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A blast from the past: Oh, those Tories and their stories!

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Ed Ewasiuk

On May 7, 1991, Ray Speaker, the minister of municipal affairs in the Progressive Conservative government of Alberta, rose in the provincial Legislature in response to a member's question about a story that had appeared the morning before in the Calgary Herald.

The question was asked by Ed Ewasiuk, the New Democrat MLA for Edmonton-Beverly, who was well known as an aggressive advocate for the rights of the poor and working people.

"Yesterday the minister and his colleagues announced that they've finally started initiatives to provide housing in the inner cities, which of course are very necessary, although, I submit, inadequate to meet the immediate needs of the homeless in Alberta," Ewasiuk said by way of introduction to his question to the minister.

Now, you may think 23 years and 24 days is a long time for me to wait to commentate on this, but it was brought forcibly to my attention last weekend when I made a project of cleaning up a derelict filing cabinet full of paper dating to that long-ago time.

And there was a shiny piece of inexpensive facsimile paper, turned a pale straw colour from age, with the pages from Hansard recording Ewasiuk's question and Speaker's, to me, evocative response. (It was faxed to me by the late Sheldon Chumir, I should note.) Before I consign it to the blue bag, I thought I'd share it with the readers of Alberta Diary.

Ewasiuk, who died in 2006, went on: "Behind the cautious optimism of housing advocates is the serious concern that the commitment to housing is only a shell game. While the minister was able to find $15 million for inner-city housing, he did so by robbing $14 million from the rural and native housing program of his department. … How can the minister say that social housing is a priority for this government when it has cut from one needy group to help another?"

Mr. Speaker (the minister, not the president of the Legislature) got up on his hind legs -- an impressive sight, as he was not a short man -- adjusted the button on his suit coat, and responded, more in sadness than in anger as I recall the tone of his voice over my TV set.

"One or two days ago I raised the fact that often my research in this Legislature when I sat on that side of the House was from the daily papers," Speaker said. "Often I found even as a member of the Opposition that that research was based on false information and I was misled in the House. We find that here again today…"

"I want to make it very clear," he went on a few moments later, after a mild shot at "our learned colleagues that sit in the upper gallery," a sly suggestion that those who toiled for what was still known in those pre-Internet days as The Press might not be all that learned, "that the article that was written by Mr. David Climenhaga of the Calgary Herald has more than one inaccuracy, and it is my intent to address those by direct letter to the author." (Emphasis added.)

For the sake of time management, let us now summarize the rest of Speaker's argument more briefly than he did: It was simply a matter of priorities. Some things are priorities, and some things are not, especially when the principal object of a government is to balance the budget -- as it was mostly agreed then in Alberta it should be, and as it apparently still is.

To facilitate such decision making, he explained, the government of the day drafted a priority list and it was from that list the necessary decisions were made.

"There was not a loss of the dollars, just a proper priority reallocation, and I think that should be clear in this Legislature," he concluded, and the story duly died.

Ah, but there is a coda, if that's the word, because the story never really ended.

You see, I never received my letter. Indeed, I strongly suspect there never was a letter. And there never was a letter, it is said here, because the story was right.

Of course, still being serious about the things back in the days when I was a journalist, I am quite prepared to use this space to set the record straight should the letter turn up (perhaps after one of those lost-in-a-mailbag-in-Stettler-for-23-years-and-24-days stories) and the arguments in it prove to be suitably persuasive.

In the meantime, however, as we used to say back in the days of The Press, David Climenhaga stands by his story: the Progressive Conservative government of Alberta, grown lazy and arrogant after 20 years in power, robbed Peter to pay Paul, and put out a press release to mislead the public.

The Alberta New Democrats called them on it.

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

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

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