'Let me be blunt with you, Jan': Kenney faces avalanche of complaints after cuts to parks
Debate rages over park closures and services reductions to save $5M
The United Conservative government is on the defensive after introducing cuts and closures to the provincial parks system, and plenty of people, agencies and park users lined up to push back.
The government announced it would remove 164 sites from the park system it manages in a Saturday release to news media.
It cited stats from 2018-19 indicating that fees generated $33 million yet it cost $86 million to run.
Some fees are increasing and 20 sites would close fully or partially, the release said.
It was light on details that would later be added to the parks website days later, including naming the closed sites and visitor centres.
That's when the pushback started.
The cuts were called a drastic change to the system that would impact tourism and lower the health benefits of being in Alberta's great outdoors, among many other criticisms.
The Calgary Eyeopener put its Unconventional Panel — Anila Lee Yuen of the Centre for Newcomers; business owner Darryl Stanier; and communications expert and former NDP press secretary Annalise Klingbeil — on this hot topic.
Stanier stands firmly behind the cuts and potential privatization of provincial parks saying it's an economic necessity.
"We are a province in economic free fall. I am surprised we have hung on as long as we have," Stainier said.
"We are going to have to take a bullet for some of the nice-to-haves in our province. We are going to have to give up some of that luxury we had with $100 oil. It has to happen. It's crazy if it doesn't."
Yuen is not so sure the economic case has been made, saying it is public money that funds parks and for good reason.
"The minister said the cost has been too high, but it's our taxpayer dollars and we are paying for our health and wellness. I think it's an important thing to be able to pay for health and wellness, especially for communities, organizations, groups and families that couldn't have fancy vacations," she said.
"Our vacations were going out to those parks. We explored all of them, and it was a wonderful family time, and I continue to do this with my family now. I consider health and wellness essential."
'Grew up in these parks'
Klingbeil says experiencing the Alberta park systems was a fundamental part of her childhood.
"I grew up in these parks. I learned how to ski on the trails at Peter Lougheed. Why did my family spend almost every weekend camping in these parks? We had four kids. They couldn't afford to put us in hockey. We couldn't afford to pay for a downhill lift ticket," Klingbeil said.
"They are very accessible, low cost to entry. I think at the end of the day, this is about the public good."
But the premier says he inherited a mess from the former NDP government and tough choices have to be made.
"Here's the bottom line, folks. Let's just talk turkey here," Jason Kenney told viewers of a 90-minute social media live-stream Tuesday.
"Our government inherited the largest deficit in Alberta history, an $8-billion dollar shortfall. If we don't reduce our spending in some areas to balance the budget, we will be spending billions more of your tax dollars on interest payments to bankers and rich bondholders."
He said his government is biting the bullet with modest restraint to get the deficit under control.
"We pretend that money is free and taxpayers don't ever have to pay the bill at the end of the day, and that is not the reality. The reality is this. We have to make some tough choices," Kenney said.
"We are doing this in a very restrained way."
The parks cuts are expected to save $5 million.
But that pales in comparison to slashing the corporate tax rate from 12 to eight per cent by 2022-23, creating billions in revenue shortfall.
The UCP's industry-promoting Canadian Energy Centre — the subject of much ridicule from the start — will cost about $120 million over four years.
Kenney further said provincial investment directly in oil and gas may be needed, just days ago at a news conference in Edmonton.
"Let me be blunt with you, Jan," Kenney said in his live Q&A, responding to a question from Jan Scobbie Willis, an Albertan disappointed with the cutbacks.
"I could do what the previous government did, and frankly what a lot of Alberta politicians have done for quite a while, and I could just keep rolling on the credit card," he said.
Kenney says the 164 "partnership" opportunities could find efficiencies.
"We are looking for partnerships with non-profits and community groups to take on more of the operations of some of the campsites and some of the park services, at lower costs than the government can provide."
- Watch as Alberta Premier Jason Kenney defends cutting provincial parks, in the video above.
Meanwhile, Unconventional panellist Stanier likes what he hears from the Kenney government, including parks funding cuts.
"It hurts me to watch it unfold but I am a realist. In our economy right now, we have tough decisions to make. I have confidence. Our government is going to do the right thing, long term. They are going to create cuts that are going to be painful for us right now," he said.
"I hope the right process unfolds to make sure we prioritize the right park systems that get invested in for privatization."
Parks embedded in our DNA
Yuen agrees that Kenney will do the right thing, but for her that involves reversing the cuts.
"The majority of Albertans voted them in, so I am optimistic … governments can make mistakes and they can fix them," Yuen said.
For Yuen, a robust parks system can make childhood memories, especially for new Canadians.
"My family could not afford to do anything else or go anywhere else and I am actually really grateful for that. It gave us the opportunity to explore the new country my parents chose to call home, to really have that embedded in the DNA of myself and my brother."
'User fees are a reality now'
Stanier says park user fees are the way to go, and volunteer-run organizations can work well.
"I don't want to be a hypocrite. I am an avid user of our park system and have been for 25 years," he said.
"But I could show us countless examples of privatized parks through B.C. that show an amazing visitor experience and support network. User fees are a reality now."
As well, the government can oversee, rather than do the actual work.
Stanier cited the example of West Bragg Creek, home to trails for hiking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
"There is a perfect example of a trail-use system that is managed by a local community group, that was funded to start by the government. That's what a government should be doing. Providing access and oversight but they shouldn't be running a park."
'Let's look at all numbers'
Klingbeil says there's a reason the West Bragg Creek model is working.
"Bragg Creek is also in people's backyards. In two minutes, they are there. They can maintain that. They are retired. It is a very certain community that works in."
But, she adds, if we are going to look at numbers, let's look at all the numbers.
"What are the health-care savings to having a healthy and active population? In the long run, what does that save our hospitals?" Klingbeil said.
"What about tourism?"
With files from the Calgary Eyeopener