Dr. David Suzuki (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Good news for Alberta taxpayers! The University of Alberta has not sought, is not seeking, and will not seek a “bailout” — or anything like a bailout — from the taxpayers of Alberta.

Let’s say it again: Hasn’t happened. Isn’t happening. Won’t happen.

I mention this because of the startling headline on a Canadian Taxpayers Federation news release that showed up on social media yesterday morning: “Albertans say ‘no’ to bailout for U of A.”

WTF, I thought when I saw that. Since when was the U of A seeking a bailout?

It’s not, of course. And that’s official. Yes, I checked with the university.

The highly tendentious news release, which was sent out by Colin Craig, Alberta Director of the self-described “tax watchdog,” goes on to say this: “The Canadian Taxpayers Federation released poll results today that show 65 per cent of Albertans oppose a government bailout for the University of Alberta if its donations continue to suffer due to its decision to give David Suzuki an honorary degree.” (Emphasis added.)

Dr. Suzuki is the well-known Canadian biologist, author and broadcast personality whose views about the Alberta oilsands were controversial in this province even before the U of A decided to award him an honorary degree, which is scheduled to be presented on Thursday.

The CTF news release goes on: “‘The university should take note that Albertans don’t support bailing it out if it proceeds with giving an honorary degree to anti-Alberta activist David Suzuki,’ said CTF Alberta Director Colin Craig. ‘Suzuki is a guy that routinely attacks Alberta’s energy industry while flying all over the world and telling Canadians to watch their carbon footprint. He’s the last person the university should recognize.'”

This much from that passage is verifiably true: There is a public opinion poll. Much of the rest is a stretch.

The news release begins by spinning one question on the poll, which was done by Ipsos Public Affairs for the CTF and didn’t mention the University of Alberta but asked if respondents agreed with the statement, “Federal and provincial governments should not bail out public institutions who lose private donors due to their decisions to grant honorary degrees to controversial figures.”

Regardless of what one thinks of his view of oilsands development, it is certainly false to say, as the CTF release does, that Suzuki is an “anti-Alberta activist.”

As for calling Suzuki the last person the U of A should recognize, that’s an opinion to which Craig and his colleagues at the CTF are entitled, even if some of us respectfully disagree.

In its own press release, Ipsos stated more accurately, “The poll reveals Albertans’ views about the topic are diverse and highly divided.” Nevertheless, I was surprised a respected public opinion firm like Ipsos took part in a project of this nature, since the thrust of some questions could be interpreted by a fair-minded person as an effort to push respondents toward certain conclusions.

For example, in one, respondents were asked if they agreed with the statement, “Governments should review the funding of Canadian public institutions who offer honorary degrees to controversial figures who do not align with the public mission and principles of the institution.” Couldn’t this be taken in context as a suggestion the University of Alberta was not acting in accord with its public mission in the case of Suzuki’s award?

In another, respondents were asked if they agreed, “I will have a worsened impression of the University of Alberta if they follow through and award an honorary degree to David Suzuki.” Interestingly, nearly half the respondents disagreed with that statement, suggesting Suzuki is far more popular in Alberta than the CTF would like us to believe. The CTF’s news release, by the way, didn’t mention that, only that 41 per cent agreed.

Certainly, before asking the question, both the CTF and the pollster should have asked the university if it was in fact seeking a “bailout” or some other replacement for funds that may have been withdrawn by donors protesting Suzuki’s honour.

I cannot tell you with certainty they did not, because neither Craig nor Ipsos Vice-President Jamie Duncan, listed on their respective news releases as contacts for media, responded to my queries yesterday. If they did, however, they didn’t speak to the same university official I did.

One of the questions asked by the pollster made reference to “the public mission and principles of the institution.” In its mission statement, the U of A lists its values in part as “intellectual integrity, freedom of inquiry and expression” and “academic freedom and institutional autonomy as fundamental to open inquiry and the pursuit of truth.”

On those grounds, an honorary degree for Suzuki seems reasonable.

As for the university, even if there were a serious drop in donations as a result of the award, it will not require a bailout from taxpayers because donation funds are not used by the U of A for day-to-day operations. One Calgary law firm is known to have pulled $40,000 of a $100,000 commitment. Other than that, it’s not at all clear there’s been much impact.

Why a supposed “tax watchdog” would be interested in this story is not clear until we recall that despite its claims of non-partisanship, the CTF generally provides partisan support to right-wing political parties. This of course includes Alberta’s United Conservative Party, headed by Jason Kenney, a former CTF operative and executive.

So the explanation for the CTF’s interest in this situation, and its not-very-credible efforts to spin the poll results, may be tied to Kenney’s statements in February attacking the Alberta Teachers Association for inviting Suzuki to speak at a meeting. A column by a Calgary Sun columnist repeating Kenney’s talking points, interestingly, uses very similar language about Suzuki as yesterday’s CTF news release.

The Sun’s stenography may also provide a hint why some mainstream media outlets continue to report statements from the CTF that are clearly without much merit.

The U of A has courageously stuck to its decision to award Suzuki the honorary degree. Suzuki is expected to attend the ceremony on Thursday to accept it.

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

Photo: David J. Climenhaga

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David J. Climenhaga

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 with the Globe...