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Deputy Premier Tom Lukaszuk: The wrong man to solve Alberta's jail crisis

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Tom Lukaszuk

"You know what a tense, sensitive and dangerous situation like an illegal strike at a prison needs? Thomas Lukaszuk."

So Tweeted well-known Edmonton New Democrat Lou Arab yesterday, the self-described political geek, Internet junkie, father, husband and smartass sarcastically nailing the problem with the Alberta government's borderline bizarre response to the wildcat strike by provincial jail guards at eight correctional facilities across the province.

Stompin' Tom Lukaszuk? The guy the Edmonton Sun once dubbed Mr. T. when he chased a car full of kids he reckoned were breaking the law through the snowy streets of an Edmonton bedroom community? The master of the ill-considered Tweet?

Lukaszuk is Progressive Conservative Premier Alison Redford's deputy, the fellow who after last month's budget was hurriedly assigned the additional job of delivering the nasty financial news to Alberta's post-secondary institutions. He is undiplomatic at best, not particularly thoughtful and quite capable of pouring gasoline on a blazing fire.

Now the premier's handed him responsibility for managing a dangerous jail wildcat by members of the 80,000-plus-member Alberta Union of Provincial Employees -- and as Arab points out, he is exactly the wrong man for the job.

Pouring gasoline on a fire is pretty much what Lukaszuk did when he appeared at an afternoon news conference and all but called the Correctional Officers liars for saying the main reason for their walkout was workplace safety at the just-opened Edmonton Remand Centre, then announced he would have nothing to say to them until they'd surrendered and shuffled back to work.

The $580-million facility that may be Canada's largest jail is where the wildcat began when two Correctional Officers were disciplined by management earlier this week for complaining about the safety problems at the jail, which only opened two weeks ago.

Excuse me, but if you were the minister facing a wildcat strike by 2,500 tough Correctional Officers, wouldn't you at least want to keep the door open a crack to finding a solution? This doesn't mean saying there will be no consequences for illegal actions, but it does mean being prepared to sit down and try to figure out how to negotiate an end to a dangerous dispute.

Not Stompin' Tom! "We will not be negotiating with a union that chooses to engage in illegal activity," he kept telling reporters at a hastily called news conference yesterday afternoon.

By late yesterday, the Alberta Labour Relations Board had naturally done the government's bidding and ordered the approximately 2,500 Correctional Peace Officers, as the guards are technically known, to return to their jobs.

Never mind the fact that the guards have been publicly complaining about the safety implications of the way the Remand Centre was planned and built, literally since they first saw the blueprints, while they were studiously ignored by the Solicitor General's department and everyone else in the government..

A couple of hundred rambunctious union members attending an Alberta Federation of Labour convention briefly invaded and occupied the hearing room at the Labour Board's downtown headquarters, chanting their support for the guards and adding to the surreal sense the province is spinning out of control under Premier Redford's uncertain hand.

By late evening, striking Correctional Officers were receiving threatening emails from the government warning them of dire consequences of staying on strike.

So by midnight last night, the guards remained in a surly mood, with dozens still defiantly blocking all the still-poorly lit entrances to the locked-down Remand Centre.

Inside the monster jail, a skeleton crew of managers and Mounties was trying to control the 1,100 prisoners who had just been moved in last week -- many of them technically innocent and awaiting trial -- by keeping the place on permanent lockdown. Needless to say, this is not going to improve the mood of the inmates -- particularly if they are only fed cold baloney sandwiches today.

For all the power that a government has, the striking jail guards may turn out to be tougher guys than Lukaszuk, no matter what his Sun News press clippings say.

The guards are certainly tougher than Lukaszuk's most-recent targets, a bunch of shell-shocked university administrators and teachers who until March thought the worst they were likely to face was loss of some of their promised stable and predictable funding. And that was before the Mounties' overtime bills came due!

So where is Dave Hancock, you ask, Alberta's bright and diplomatic human services minister, a lawyer who just might have the skills to unravel a difficult situation like this one? No sign of him.

Instead, only Jonathan Denis, the province's Solicitor General, stood meekly at the deputy premier's side yesterday while Lukaszuk gave the guards their talking to and claimed the inmates were "trashing" the new facility.

"We live in a law abiding society and we expect people to obey the law," Denis said in his minor contribution to the news conference. "Just as our government has to obey the law, we expect the union to obey the law as well," he added, prompting general hilarity from that rather large contingent of Albertans who share the view this government isn't really very good at obeying its own rules.

More Mounties are expected to arrive from Saskatchewan today to help inside the jails. Correctional Officers from Saskatchewan are expected to turn up on the picket lines outside.

No matter who visits from Saskatchewan, this latest mishandled crisis adds to the sense the Redford Government is not capable of handing the complex task of running a province as rich and large as Alberta.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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