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 in Question Period on the Health Care System – 05 June 2017

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

Health Care System

Dr. Swann: Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. For years Alberta Liberals have been pointing to the Alberta Health Services quarterly performance reports as an excellent way for Albertans to assess how the system is working. Unfortunately, those reports are rarely up to date. When I asked the Health minister last week – two weeks ago, actually – she said that she hadn’t seen the report yet, which is troubling.

Dr. Swann: She did promise to follow up immediately with Alberta Health Services and inform the House. Two weeks have passed. The minister needs to respond. When will the reports be released so that Albertans can finally decide what’s going on?

The Speaker: The hon. Minister of Health.

Ms Hoffman: Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. I want to congratulate the member on his second attempt at retirement as leader of his party. Certainly, your service to your party and to Albertans is appreciated, hon. member.

I have followed up with Alberta Health Services, and the report is making its way to their board. Once it is finished going through the board process, it will come to my office, and then I will release it as quickly as possible. This is a process that happens typically. As it’s part of the annual report, it goes to the full board. When it is available, I will certainly reach out to the member and ensure that he’s aware of it.

Thank you.

Dr. Swann: Well, Mr. Speaker, what the data have consistently shown is that we’re failing to deliver humane, comprehensive seniors’ care in this province. The Health Quality Council reports hundreds of seniors not receiving the right level of care in the right place at the right time: 787 people most recently reported being warehoused in hospitals and 973 waiting for placement in the community. With numbers like these how can the minister say that she is providing seniors with dignity at the time when they need it most?

The Speaker: The hon. minister.

Ms Hoffman: Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker and to the member. Absolutely, there has been a long need for additional seniors’ care, including long-term care, dementia spaces, and increased investment in home care. Certainly, that was the case under the previous government for many years. I’m glad that we’re making important investments in those areas. We’re on track to be able to open 2,000 new long-term care and dementia care spaces within two years, and we’ve increased home-care supports signif-icantly. For those who are living in hospital, we certainly think that the staff there are doing a better job than warehousing, but living in a hospital is not ideal.

Dr. Swann: Mr. Speaker, the Auditor General’s report on better health care for Albertans highlighted the opportunity for better integration of clinical information systems. Unfortunately, the government has not yet required physicians to provide their clinical data to other caregivers. Clinicians are looking for leadership. When will the minister require reporting standards for physicians to share important information with other caregivers?

The Speaker: The hon. minister.

Ms Hoffman: Thank you again, Mr. Speaker. We’re working with the Alberta Medical Association to implement the amendments that were done to the agreement that we have with the physicians. These amendments will see improvements in primary care such as information sharing and data sharing as well. I’m pleased that the physicians came back to the table two years before what was required under the previous agreement under the former govern-ment and that we were able to make these important changes as well as committing investment to a clinical information system to ensure that patients can have integrated, seamless access to their data and that the health professionals who are making decisions have the best up-to-date information for those patients as well.


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 in Question Period on Opioid Emergency Response Commission – 31 May 2017

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

Opioid Emergency Response Commission

Dr. Swann: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Today the government announced what they call their aggressive opioid plan, which can be summed up as more piecemeal action, including the creation of a new advisory opioid commission. Not only is this an admission that the government’s response has not been sufficient, but after four years of increasing opiate deaths, instead of giving us a clear evidence-based plan – to the minister: now that you’ve got the advisers, how long before we see a public strategic plan with specific targets and timelines?

The Speaker: The Associate Minister of Health.

Ms Payne: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I’m incredibly proud of the group that’s been brought together to form the opioid emergency response commission, which includes harm reduction program advocates, parent advocates, law enforcement, and representation from indigenous communities. The commission has scheduled two meetings for the upcoming month, and I look forward to their recommendations in the very near future. I’m going to allow the experts that we’ve assembled to bring together their recommen-dations rather than try and presuppose their outcomes.

Dr. Swann: All good people, Mr. Speaker. A little late to the table. The minister has repeatedly told us that it was not necessary to declare a public health emergency because the government already had enough power and resources to deal with the crisis. We disagreed. Now she’s claiming that the new plan will expand her powers but can’t say what the new powers are or what will change. To the minister: specifically, what new powers does the minister have to stem the tide?

The Speaker: The associate minister.

Ms Payne: Thank you, Mr. Speaker and to the member for the question. You know, instead of trying to use powers that were meant for an infectious disease outbreak, our government has crafted new, aggressive emergency tools that will move forward and address the actual crisis in front of us, which is a public health crisis. It a question of how we react and respond to people who are living with a chronic health condition. This is an important issue, and as a government we think it’s very important that every single Albertan who is struggling with substance use is treated with respect and dignity and has access to the treatment and the supports they need as quickly as possible.
Dr. Swann: Mr. Speaker, the people on the front lines are looking for answers, not rhetoric. Whether or not these additional powers are sufficient remains to be seen, but what is clear is that these powers are for the minister, and the commission itself reports to the minister instead of to a public health expert, a mental health and addictions expert. To the minister: how can Albertans have confidence that you will do what’s necessary, especially since it’s taken a year and a half just to get the advisory panel in place?

The Speaker: The Associate Minister of Health.

Ms Payne: Thanks, Mr. Speaker and to the member for the question. The commission will be directing aggressive action focused on six key areas, including harm reduction, treatment, prevention, en-forcement, collaboration as well as data collection and monitoring. The commission will be providing recommendations directly to my office around how we can best use the tools and the $30 million in new budget dollars for 2017 to have the best impacts quickly within our communities, and then the commission is going to be respon-sible for implementing those actions. I fully trust the members of this commission to do an excellent job. We have a very talented group assembled.

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 in Question Period on Health Information Reporting – 25 May 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Thursday, May 25, 2017

Health Information Reporting

Dr. Swann: This afternoon the Auditor General is set to release a report called Better Healthcare for Albertans, which analyzes the root causes of the government’s lack of progress in specific parts of the health care system. One way to gauge the system is to look at the AHS quarterly performance reports. However, the last quarter of 2016 came out in April 2017, and this quarter’s performance is still not on the AHS website. The PCs often delayed, changed, or stopped reporting altogether when it failed to meet targets. I had hoped that the NDP would do better. To the Minister of Health: where is the report, and why the delays?

The Speaker: The hon. Minister of Health.

Ms Hoffman: Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. I appreciate the question from the hon. member. I haven’t seen the report yet, but I will certainly follow up with AHS immediately and follow up with the House and with the public as soon as possible.

Dr. Swann: Well, last week, Mr. Speaker, the Métis Nation of Alberta released three new health reports detailing higher rates of injury, tobacco-related disease, and problems with Métis people accessing the health system. However, as Keith Gerein’s article points out, these studies are based on outdated information, inclu-ding one report that doesn’t have data more recent than 2009-10. Again to the Minister: given the importance of these issues what are you doing to improve the quality and availability of Métis health information to address specific concerns raised in the report?

The Speaker: The hon. Minister of Health.

Ms Hoffman: Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. Our govern-ment has committed to rebuilding the relationship with the indig-enous peoples of this land. In February of 2017 our government signed a 10-year framework agreement with the Métis Nation of Alberta, and we are very proud of that. This commitment includes working with indigenous communities, including the $300,000 that we used to develop these reports, and also providing analytical support to the community. We’re proud to work with them and not do things to them.

Dr. Swann: Mr. Speaker, late Friday afternoon, just ahead of a long weekend, Alberta Health posted the first-quarter opioid death reports, showing a 61 per cent increase over the same quarter in 2016, without so much as a comment from the minister, much less a thoughtful analysis of what’s working and what’s not working in our approach. Surely we deserve a higher degree of reporting and transparency. Will the minister commit today to establishing a predictable, monthly reporting to the public and some analysis of how the program is working? If not, why not?

Ms Hoffman: Thank you very much for the question. Mr. Speaker, we had a choice. As soon as the data was available, we chose to release it rather than holding on to that data and waiting through the whole weekend. We thought it was important to be open and public with that data, so we made it available as soon as we possibly could. In terms of availability I was actually at a press conference that afternoon where we were talking about work that we’re doing to help with truth and reconciliation as well as with missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. I’m very happy to answer questions, and if the member has some that he’d like to pose, I would be happy to continue to enter into this dialogue. We’ve been doing extensive work, and we want to be open with our data. That’s why we made it available as soon as possible.

Dr. Swann Member Statement on Opioid Use – 25 May 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Thursday, May 25, 2017.

Member Statement – Opioid Use

The opioid death crisis is unprecedented, ripping apart families of all socioeconomic groups, including First Nations. The continual and dramatic increases in opioid deaths since 2013 are extremely saddening given that they are all preventable. While we see increased investment, it’s not clear that mental health experts are leading, what the overall strategy is, or how current efforts are being evaluated since there has been no public analysis and reporting. Last year we had 363 deaths due to fentanyl. In the first three months of this year 113 Albertans lost their lives, a 61 per cent increase in deaths over the same period of 2016.

We’re starting to see the same disturbing trends here as in B.C., without basic analysis of why we continue to lose ground even after four years, nor have we chosen to call this a public health emergency to mobilize all related resources. This is a mistake. B.C.’s declaration of a public health emergency led to resources being mobilized through the Health ministry across all government departments and between all stakeholders in a co-ordinated plan, with monthly reporting on what is working and what is not. Alberta struggles to report quarterly on fentanyl and other opioid deaths. B.C. embraced an early harm-reduction measure, including safe injection sites. We have yet to see a safe injection site in Alberta.

Naloxone kits are undoubtedly saving lives. The associate minister yesterday admitted there were 1,130 life-saving doses of naloxone given in the first three months of this year. That’s 13 near deaths every day in Alberta. Clearly, we are not getting ahead of this devastation.

Wait times have improved for opioid replacement therapy, but outside of Edmonton and Calgary people seeking help continue to wait too long.

Numbers are not enough. There is a troubling lack of analysis of what changes are needed and where for an accurate picture of this epidemic. Strong new leadership from a mental health and addic-tions expert is needed, who can focus and oversee an evidence-based, co-ordinated plan and overcome the silos. This terribly stigmatized illness needs a new approach, and now is the time for the government to admit that its approach is not working.

This is the most important preventable public health crisis of our time. The lives of our children depend on it.

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.