EDMONTON - Today's Supreme Court decision upholding controversial changes to Alberta's Local Authorities Election Act may be a narrow technical victory for the provincial government - but it's a real setback for democracy in the province, says the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
Up until 2004, teachers and other school board employees were prohibited from running for election in the school districts where they worked on the grounds that, if elected, they would be in a position of conflict of interest. School board workers never challenged those restrictions.
But in the wake of the province-wide teachers' strike of 2004, Klein government MLAs successfully rammed through an amendment to the Act that now prohibits school board employees from sitting as trustees on any school board in the province.
"Effective measures to deal with conflict of interest were already in place - so the amendment was never really about that," says AFL president Gil McGowan. "Instead, it was a mean-spirited 'payback' law - plain and simple. It was aimed at teachers but ended up affecting all school board workers. And it was clearly intended to stop them from flexing their democratic muscles."
In an 8-1 decision, the high court ruled that, since the provincial government "created the opportunity" for people to run for office as school trustees through provincial statute, it has the right to take that opportunity away. Provincial governments have the right to take these steps, the court said, because municipal and school board governments are not subject to the same protections and guarantees about who can stand for and hold public office as federal and provincial governments.
The majority also ruled that school board employees have other avenues available to them to express their concerns or political beliefs - like writing letters to the editor.
"This decision should be an eye-opener for all Canadians," said McGowan. "Most people assume that our municipal governments and schools are truly independent and open to participation by all qualified citizens. What this ruling shows is that, by being excluded from mention in the Constitution alongside provincial and federal governments, local governments are truly the poor cousins of our democracy."
McGowan says that if whole categories of people can be unilaterally excluded from participation at the whim of a provincial legislature, it calls into question the legitimacy of all local governments.
"This time it was school board workers who they came after," says McGowan. "Who will it be next time?"
McGowan agreed with Justice Fish who wrote in his dissent that the right of school board workers to freedom of expression should extend to the right to run in school board elections:
"Seeking and holding office as a school trustee & is a uniquely effective means of expressing one's views on education policy. It is cold comfort indeed for school employees, who are barred from themselves serving as trustees, to be told that they nonetheless remain free to talk to those who can, or to write letters to their local newspapers. The voices of school employees are simply unlikely to be heard over the din of those who actually run for office and serve if elected." (Baier v. Alberta, 2007, para. 107)
McGowan says he will write a letter to Premier Stelmach asking him to amend the election act again to return to its pre-2004 approach to dealing with questions of conflict-of-interest.
"The Supreme Court has ruled that it's within the Alberta government's power to do what it has done. But that's not the same thing as saying what they've done is right or morally defensible," says McGowan. "Given all his promises about the need to promote greater accountability and democracy in this province, I'll be asking the Premier to do the right thing and tear up this amendment."
The challenge against the amendments to the Local Authorities Elections Act was launched by the Alberta Teachers Association on behalf of several of its members. The ATA won at the lower court level and lost at the Appeal level before appearing before the Supreme Court in November.
The AFL joined the ATA at the Supreme Court as an intervener speaking on behalf of unionized Alberta school board employees who are not teachers.
To see the Supremem Court decision, go here
For more information contact:
Gil McGowan, President Bus: (780) 483-3021 Cell: (780) 218-9888