Hundreds protest public service cuts at UCP meeting in Calgary

Hundreds of public sector workers circled the Calgary hotel hosting the governing United Conservative Party's annual general meeting Saturday, chanting and shouting in –15 C weather while about 1,600 party members met inside. 

Teachers, nurses and government workers marched in protest of cuts to public services and the potential loss of thousands of public sector jobs announced on Friday.

They carried signs that read "I love Alberta public education" and "Hands off my pension." 

They chanted "Jason Kenney has got to go" and "Shame" from across the hotel parking lot, while UCP members lined up to get lunch from food trucks contracted to supply food for the event.

Kenney's government served notice to public sector unions on Friday that up to 6,000 job cuts are on the horizon, many in health services. The cuts are billed as a way for Alberta to get its finances under control.

A police estimate put the crowd size around 700 to 1,000 people. 

Calgary Grade 9 teacher Colleen Hemsing said she attended the protest because she's concerned about what she perceives to be an attack on public services. 

"This is not about economics. This is ideology," she said. "This is our choice. We can come out and fight in the bitter cold, but it's what we have to do."

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, wore a hat commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike. 

Protesters started chanting "general strike, general strike" as McGowan addressed the crowd.

"We know that this is our moment," McGowan said. "This is our moment to stand up and push back, and that's exactly what we intend to do."

The UCP reserved the entire Westin Calgary Airport hotel for the conference so security only allowed attendees in through the door. However a group of protesters managed to get into the lobby over the dinner break and sing songs including Solidarity Forever before they were escorted outside. 

Michelle Bellefontaine/CBC

Fair Deal Panel session 

Inside the meeting, delegates passed a number of party policy resolutions, including two on education: to recognize parents or guardians as the major stakeholder in their child's education, and to put a "voucher" system in place for education.

The latter resolution is controversial as it allows the "money to follow the child." This would allow parents to allocate their child's portion of provincial funding to the school of their choice, whether it is public, Catholic, charter, private or in the home. 

Opponents say the change could gut the public school system. 

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, a proponent of school choice, said she currently has no plans to introduce a voucher system. 

"I'm just undertaking a funding and assurance review model but it does not include a voucher system," she told reporters. 

Four Alberta cabinet ministers also led a session on the Fair Deal Panel, which seeks to change Alberta's relationship with Canada. 

Energy Minister Sonya Savage, Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon, Finance Minister Travis Toews and Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer outlined proposals that the panel could look at. These included having Alberta collect its income tax, a provincial police force, an Alberta Pension Plan and a provincial firearms officer. 

Toews said if Alberta decided to pull out of the Canada Pension Plan, the provincial plan would have to offer the same benefits. He thinks a separate plan could make the province more competitive. 

"In the event there would be substantial cost savings as some of the data indicates, that would result in a much lower contribution rate for employers and employees and improve our competitiveness," he said. 

An informal straw poll showed nearly everyone who put up their hand was in favour of the panel looking at these issues. 

Last week, Kenney announced that Oryssia Lennie, the former deputy minister of Western Economic Diversification Canada, would chair the panel, which includes former Reform Party leader Preston Manning.

The panel will hold public forums across Alberta over the next two months. The first will take place in Edmonton on Tuesday.