Tories accused of muzzling critics

Catholic board warned comments could delay new school decision

A culture of "political extortion" practised by the Alberta government has been laid bare in a recent letter from northern Conservative MLA Hector Goudreau to a school board, opposition parties allege.

In the Feb. 9 letter obtained by The Journal, Goudreau warned the Holy Family Catholic School Division that criticism of the government could imperil the district's chances of funding for a new school.

"In order for your community to have the opportunity to receive a new school, you and your school board will have to be very diplomatic from here on out," the DunveganCentral Peace MLA tells district superintendent Betty Turpin.

"I advise you to be cautious as to how you approach future communications, as your comments could be upsetting to some individuals. This could delay the decision on a new school."

He does not say who "some individuals" might be.

The letter came in response to an email from Turpin the day before, in which she petitioned Goudreau to ask a question in the legislature about funding to replace the dilapidated Holy Family School in Grimshaw. The district has been campaigning for several years to replace or repair the facility, which is plagued with deficient heating, ventilation, plumbing and electrical systems. Students regularly have to wear jackets to use the gym or library.

The conditions at the school were brought to light in a Jan. 26 Edmonton Journal article, in which Turpin was quoted.

"It's frustrating and it's concerning, and it would be totally unacceptable somewhere else," she said in the article. "We can't understand why we're being ignored. We don't know what we have not done for somebody to wake up and see this."

School district officials also prepared a video detailing Holy Family's problems and sent it to provincial authorities, including Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk.

Though Goudreau backtracked from his comments in two more letters to the district on Feb. 14 and Feb. 15, opposition parties say the tone of his original letter is the most damning evidence to date of the Conservatives using bullying tactics to blunt criticism.

"This is how the PCs operate, it's just that usually they do it verbally rather than put it in writing," Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson said. "It's political extortion. It's corruption. You've got these PC politicians running around saying, 'If you don't keep your mouth shut, or if you don't support us, you are not going get your money.' "

Anderson said while the Tories will try to portray the letter as an isolated incident from one backbench MLA, people are beginning to recognize a pattern of behaviour from the government.

Opposition parties have been busy over the last few months detailing instances of municipalities, universities and other public institutions that bought tickets to PC party fundraisers. Though the practice is illegal, such institutions do it anyway out of fear that skipping such events could jeopardize their funding, the opposition says.

In addition, there was a recent spat with Alberta Urban Municipalities Association president Linda Sloan, who suggested partisanship plays a role in how grant money is handed out to municipalities. The claim provoked Premier Alison Redford's chief of staff, Stephen Carter, to post a remark on Twitter accusing Sloan of lying - he was later ordered to apologize - while Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths had vowed to boycott an association breakfast.

The Health Quality Council of Alberta also recently completed an extensive review that found there has been widespread intimidation and muzzling of physicians who advocate for their patients. The province has vowed to fix the problem, but also decided an upcoming public inquiry won't delve further into the issue.

Anderson said Redford's election as PC leader last year was supposed to bring a change of tone in the government, but it hasn't happened.

"Alison Redford's word has as much credibility as Kim Kardashian's wedding vows right now," he said. "I think most people are saying, 'We didn't agree with (former premier) Ed Stelmach on many things, but at least he was honest."

NDP Leader Brian Mason said Goudreau's letter was the most blatant example he has seen of a culture of intimidation used by the PCs.

"Mr. Goudreau has done everyone in public life a great service by showing very explicitly how this government maintains control."

Liberal Leader Raj Sherman called the letter an attack on freedom of speech, while Alberta Party Leader Glenn Taylor said it shows the government makes decisions "based on who talks the nicest."

Dianne Lavoie is board chairwoman of the Holy Family Catholic Regional Division. She said her organization was disappointed and surprised at Goudreau's message, but was relieved when the MLA softened his stance in two subsequent letters.

In the Feb. 14 letter from Goudreau, he said he "did not mean to imply that an investment in a new school was contingent on certain actions."

A Feb. 15 letter went further. While Goudreau said he was "displeased" with the district's comments on Holy Family School, he admitted his initial response was inappropriate.

"I am also concerned that I left you with an inaccurate impression of how the government of Alberta makes school capital decisions, and I regret that," he wrote. "All government decisions regarding school capital projects are merit-based."

Lukaszuk said he spoke with Goudreau shortly after learning about the original letter.

"He had some time to think about it and he retracted his comments and I'm glad he did because my comments to him were such that I simply would not support him or approve the content of his initial letter."

The education minister denied the allegations that Goudreau's approach was typical of how the government operates. He said his mandate from Redford is to always act in a collaborative spirit, despite inevitable disagreements.

"This is a behaviour I would have never condoned, nor would I have ever acted that way," he said. "If I was to have this type of relationship with a school board, I would be packing my desk and I imagine I wouldn't be a minister tomorrow.

"This was simply an unfortunate letter, perhaps not well thoughtout, and hopefully with no residual consequences."

Goudreau, 61, could not be reached for comment Friday. He served in three different portfolios in Stelmach's cabinet, but was not included in Redford's inner circle.

A spokesman for the premier said Goudreau is not expected to face any disciplinary action. He is running for re-election this spring.

Edmonton Journal, Sat Mar 3 2012
Byline: Keith Gerein

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