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Appointment of Michael Phair as chair U of A Board of Governors sends exactly the right message

Michael Phair

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The appointment of Michael Phair as chair of the University of Alberta's Board of Governors sends exactly the right message in several ways -- about Alberta, about Alberta’s government, about the Alberta government's views on post-secondary education.

It says Alberta has a diverse and open society. It says the government of this province is committed to encouraging and fostering that reality. And it says that, despite hard times, the NDP treats higher education as a priority that needs to thrive, especially in challenging economic conditions.

Phair, who is 65 and was born in Wisconsin, is a former Edmonton city councillor who served in that role for 15 years. He retired from that elected job in 2007. He's also a U of A adjunct professor in the Education Faculty and has been a teacher at two other Alberta universities. He is a tireless campaigner to end homelessness, and right now is the executive director of the North Saskatchewan River Valley Conservation Society. There's a school named after him.

He is respected, in other words, as Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt remarked when he made the announcement of the selection yesterday morning.

And, yes, an important part of Phair's personal story is that he is a longtime LGBTQ activist who is said to have been the first openly gay elected official in Alberta. He's also a member of the advisory committee for the Institute of Sexual Minority Studies & Services at the U of A.

And while we live in hope the day will come soon when the fact someone is openly gay will be as irrelevant to a job application as their being openly straight, Phair's tremendous courage in publicly being who he is when he was elected back in 1992 deserves great praise. It’s a big part of why so many people respect him.

That respect really shone through the almost universally enthusiastic reaction the announcement received from a wide variety of commenters on social media, despite just a couple of churlish Tweets from an alienated and powerless former Tory cabinet minister and a crotchety newspaper columnist who apparently judged Phair's record on city council to be too progressive.

"What splendid news," said Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson in a Tweet that more accurately reflected the general tone of the reaction.

The U of A board chair is appointed to a three-year term. In theory, the chair can be appointed for up to 10 consecutive terms. There's no pay for the nevertheless important role, although expenses allowed by the board's bylaws can be collected.

Perhaps Phair's appointment will send a positive message of change to those Alberta school boards that are still resisting fair treatment of sexual minority students.

Phair's appointment also brings to an end another political story. He replaces, if he doesn't exactly succeed, Douglas Goss, who resigned as chair of the board last summer.

Goss, a lawyer, businessman and long-time Progressive Conservative supporter, had little choice but to quit after shooting himself in both feet, figuratively speaking, hours before the election of Premier Rachel Notley's New Democratic Party majority on May 5, 2015.

Goss and four other prominent Edmonton-area businessmen called a news conference on May 1 in the Jasper Avenue boardroom of Melcor Developments to assail Albertans for even pondering electing an NDP government, as polling accurately suggested they might be about to do. The Melcor Five urged voters to support then-premier Jim Prentice's PCs instead.

After the storm of controversy generated by the tone-deaf quintet and notwithstanding a vote by the rest of the U of A Board on May 8 to keep Goss around as chair, he did the sensible thing under the circumstances and pulled the plug on July 21.

The other shoe has now dropped.

PCs execute U-turn on nomination process in Calgary-Greenway byelection

You'd almost think we've entered a new era in politics in Alberta in which politicians are willing to admit publicly they might have made a mistake and openly change course.

The NDP has done it, and the now latest Alberta politician to make a screeching U-turn in the face of public criticism is interim PC Leader Ric McIver, who late Wednesday backed away from a decision unpopular with many of the party’s own supporters to appoint a candidate to run in the Calgary-Greenway riding.

Whoops! McIver said on social media, now the normal venue for Alberta political announcements, that he was responding to the "countless Albertans" who objected to the appointment of Prabhdeep Singh as candidate without a nomination election.

Instead, McIver said, there will be "a fair and open nomination process" after all, which is not necessarily the party's tradition in the riding. There are several other candidates.

The byelection was called Tuesday by Premier Notley to fill the seat left vacant by the death in a highway crash PC MLA Manmeet Bhullar on Nov. 23. The byelection is scheduled to take place on March 22.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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