudable. It’s essential. Unfortunately, in this case it is not going to be as effective or create the accountability that I think we all want in an advocate. Having been an MLA for over a decade, I can tell you that there have always been constituents seeking navigation and system change within the AISH and the PDD systems. Bill 205 proposes the creation of an advocate’s office similar to the Health, Seniors, and Mental Health Patient advocates, all of whom report to the minister and whose funding is determined by the minister. In the past this has led to advocates being unable to fulfill their mandates due to lack of resources or impingement on their freedom to express concerns because they are employed by the ministry.

That’s why after almost a decade the Child and Youth Advocate became independent, because it was clear that the advocate was not able to say the tough things that the minister didn’t want to hear. It took a tremendous amount of leadership and political will from the public and child advocates to get that advocate independent. Indeed, in the 2014-15 annual report of the mental health advocate, it was stated explicitly:

The past year posed challenges to fulfill our . . . mandate in a timely manner . . . largely due to the loss of a position and the subsequent reassignment of duties, along with the Government of Alberta’s restraint measures. It had a direct impact on the number of Albertans we served and the inability to perform formal investigations.

Bill 205 is silent on anything related to an independent advocate because it’s not the model the government has opted for. The bill merely states that the government or Lieutenant Governor in Council may appoint an advocate and that the minister may make funds available for an advocate and his or her staff.

There’s nothing saying that an advocate who is an officer of the Legislature necessarily has to have a larger budget than one who is not, but that tends to be the case. The question, I guess, would be: will a larger budget allocated to an advocate reduce the funding for that ministry? And, as some have said in the PDD community, would that affect their own income as caregivers of people with disabilities? That seems to be a fear out there. In fact, the reverse would be true. If the advocate was independent, there would be no impact of budgetary decisions in the ministry because the budget for the advocate would be created by the Legislature generally. The fear that has been expressed by front-line workers, that their salaries might be impacted by establishing a budget for the advocate, is unfounded in this context.

In a lot of ways this discounts our advocates, who are only as effective as the government allows within the ministry. The government appears to want the advocate to fulfill a very specific role, mostly assisting and advising AISH and PDD clients, but one that does not include challenging government to improve the management culture and the management system of PDD and AISH.

I envision the advocate as having an expanded role similar to that of the Child and Youth Advocate, not necessarily with a big budget but at least starting off with the independence and accountability that I think everyone wants, including those with disabilities. My current move with this amendment would have the support of groups like the Disability Action Hall and Inclusion Alberta, who are also proposing the creation of an independent advocate.

I think it’s disingenuous to attach independence to a high, big budget. It doesn’t have to be. What it needs is accountability and transparency, which I think can be as much as the government and the legislative committee decide is appropriate based on the budget of the day. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. Putting our money where our mouth is, whether it’s a million-dollar budget or a $14 million budget, I think, is really what this question is about. Besides, an independent officer will have a budget then set by the all-party committee, based on, again, the current need and the financial realities that the government is facing, in an open and transparent manner.

The argument over money misses the point, and that is that to be truly effective, the advocate needs to be independent of the ministry. The question, then, is whether this is the appearance of more accountability for the PDD community or if it’s a real commitment to listening and advocating for some of the concerns of this long-beleaguered community. It needs a different reporting structure and greater accountability, which is what we will get with an independent advocate. The advocate will also have the ability to exercise judgment on what areas need investigation and improvement. I view both of these aspects as desirable, and I expect the government of today to do so as well.

I certainly hope the government will do the right thing and consider establishing the advocate for persons with disabilities as an independent officer of the Legislature. After all, that is what Albertans, the PDD community, families, and caregivers expect.

I think, in passing, that there still is a strong need for consultation with the community. I know the member has done some consultation through her office. This is now a significant bill affecting thousands and thousands of Albertans, and it’s clear to me that if the government is serious, they should withdraw the amendment currently on the table and allow this whole question of independence to be debated. I leave that to the government.

Thank you, Madam Chair.


Dr. Swann Debates Bill 14 – An Act to Support Orphan Well Rehabilitation (Second Reading) – 17 May 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Wednesday, May 17, 2017.

Bill 14 – An Act to Support Orphan Well Rehabilitation (Second Reading)

Dr. Swann: Thank you, Madam Speaker. I’m pleased to rise and speak to Bill 14 in its second reading, An Act to Support Orphan Well Rehabilitation. Something that we see recurrently in the history of Alberta is this ongoing challenge of meeting those environmental concerns that have been left from bankrupt or otherwise dissolved organizations.

The attempt by the previous government to provide through the Orphan Well Association fairly modest annual payments based on the licensing liability association regulations clearly has not met the need. It points again to other major liabilities that we and our children are facing around the oil sands and the tailings ponds, which are many more billions of dollars of potential liability because we haven’t required appropriate bonding or set asides in the event of stranded assets or bankruptcies or abandonments by companies of these operations.

Cleary, this is going to take us into a more positive position in relation to these wells, and I’m pleased to see that the polluter pays principle will be front and centre in this. These will be loans. In fact, it appears – and this is my first reading of it, Madam Speaker – that there will be borrowing costs and interest associated with the loans. Very good news. I think we have to be consistent in our approach to the responsibilities of industry to meet their obligations under the act, and it would set a very dangerous precedent if it were anything but a loan.

The double benefit, of course, is that we have servicing compan-ies that are going to be employed, in some cases after some period of time of being unemployed. So this is a win-win for the economy, for sustaining some of the jobs in the province, and for getting some appropriate cleanup. A long way to go; $30 million isn’t going to go very far in the long list of potential abandonments as is needed.

While I fully support it, I guess there are lots of questions still to be considered. One of them would be whether or not the Alberta government is planning to make loans through other sources to this fund or if the federal fund is the sole fund that is going to be provided for these companies to do the reclamation and rehabil-itation work. If we are borrowing more money or putting more public liability at risk through loans, I think we would have to have a very serious discussion since there’s already quite a lot being put aside in terms of borrowing by this government, and I would be very concerned if it was going beyond that. But there may be some other opportunities for providing loans to companies which I haven’t considered but perhaps the government has.

So my only caveat is that we not put any more public dollars in Alberta in jeopardy through further loans and that unless we have some other means of – and I hope perhaps at some time in this next year we’ll see some real amendments to the orphan well fund, that we’ll look at issues around reclamation of the oil sands and the tailings ponds because we’ll be dealing with the same issues over the next 10 years at a much higher level with respect to abandon-ment or reclamation and remediation in the oil sands and the tailings ponds.

But this is a good start. I mean, to give the government credit, we are moving forward on some of the most thorny issues that this province has faced for the last 20 or 25 years. I can congratulate both the federal government and the provincial government on taking what are quite necessary steps in particular at this time.

Thank you, Madam Speaker.