An estimated 13,000-plus public sector supporters rallied at the Alberta legislature on Feb. 27.
Alberta’s public sector needs to band together and fight the government’s budget restraint.
That was the message conveyed during a series of protests held around the province in late February.
The first event was a march and rally held Thursday, Feb. 27, at the Alberta legislature in Edmonton.
“If we value Alberta, we value what we stand for, then we need to fight for it, ladies and gentlemen, and we need to do it together,” said Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association. “We need your voice in every town and every city across this province to stand united.”
A representative of the Edmonton Police Service estimated the crowd at between 13,000 and 14,000.
Organized by the ATA’s Edmonton public and Catholic locals, the demonstration began with a march to the legislature from the Edmonton Convention Centre, where the Greater Edmonton Teachers’ Convention took place earlier in the day.
The event followed the government’s announcement of a budget that requires school boards to dip into their reserves, includes a six per cent cut to post-secondary funding, and increases health spending by 0.3 per cent, which critics say is far short of the 2.9 per cent required to keep up with inflation and population growth.
Teachers were joined by others in the public sector, including nurses, social workers, post-secondary students and artists. The various speakers were routinely interrupted by boisterous cheering and chants.
Among the chants heard during the event were “Shame on you! Shame on you!”, “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! UCP has got to go!” and “The people, united, will never be divided!”
Many signs were also in full display, bearing messages such as “stop the cuts,” “hands off our pensions” and “straight outta patience.”
Addressing the crowd, former ATA president Larry Booi emphasized the need for a concerted resistance effort.
“Fighting back makes a difference and fighting back in smart and sustained ways makes a big difference,” he shouted.
He suggested “triple-A advocacy,” whereby public sector workers get more angry, more active and more allies.
“The biggest potential ally of all is members of the public,” Booi said. “We need to work hard to earn their support and work with them as partners, and they will do so because of the crucial services you provide to their children, parents, grandparents and families in so many ways.”
A pair of Edmonton teachers who spoke to the ATA News said they were attending the rally because they care about their students and are concerned about their futures.
“We’re worried about losing our jobs,” said one teacher. “Both of us are in a position where there are severe cuts at our school, and they might not be able to maintain the staff, and they may have to increase class sizes.”
“It’s pensions and class sizes,” said teacher Larry Kuzminski when asked which issues brought him to the demonstration.
“I’m worried about younger teachers,” he added. “I feel, if the class sizes go up, you’re going to have a lot more teachers going on stress leave because it’s insurmountable for some, especially younger teachers – they’re just getting their feet on the ground.”
Rallies around the province
The next day, subsequent rallies also took place in Banff, Calgary, Grande Prairie, Medicine Hat and Red Deer.
“We didn’t vote for this. We didn’t vote for economic chaos. We didn’t vote for hate,” said Rory Gill, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees in Alberta, speaking at Calgary’s city hall.
“We in the labour movement are ready to stand up and we’re going to fight austerity.”
Barb Silva of the Calgary-based advocacy group Support Our Students, said the United Conservative Party is undermining public education.
“We are here to reclaim public education, to fight alongside everyone here for every child whose right to a free, universal, equitable, public education depends on us to defend them,” Silva said.
In Grande Prairie, teacher and Provincial Executive Council member Peter MacKay said the government isn’t keeping its election promises.
“We’ve worked with Conservatives before, but they have to be able to work with us and they have to be honest, and they have to keep their promises.” ❚