Province shouldn't delay 'fair deal' report too long, panelists say

Two members of Alberta's "fair deal" panel say the government would do a disservice to those who opened their hearts during town halls across the province if it buried the report. 

Report on Alberta's role in Confederation sent to premier earlier this month

The Fair Deal panel held a hearing in Calgary in December. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Two members of Alberta's "fair deal" panel say the government would do a disservice to those who opened their hearts during town halls across the province if it buried the report. 

"For that kind of report to be put on a shelf, and not shared and not honoured, would be heinous, " panel member Donna Kennedy-Glans said in an interview on Monday. 

The report was supposed to be submitted by the end of March, but Kennedy-Glans said the panel was given a two-week extension due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The document was finalized right before the Easter weekend and submitted to the premier in early May, she said. 

The government waited until Saturday of the May long weekend to announce the report had been accepted. The news release gave no timeline to make the findings public or how the government would respond, other than to say when "the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic is over." 

"I look forward to giving this report and its recommendations the proper attention it deserves, once we have safely started to implement our relaunch strategy," Kenney said in a statement. 

Kennedy-Glans, a former Progressive Conservative MLA and associate cabinet minister, doesn't believe the government is trying to bury the report but was disappointed at the timing of the news release. 

"It's something that governments do when they don't want to attract a lot of attention to something that's happening," she said. "It's a very old tool in the toolkit, except that everybody's onto it."

Drew Barnes, the UCP MLA for Cypress-Medicine Hat, also sat on the panel. He says Albertans won't let the government delay the report for too long.

"There's a huge demand and appetite for change," he said. "So I don't believe for two seconds that Albertans are going to let anybody sit on this."

'Two things can happen at once'

The "fair deal" panel was appointed by Premier Jason Kenney in November as emotions ran high following the October federal election which, much to the frustration of Conservative supporters, resulted in a Liberal minority government.

The nine-person panel, which included three UCP MLAs, was tasked with examining Alberta's role in Confederation. That included a look at options to "advance the province's interests" including the establishment of a provincial police force, the creation of a provincial firearms office and a withdrawal from the Canada Pension Plan. 

Although that was the official purpose, others felt the panel was a tactic to calm the heated rhetoric coming from a small but loud group of Albertans who wanted the province to separate from the rest of Canada. 

The feedback gathered by the panel was offered well before the COVID-19 pandemic closed businesses and public services across the country. 

Since then, the federal government has taken the lead on providing billions of dollars in emergency relief to those who have been laid off or forced to close their businesses, measures that are beyond the capability of a provincial government. 

Attendees at a Wexit rally in Calgary last November. It's not known when the report will be made public. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

The so-called Wexit, or western exit, talk has died down but neither Barnes nor Kennedy-Glans feel the moment for their report has passed.

"It will be incumbent on the government to recognize that two things can happen at once," Barnes said. 

"Albertans are not only concerned about the physical health of our friends and our families, we're concerned about the economic health of our friends and our families and our communities as well."

Kennedy-Glans said the panel was asked to get feedback on nine items; she says the final report has 25, thanks to ideas shared by people who spoke at town halls or shared feedback online.  

One of the most prominent features of Kenney's first year as premier is his government's use of panels to hear feedback on future policy proposals, though critics say the ideological backgrounds of the appointees ensures he gets the response he was looking for. 

Kennedy-Glans says a panel can only be effective if the public believes a government intends to take action. 

"If they don't, people will stop believing in it and then it will be totally useless. And that's not good use of money," she said. "And it breeds cynicism and we sure don't have time for an ounce of cynicism right now."