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United Nurses of Alberta Annual General Meeting - Oct 27, 2016

"While we are facing tough times right now, I know that, by working together, we can improve not only Alberta’s health care system, but its future as a whole for the benefit of all Albertans."

Thank you, Heather (Smith), and good morning, everyone. I’m delighted to join you on traditional Treaty 6 land for UNA’s AGM.

It’s wonderful to spend time with fiercely determined union members, and skilled and compassionate medical professionals.

To those of you, like my friend Heather, who have for years been leading the fight to protect and improve health care, thank you for your courage, integrity and dedication to the cause.

It’s an arduous task, but UNA has always been at the forefront, protecting the vision of public health care in Alberta.

Thank you so much!

And to those of you who are new — maybe this is your very first UNA AGM — welcome!

Enjoy your time together and learn as much as you can from each other.

Your shared commitment to this province and our public health care is critical, particularly now.

This is a chance to share stories and grow in solidarity. Be sure to cherish it.

Thank you to the Executive Officers for your leadership — Heather, Jane, Daphne and Karen.

You are a strong team and any membership would be lucky to have you.

And thank you to the entire Board of Directors for your tireless work.

Finally, I need to give a special shout out to two members of our caucus who were first members of UNA: Minister Danielle Larivee, and MLA Cam Westhead.

I know your sisters and brothers here today are tremendously proud of you, as am I.

Everyone in our government feels the same way about Alberta’s nurses.

In hospitals, clinics and homes throughout the province, you put in long hours healing and saving lives.

You see and deal with patients at their worst, risking physical and mental trauma.

Nurses deserve the utmost respect. And you have ours.

That respect extends to your union.

I was honoured to work as a Labour Relations Officer for UNA prior to becoming an MLA.

And I am incredibly proud of all the work you do as individuals, and as a strong union.

Standing up for workers’ rights is not easy. It demands a strong spine, thick skin and deeply held principles. That’s UNA in a nutshell.

For almost 40 years, UNA has fought for progressive causes in Alberta.

And I’m very happy that our government is implementing many of the things UNA has fought for.

PROGRESSIVE AGENDA

Since Alberta’s first NDP government was elected last year, we’ve done a lot.

We’ve modernized and reformed the province’s tax system, to make it fairer for working families.

This involved scrapping the regressive flat tax, so that those at the top pay a little bit more to help Alberta through a tough economy.

Our government raised the minimum wage, so that all Albertans are able to support their families with dignity.

So that moms and dads working full time don’t have to stop at the food bank on the way home, just to feed their kids.

The majority of minimum wage earners are women. Many are also parents raising children.

We know that income security is a vital factor in the health of families and communities.

Ensuring Albertans have a little more for the basics will begin to address the social determinants of health.

To further boost low-income families, we created the Alberta Child Benefit, providing direct financial aid to parents with children under the age of 18.

Kids shouldn’t suffer because of the ups and downs of commodity markets.

Under the program, families can receive up to $2,750 in annual benefits, to help them put food on the table and give their children a great start in life.

Our government is also protecting the education system that offers those kids their best chance at building secure and comfortable lives.

By maintaining funding for Alberta’s growing education system, we’ve enabled school boards to hire 1,100 new teachers and preserve 800 teaching assistant jobs that would have otherwise been lost.

To further safeguard vulnerable Albertans, we’ve reined in the predatory lenders who keep so many people trapped in debt.

Thanks to our legislation, payday lenders in Alberta charge the lowest interest rate in the country.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of people out there who are vulnerable in other ways.

Many women and children are left without housing and basic resources when they escape family violence.

To help them, we’ve increased funding for women’s shelters by $15 million.

That money also enabled the hiring of 84 new outreach support workers and 40 child and youth counsellors.

And it funds programs at all 11 second-stage shelters in the province, where clients can live free from fear.

Our safer spaces legislation helps them too.

It authorizes certified professionals, including registered and psychiatric nurses, to declare that individuals are victims of domestic abuse…

…allowing tenants to break their leases without penalty.

Our government has also extended basic employee rights to farmworkers.

There was vehement opposition, but our caucus never waivered.

Albertans in a hazardous, though vital, occupation can head out each day, secure in the knowledge that protections are in place if they get hurt on the job.

And we’ve made significant progress on the environment.

Climate change is a severe threat. There’s no room to pass the buck and leave someone else to take responsibility for it.

The province can act now or be left behind.

It’s the right thing to do for Albertans today, and for our children tomorrow.

That’s why, after extensive consultations with Indigenous peoples, industry, communities and environmental groups, we created the Climate Leadership Plan.

The plan is founded on:

  • An economy-wide carbon levy;
  • A shift from coal to renewable energy and natural gas for electricity;
  • A limit on oil sands emissions;
  • A large decrease in methane emissions from oil and gas;
  • Protecting low- and middle-income families through rebates; and
  • An ambitious investment in energy efficiency — details of which you will hear more about in the coming weeks.

It’s the single biggest step any Canadian government has taken on climate change so far, one that improves everyone’s health and well-being.

We welcome UNA’s support for the approach we’re taking, particularly in regard to transitioning away from coal-fired electricity.

As health care professionals, you see the devastating effects of respiratory illnesses caused by air pollution.

Everyone in government appreciates how UNA has stood beside us to advocate for cleaner air and a healthier province for our children. Thank you!

Last but certainly not least, we changed the face of government itself.

Nurses are used to working in environments where women predominate.

But the same can’t be said for women in politics — take my word for it!

I’m proud to lead a government that does things differently — one that celebrates and promotes women in positions of leadership, as nursing does.

Our cabinet has the distinction of being the first in Canada where women make up the majority.

This includes two women who have given birth while in office — which had never happened before in Alberta’s history!

We’ve taken steps to ensure that more women will be considered for executive roles across this province.

This equity is especially important in professions like yours.

Nursing has long been dominated by women and it makes good sense that women be involved in decision-making positions as well.

JOBS AND THE ECONOMY

Our government enacted these and other progressive measures that were long overdue. And we’ve addressed issues that previous governments ignored.

This is a track record we take pride in!

However, there is a larger issue that looms over everything — the economy. And that’s our highest priority.

Albertans are continuing to struggle with the effects of low oil prices.

Almost everyone here likely knows someone who’s been laid off, or is worried about it.

I see the fallout everywhere I go — frightened parents, distressed kids, food bank donors who have become food bank users.

Added to this is the toll that the wildfires took on people in northern Alberta.

Albertans are hurting right now and the slowdown demands a response. Our government has one.

During past oil price busts, that response was predictable: cuts.

Never mind that people always need public services. Never mind that playing catch-up later wastes money and leaves working families to face the consequences.

It just doesn’t make sense. Forcing public spending into the same volatile pattern as oil prices is fiscal malpractice.

This time Alberta has a government prepared to be thoughtful in handling the slowdown.

Our approach is called the Alberta Jobs Plan and it’s based on:

  • Supporting families and communities;
  • Investing in infrastructure;
  • Diversifying the economy; and
  • Supporting business.

It begins with not making a bad situation worse.

Instead of throwing front line staff, like nurses, out of work, we are protecting public services and the people who use them.

We are keeping funding stable so that health care and education can function.

This way, kids can go on learning in safe and comfortable schools.

And families can get the treatment they need, when they need it, from outstanding medical professionals like UNA’s members.

We are continuing to invest in modern, efficient infrastructure like hospitals, schools and roads. Communities need them now, and can’t afford to wait until Alberta’s coffers are flush with energy revenues again.

Building infrastructure during a slowdown also make the most fiscal sense for government.

As well, by doing this, our government is creating thousands of jobs around the province, when they are needed most.

We are also stimulating future growth and making the economy more resilient, by partnering with business and offering investment credits and loans for entrepreneurs.

And we’re diversifying Alberta’s energy mix and creating high-tech jobs by expanding renewable power.

Finally, we are pushing for new energy infrastructure, because it is an important component in restoring the prosperity that will sustain strong social programs and services that Albertans depend on every day — like health care and education.

Our government is using a novel method to break the landlock hurting Alberta’s energy sector.

We’ve acknowledged that energy production impacts the environment.

And instead of downplaying these impacts, we created the Climate Leadership Plan, one of the most forward-looking environmental programs of any energy producer anywhere, to mitigate them.

We understand that protecting the environment and growing the economy aren’t contradictory.

On the contrary, for either to succeed they must be complementary.

And so we are demonstrating Alberta’s resolve to do both.

Our government is being ambitious, but these efforts will not bear fruit immediately.

In the near term, there are hard limits to what we can do, imposed by a steep decline in energy revenues.

This is an enormous challenge.

Provincial revenues have dropped by almost 15 percent.

In this context, it is very difficult – but not impossible – to shield the social services Albertans rely on.

It comes down to stability.

Our government is protecting vital public services, but that means we have very little room for new spending until the economy recovers.

I want to take a moment to underline this point.

Many times in Alberta’s history, particularly in the health care sector, governments have asked people to do more with less.

But this request has always come in an environment of erratic and volatile funding levels.

That’s a recipe for failure.

And in Alberta, we’ve seen what that looks like: layoffs, growing wait lists and pain for families.

Our government’s approach is different.

We are working with public sector partners to manage cost pressures within existing funding levels. In return, we offer stability and certainty in overall commitments from government.

Here’s an example of how this looks in the health care system.

Last week, the Alberta Medical Association announced that Alberta’s doctors had voted by 74 percent to endorse a new agreement with the Government of Alberta.

We negotiated this agreement over the past year, with a minimum of drama and a lot of joint problem solving.

The stakes were not small.

That AMA agreement is the single largest expense in the provincial budget — $5 billion a year, 10 percent of the total.

Costs related to this agreement have increased by an average of 9.7 percent per year, for the last 10 years.

With the deal negotiated by the previous PC government not set to expire for another two years, projections showed costs could have continued to grow by eight percent a year.

So we asked our doctors to help us protect the health care system, by getting those increases under control.

And they answered the call.

The re-negotiated AMA agreement is designed to hold spending increases to about two percent through 2018. 

We have a tricky job to do together, all of us who share a passionate dedication to public health care.

Delivering the best possible care in a safe, reasonable work environment must be our top concern.

This isn't about slash and burn.

That isn't what this government does to front line services or to front line health workers.

We do need to work together so that public Medicare is strong, financially sustainable and here to stay!

CONCLUSION

We’ve made progressive change, the kind of change that makes communities better.

The kind of change that UNA fought for, right there beside us, for years.

There is no doubt these are difficult times that require the government to make tough decisions.

The kind of difficult decisions nurses make each day as they treat patients.

But if there’s anything that I learned from my time with UNA, it’s that how you make those decisions matters.

Facing difficult times with integrity, diligence and compassion typically gets the best results over the long term.

And while we are facing tough times right now, I know that, by working together, we can improve not only Alberta’s health care system, but its future as a whole for the benefit of all Albertans.

We have been partners in the past.

We are partners today.

And we will continue to be partners long into the future.

Together, we will make Alberta better.

Thank you.