Hundreds rally against public spending cuts

EDMONTON - Hundreds of chanting protesters from across the province marched through downtown Edmonton to the Alberta legislature on Saturday, demanding the provincial government stop spending cuts to public services.

One group, made up mainly of students, marched from Grant Mac-Ewan University. Another, made up of more than 150 people including social workers from around Alberta, seniors and people with disabilities, marched from the Shaw Conference Centre.

Cars honked to show support as the line of demonstrators paraded down Jasper Avenue, chanting, carrying flags and signs and holding lengths of coloured fabric intended to represent the fabric of Alberta's communities. Gary F. Johnston, who is blind, used the fabric to guide him as he marched to the rally.

"I don't agree with job cuts," said Johnston, who came by bus with a group from Calgary to attend the event. "It's not that Alberta can't afford it here."

About 400 people converged at the legislature early Saturday afternoon to oppose government cuts announced in February as part of the 2010-11 provincial budget. Many protesters wore plaid scarves of green, blue and gold, distributed at 22 town hall meetings across the province organized by Join Together Alberta.

The coalition of unions has been holding the meetings and urging citizens to speak out against cuts to public services they say will lengthen health-care wait times, increase school class sizes and undermine services for vulnerable Albertans such as people with disabilities.

Demonstrators waving union flags and carrying signs that read "Stop the Cuts" and "Education is a Right" cheered and chanted as they listened to several speakers, including Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour and a key organizer of Saturday's rally.
"Since the provincial budget came down on Feb. 9, I've been trying to understand the process behind it," McGowan told the crowd. "I've been trying to get into the heads of people like Ed Stelmach and (Finance Minister) Ted Morton, and I guess that might explain why I'm feeling a little under the weather."

McGowan criticized the government for responding to the global recession by eliminating public service jobs, freezing wages, cutting employment programs "and slashing services for families in need."

"Who believes that Alberta, Canada's richest province by almost any definition, can no longer afford all these services that we currently have?" McGowan said.

"We know that public services strengthen the fabric of our communities and our economy. We know that investments in things like schools and colleges and infrastructure are absolutely crucial to a more prosperous and equitable future."

Grade 11 Harry Ainlay student Mallory Chipman, who organized the student march, told the crowd she was "shocked" and disappointed at the cuts announced in the provincial budget, especially those that will drive up the cost of post-secondary education.

"A post-secondary education is beyond expensive already," Chipman said. "Increasing it by hundreds of dollars makes it that much more difficult for us as students to achieve this level of education. Is post-secondary education in this province going to be only for the wealthy? Are the oil rigs going to be the only answer for those who want to make a decent living, but can't afford to pursue a higher education?"

The government has made $1.3 billion in cuts to areas such as environment, children and youth services and employment. However, that money is being reinvested back into priority areas such as health and education, said Alberta Finance spokesman Bart Johnson.

Alberta Health Services will get a one-time debt repayment of $759 million and a massive 17-percent increase in its operating budget. School boards will receive $250 million more. Funding for programs for people with developmental disabilities will stay the same, as will the Alberta Seniors Benefit and AISH.

"So there were cuts in other areas of government, but the focus was on protecting funding in those most important areas, being health, education and supports for seniors and the vulnerable," Johnson said.

"Given what we were up against as a province -- a large deficit with our revenues having dropped off significantly in the past two years -- I think we struck a good balance in terms of reducing costs in some areas of program spending and increasing or maintaining costs in those most important areas."

Edmonton Journal, Sun Mar 21 2010
Calgary Herald, Sun Mar 21 2010
Byline: Andrea Sands

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