Advocate for Persons with Disabilities must have independence from government

Edmonton, AB (May 19, 2017): Alberta Liberal Leader Dr. David Swann seeks to amend Bill 205 to establish the Advocate for Persons with Disabilities as an independent officer of the legislature.

“This bill is well-intentioned, but having an advocate report to the minister reduces the office’s independence and makes its budget subject to ministerial whim,” says Swann. “A truly independent officer will have a budget set by an all-party committee and report directly to the Assembly.”

Bill 205, Advocate for Persons with Disabilities Act, proposes the creation of an advocate’s office similar to the Health, Seniors, and Mental Health Patient Advocates, all of whom report to a minister and whose funding is determined by ministry officials.

In the past, this has led to the advocates being unable to fulfill their mandates due to lack of resources. For example, in the 2014-15 Annual Report, the Alberta Mental Health Advocate explicitly stated, “The past year posed challenges to fulfill our legislative mandate in a timely manner. This was 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 comprehensiveness of our investigations” (pg. 4).

Instead, Swann envisions the disabilities advocate having an expanded role similar to that of the Child and Youth Advocate. This move has the support of stakeholders such as Inclusion Alberta and Calgary’s Disability Action Hall, both of whom are also proposing the creation of an independent advocate.

Swann gave notice of his intention to amend the bill, and requested he be allowed to proceed first in the debate for procedural reasons. However, the NDP did not consent. Now in order for Swann to amend the bill, the Minister of Community and Social Services must withdraw his own pre-emptive amendment, which was moved prior to Swann’s proposal.

“I certainly hope that Minister Sabir and the NDP government do the right thing and consider establishing the Advocate for Persons with Disabilities as an independent officer of the legislature,” says Swann. “That is what Albertans I’ve talked to want and expect.”

OP-ED Alberta can learn important lessons from British Columbia’s opioid response

Alberta can learn important lessons from British Columbia’s opioid response.
Opinion/Editorial by Dr. David Swann, MLA Calgary-Mountain View, Alberta Liberal Leader

By any objective measure, the opiate crisis has affected British Columbia far more severely than Alberta. Both legal and illegal opiate use is more prevalent, and it was the first province to see this unprecedented number of deaths due to overdoses of fentanyl and other opiates.

B.C.’s response has been robust. The declaration of a public health state of emergency led to resources being mobilized across government departments and between all stakeholders in a co-ordinated plan. Their Provincial Health Officer reports monthly on the efforts to combat the crisis, and the province has embraced early harm reduction measures such as naloxone kits and supervised injection sites. Despite these efforts, and an investment of $100 million to combat the crisis, the death toll still continues to grow at a rate of nearly four people per day.

Alberta’s situation has not yet reached the same extremes, but we have yet to see a comprehensive strategy that involves all the major stakeholders, including physicians, government departments and non-government organizations. Alberta Health attempts to report deaths and drug overdoses every three months; yet, the final total of opioid-related deaths in 2016 is still unknown. Nonetheless, mortality rates from fentanyl and other opiates still continue to rise in Alberta, approaching two per day.

Naloxone kits are undoubtedly saving lives, but we are not tracking how many, which is an important metric for gauging our progress. Wait times for replacement therapy outside Edmonton and Calgary continue to be too long. There is a troubling lack of information that could help us get an accurate picture of the extent of the problem and the effectiveness of our solutions. The recently announced $6 million from the federal government is a welcome boost, but the province needs to be able to direct those funds in the right areas to make sure they are used effectively.

Similar to B.C., this crisis requires strong, focused leadership. This includes a mental health and addictions experts who can develop and implement a coherent and coordinated plan that makes proper use all of the tools at the government’s disposal and overcomes the silos that have inhibited Alberta’s response. I have proposed to reinstate the chief addiction and mental health officer to spearhead Alberta’s opioid response. So far, the government has refused, and also says declaring a state of emergency is unnecessary.

There is still much to do to address this terrible, preventable tragedy, but doing less than our neighbours to the west is not the answer. If we hope to get ahead of this crisis, Alberta needs to learn from British Columbia’s opioid response, and build upon it, and get ahead of this crisis. The lives of our parents, children, brothers and sisters depend on us getting this right.

Swann asks Auditor General to investigate Pure North grants

Edmonton, AB (May 9, 2017): Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann is asking the Auditor General to investigate millions of dollars in grants from Alberta Health to Pure North S’Energy Foundation for a vitamin supplement program.

In his letter to the Auditor General, Swann says recent media reports by CBC’s Charles Rusnell and Jennie Russell, as well as his own research, indicate there is a clear cause for concern. Swann is requesting the investigation into both the grant process and the effectiveness of the program itself.

“Certainly, the strong connection the former Administrator of Alberta Health Services had with this program while it was seeking approval raises serious questions,” says Swann. “It is definitely worth a look to see if there was a conflict of interest.

“The public also needs to be assured that millions of dollars of taxpayer money were given for the right reasons and for a program that has a demonstrated track record of improving health.”

An additional area of concern for Swann is the potential public health impacts of providing large amounts of supplements to vulnerable populations without peer review. He worries this could be seen as human trials of an unproven treatment.

“Whatever the motivations for the funding, we must not lose sight of the very real public health and ethical questions raised by the implementation of this program. We need answers.

“In the meantime, I believe the government would be prudent if it suspended further funding of the program.”

A copy of the letter can be found on our website here.

Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann statement on the BC Provincial Election

Edmonton, AB (May 9, 2017): Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann issued the following statement on the results of the British Columbia provincial election:

“While many votes remain to be counted and many decisions remain to be made, I want to extend my congratulations to Premier Christy Clark for her victory last night. This has been an exciting election and I, like many Albertans, will be watching closely in the weeks ahead.

“As close neighbours and partners in Confederation, our two provinces have many shared interests – as well as points of difference. I encourage the incoming Premier to work with our government to resolve these differences to our mutual benefit, and look forward to our shared prosperity in the coming years.”

Statement: One-year anniversary of the Fort McMurray wildfire

Edmonton, AB (May 3, 2017): Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann released the following statement on the one-year anniversary of the Fort McMurray wildfire:

“On this day in 2016, Albertans watched in horror as Fort McMurray was engulfed by a wildfire of apocalyptic proportions. With staggering speed, a small wildfire on the banks of Horse River quickly evolved into the ‘Beast,’ which pounced on the city shortly thereafter.

“Yet through a haze of smoke and flame, Albertans witnessed a miracle. Along a single highway, the flames beating at their backs, almost 90,000 people escaped the city. The incredible heroism of our first responders saved Fort McMurray’s vital infrastructure and thousands of lives.

“One year later, the difficult task of rebuilding continues. We must remember, however, that we need to rebuild more than homes and infrastructure – we must also work to rebuild the mental health and well-being of the residents of Fort McMurray.

“The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder can surface suddenly or emerge long after the trauma has occurred. Today, many continue to struggle with the aftereffects of the fire.

“Albertans are strong, but the strong also suffer. It is not weakness to struggle with mental health; rather, it takes great courage to ask for help managing that struggle.

“I want to remind those who are still suffering from the devastating effects of the wildfire in Fort McMurray that they are not alone. I stand with you together with all your fellow Albertans.”

Media Advisory: Swann to moderate panel discussion on indigenous youth mental health

CALGARY, AB (May 2, 2017): Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann will moderate a panel discussion on indigenous youth mental health tomorrow morning at the University of Calgary.

The Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research & Education and the Mental Health Commission of Canada will host a symposium titled: Honouring the Past and Embracing the Future: Mental Health and Indigenous Youth.

This symposium convenes Indigenous professionals, mental health practitioners, social workers, researchers and more as they share their experiences, insights and recommendations on mental health among indigenous youth.

Symposium highlights include First Nations high school students speaking about their involvement in the successful HEADSTRONG program, and an Indigenous panel of experts, moderated by Dr. David Swann, MLA, engaged in a forward-looking dialogue on how to nurture the mental wellbeing of indigenous youth so they thrive into the future.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017,
8:30 a.m. – noon

University of Calgary, Foothills Campus
Health Sciences Centre, Theatre 4
3330 Hospital Drive NW
Calgary, AB T2N 4N1

Off-highway vehicle safety legislation still needs to go further

Edmonton, AB (May 1, 2017): Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann says Alberta’s off-highway safety legislation still needs to go further.

“Requiring off-highway vehicle operators to use helmets on public land is an important first step, especially since Alberta was the only province not to have such legislation, says Swann. “However, much more needs to be done to ensure the safe operation of these machines.”

Despite being powerful motor vehicles, OHV use is subject to virtually no rules in Alberta. There are no age restrictions, mandatory training, testing or licencing requirements for operating an OHV. Neither is there any explicit prohibition against consuming alcohol while operating these vehicles on private land in Alberta.

The statistics are sobering. Each year in Alberta, there are nearly 6,000 off-highway vehicle-related emergency room visits, and an average of almost 20 Albertans are killed each year while operating them.

Sadly, many of those are children. In 2015, more than 1,000 children under the age of 16 were injured while riding OHVs. Between the months of April and August last year, 44 children were seen in Alberta’s two pediatric emergency departments due to OHV-related injuries. 13 were injured seriously enough to require admission to hospital, and two of them died as a result of their injuries.

“During the Bill 36 debate, I proposed two amendments to include standards for safety training to be completed prior to a person driving, operating, riding in or on or being towed by an off-highway vehicle, but the NDP government chose to vote against them, says Swann. “Having a very personal connection to this issue – my nephew was killed while operating an OHV without a helmet – it is my earnest desire that no family experience such a terrible loss, which can easily be prevented by ensuring proper training and requiring the use of helmets while operating off-highway vehicles.”

Government must reinforce polluter pay principle following latest Redwater Energy ruling

Calgary, AB (April 25, 2017): In response to the Court of Appeal upholding last year’s Redwater Energy ruling, Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann is calling on the NDP government to ensure the ‘polluter pays’ principle is upheld.

“Now that the courts have clearly signaled an insolvent company’s assets cannot be used primarily for remediation of non-producing wells, it is up to the NDP government to ensure reclamation costs are borne by industry and not Alberta taxpayers,” says Swann.

While abandoned oil and gas wells are a rapidly growing problem, the government is also failing to enforce polluter pays on tailings ponds and oil sands mines.

In his July 2015 report, the Auditor General was highly critical of the Mine Financial Security Program (MFSP) for not ensuring that mines hold sufficient cleanup funds. While the Minister of Environment and Parks Shannon Phillips accepted the Auditor General’s recommendations, and promised a MFSP review, subsequent government action on the file has been lacking.

“The province seems to be expecting the federal government to swoop in and help cover the cleanup costs, which should be the industry’s responsibility,” says Swann. “Forward thinking and greater financial security is a must if we are going to ensure that energy producers aren’t saddling Alberta taxpayers with massive liabilities.”

Statement on including teaching of consent in sex education curriculum

Edmonton, AB (April 18, 2017): Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann issued the following statement in support of including the teaching of consent in the sexual education curriculum:

“Alberta Liberals have advocated for a number of years to include the teaching of consent as part of the sexual education curriculum. I am proud to say that we adopted this position as formal party policy in 2014.

“That is why I am very pleased to see influential voices in the Catholic School Board showing leadership by publicly discussing this matter. In particular, I applaud Marilyn Bergstra for putting forward a motion today that would call on the Board to lobby the government to include important concepts such as safe sex and consent, as well as programming that would address a variety of sexual orientations, in the sexual education curriculum.

“Consent is a subject that sex education teachers need to start discussing with students as early and as often as possible. Teaching that yes means yes, no means no, and that permission must be sought, and given, before any sexual activity can occur is fundamental to the understanding of proper sexual, and, indeed, societal behaviour.

“As a graduate student in public health, Ms. Bergstra brings an important perspective to this debate. Her motion is aimed at equipping students with crucial, practical knowledge – not encouraging sexual activity. Concerns that providing students with such knowledge would promote promiscuity are, in my view, misguided.

“Therefore, I would encourage the Board to carefully consider approving this motion, and help to show leadership in this important area of the sexual education curriculum.”

Revenues from cannabis legalization should go to support mental health and addictions programs, drug treatment courts

Edmonton, AB (April 13, 2017): Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann says revenue from cannabis sales should be used to support mental health and addictions prevention and treatment programs, as well as initiatives such as the drug treatment courts.
Swann welcomes federal legislation on cannabis introduced in the House of Commons today, and calls on the province to ensure the revenue from the sale of cannabis is used appropriately.

“I congratulate the Liberal government on taking this important step to ensure children are protected and profits from the illicit sale of cannabis products are kept out of the pockets of criminals,” says Swann. “Now, it is up to NDP government to ensure these funds go to where they are needed most.”

Swann points out the province’s annual spending on mental health and addictions is well below the national average. He argues dedicating funds from cannabis taxation to prevention and treatment programs is consistent with the NDP’s practice of directing revenues from the carbon levy to reduce carbon pollution and encourage energy efficiency.

“The goal of any cannabis regulation should be to reduce the negative health impacts of drug abuse,” says Swann. “I can think of no better use of these funds than to expand prevention and treatment options.

“Addictions and mental illness often go hand in hand, so it makes sense to have this funding follow suit.”

Swann says the new legislation will also help to alleviate pressure on our overburdened justice system. He notes part of the funding from cannabis sales could go to expanding the drug treatment court system.

“Liberals believe treating drug addiction as a public health issue is far better than dealing with its consequences in the criminal justice system,” says Swann. “That is why we would also like to see an expansion of the drug treatment courts accompany the new cannabis regulations.”