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'Fair deal' panel town hall fails to stoke support for Wexit

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The "fair deal" panel in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta. Image: David Climenhaga

The visit of Premier Jason Kenney's "fair deal" panel to Fort Saskatchewan, an industrial oil town just northeast of Edmonton, may have been intended to be a separatist open-mike night when it was added as a stop on the travel itinerary by the UCP's brain trust.

Whatever they expected when they ginned up their maximum-pressure campaign on the federal Liberals, though, that's not what they got yesterday evening when about 100 souls braved temperatures creeping close to minus 30 to go to the town's recreation centre and offer their two cents about Alberta's role in Confederation.

Some of the folks who showed up, of course, may have just wanted to get a peek at Preston Manning, the godfather of the Canadian right and the panel's most prominent member. Alas for the curious, Manning took a powder, as he did the night before in Fort McMurray too.

But despite the panel's baked-in assumption that Alberta's getting a raw deal from the rest of Canada and its apparent effort to lead witnesses to the conclusions the government wants, plenty of people got up on their hind legs, proclaimed their love of Canada and advised the panel members they thought the province needs to start trying to work with our fellow citizens instead of just yelling at them.

"We need policies that build bridges, not walls," as one speaker put it.

That thought even seemed to have occurred to a number of speakers at the two-hour, town-hall style meeting who said they felt Alberta isn't getting a fair deal but were pretty sure making threats and throwing tantrums wasn't going to make things better.

That isn't what I was expecting when I drove to Fort Saskatchewan, and nor was the surprising number of town-hall participants who advised the panel the time has come for Alberta to join the grownups of Confederation and adopt a sales tax like every other jurisdiction in the country.

"The 'Alberta Advantage' may be a luxury we can no longer afford," said one man before calling for implementation of a sales tax.

But if any message came through with crystal clarity for MLA panel members Tany Yao, Miranda Rosin and Drew Barnes to take back to their UCP caucus-mates, it was this: "Leave our pension funds alone."

Or, more to the point, as several speakers put it, keep your hands off our Canada Pension Plan! And (one also said) we don't trust the Alberta Investment Management Corporation either.

Well, you've got to love an Edmonton crowd, where progressivism runs deep even in a small-town on the periphery where the demographics lean hard toward grey hair and pale skin.

But panel staff indicated the idea that Kenney should keep his paws off the CPP comes up everywhere. So keep that in mind when you read the panel's final report in March. If it suggests otherwise, that should set off your instinctive baloney detector.

Another thing that must come up a lot is the depredations of the UCP budget. Otherwise, why would panel chair Oryssia Lennie, a former senior civil servant, warn participants: "This is not the time to talk about the budget"?

"If you wish to speak about matters pertaining to the budget," she advised the crowd, "please contact your MLA."

More than one speaker pleaded for the environment. One reminded her neighbours that separation would mean you'll need a passport to go to Kelowna. A couple of municipal politicians scored the UCP for trying to keep them from taking federal money without getting provincial permission -- talk about adding red tape! And one young man astonished everyone with his passionate plea to decriminalize sex work. (Just think of all the tax revenue, he observed.)

And, yes, there was a little hard-core group of Wexiters who applauded each other's remarks noisily and asserted, for example, that "the climate change agenda scam is being used to push socialism, which inevitably turns to communism." Or, "the most ardent federalists seem to be taking talking points out of a union manual."

One such fellow even advised telling the rest of Canada: "It's a nice country you have here. Too bad if something happened to it. By the way, we're bringing the pension back." (You really can't make this stuff up!)

But of the 27 folks who registered to speak -- one guy previously observed by your blogger assisting George Clark of #Kudatah fame at another event spoke twice -- I counted 16 who defended Canada as it is, 10 who thought constitutional reform is needed (about half of whom had drunk the Wexit Kool-Aid), and the sex-work guy.

Every defence of the CPP got a round of spontaneous applause.

The UCP grievance campaign, as one man summarized it, is just so 2003. "Albertans do not want to leave the country, they don't want their own pension plan, and they don't want to lose the RCMP," he said. "We're in the best country in the world and it shouldn't be messed with!"

Jason Kenney, take note!

Like Manning, panel member Jason Goodstriker was also missing. The session was attended, though, by the remaining members of the panel, Stephen Lougheed, Donna Kennedy-Glans and Moin Yahya.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: David Climenhaga

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