Sunday, 2 March 2014

Standing Up

The first time I saw an MLA on the run was prior to the 1982 provincial election.  The Social Studies teacher at the small Sexsmith Secondary School where I was librarian had arranged to host the first all-candidates forum. Diploma exams had just come in and two of our high school boys began questioning the PC Candidate about their validity. These were two smart kids, both on my Reach for the Top team (one is now an assistant superintendent of schools and the other is an international tax accountant) who had good, well researched questions. The MLA, a soft-spoken agricultural researcher, did not have answers. He did not attend another forum before the election.

The second time was shortly after Ralph Klein imposed his cuts in 2003. Our PC MLA was holding some kind of love-in at our local mall.  The teachers from our local primary school showed up wearing bandannas over their mouths to symbolize the gag order that had been placed on many provincial government workers.  They started asking questions. A grade two teacher, a well loved, grandmotherly little lady, started scolding "our girl Pearl," reprimanding her for saying teachers only worked 200 days a year. "The legislature only sat for 38 days last year, Pearl," the teacher said. "Did you only work for 38 days? Shame on you!"  It was a classic moment. The MLA was literally and figuratively backed into a corner. Rumour has it she asked her riding president to call the RCMP.
Last week some tensions regarding healthcare in Slave Lake came to a bit of head at a protest outside the offices of MD 124. Services had been dwindling for years, exacerbated by the 2011 wildfires that saw several doctors lose their homes and leave the community and a new provincially implemented model of delivery that led to more doctors resigning. 

I'm a Social Studies teacher.  I try to practice what I teach. When I first realized what was happening, I did my own research into the issue. I sent many letters to my MLA, Alberta Health Services and the Minister of Health. So did others. No answer. Time to call in the fourth estate. I sent a letter to the Edmonton Journal, the local Lakeside Leader, and the Grande Prairie Herald Tribune. I contacted CBC, CTV and they, along with our local newspapers and Global News attended a town hall meeting hosted by Friends of Medicare and a local advocacy group where our Mayor and the NDP and Wildrose healthcare critics spoke. Our own MLA had a "prior commitment." The Edmonton Journal covered it the next day. 

The next day the media interviewed Health Minister Fred Horne and he said "Slave Lake has more than enough resources to meet its needs." This absurd statement, combined with the lack of communication from AHS, led to outrage. People were talking roadblocks to make the government sit up and listen. Saturday I sat in a hotel room in the city and set up a Facebook group with a couple of other ladies. In 20 minutes we had 80 members. We planned a "silent protest." Suddenly people were making signs, sharing information, talking strategy. It felt good to be doing something.  

The night before the rally we got wind of the fact that at the MLA's request, the location was going to change. Or maybe it wasn't. Or maybe it was. Around 6 pm MD 124 posted that the meeting was being moved from main street to their office on the highway out of town.  That just seemed to rile people up more and even though it was -25 that morning, by 9:45  there were 125 people there. Moms with kids in strollers, retired teachers and other seniors, guys from the oilpatch, business people, professionals, newcomers and oldtimers- a real community event.  Not exactly a silent protest and our MLA was once again put on notice. After the meeting started people stood outside the window of the board room peering in and holding up their signs. The meeting lasted seven and a half hours. That evening our story was on the CTV news and the next morning Edmonton AM. We have been told via our Mayor's blog that significant progress has been made.  On March 5 a rally was held at the provincial legislature and later that day I was interviewed by CBC's As it Happens about the Slave Lake situation.

Social Studies teachers encourage their students to use critical thinking skills to form and support a position on an issue and to practice appropriate forms of dissent as citizens in a democracy. We know it doesn't always work.  Maybe it won't this time. But as a teacher I will continue to stand up. Among many other things, that is my job.