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Down on the Upside

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Issue: 50 Section: Canadian News Geography: West Alberta Topics: poverty

February 14, 2008

Down on the Upside

Group gathers to discuss the "Alberta (dis)Advantage"

by Erin Krekoski

Women at a June 11 demonstration organized by the Disability Action Force on Housing in Edmonton. CC 2.0

Photo: Grant Neufeld

EDMONTON--A small but passionate group of activists, researchers, front-line workers, and volunteers gathered in Edmonton on January 25 to discuss the inequalities that are a result of Alberta's current economic climate. The conference, entitled the Alberta (dis)Advantage for Families and Youth was co-hosted by the MacEwan Institute for Research on Families and Youth and the Edmonton Social Planning Council.

The conference sought to unpack the concept of the 'Alberta Advantage,' to exchange the province-building slogan for a narrative that more accurately describes the effects of the current economic boom on the lives of Albertans.

In two panel discussions, speakers from various Edmonton anti-poverty and social justice organizations explored the disproportionate distribution of new wealth and the rapidly rising cost of living, and how those factors compound to marginalize vulnerable and low income Edmontonians. Six break-out sessions allowed participants to share their experiences of working for change.

The Tory concept of the 'Alberta Advantage' promises a favourable business climate: low corporate taxes, a mild regulatory regime, and ample opportunity for investment. Despite the fact that, as one speaker noted, the political slogan has since "been purged," Alberta continues to market itself, both within Canada and internationally, as a destination for big business.

For conference participants however, the slogan has come to signify the widening gap between Alberta's wealthy and Alberta's poor.

Panelist Jim Gurnett of the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers defined the Alberta Advantage as "a prideful rejection of Ghandi's famous statement that 'the Earth has enough for everyone's need but not everyone's greed'"

"It is an oil-drenched lie that everything is well as long as I am well."

And while for some the Alberta Advantage may mean better investments and bigger profits, for many others it has had devastating consequences. As the name of the conference suggests, the Alberta "disadvantage" is perhaps a more apt slogan for a province that neglects its citizens and allows its natural resources to be plundered. In Alberta, the gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen, with close to a four-fold difference in household income between the richest and the poorest neighbourhoods in the City of Edmonton.

This 'disAdvantage' affects social groups disproportionately. "More often than not poverty has a colour; it has an accent," noted panel speaker Marilyn Fleger, a director of the Bissell Centre, an Edmonton inner city anti-poverty organization. She explained that most often lone mothers, people with disabilities, recent immigrants, single adults without family, and urban Aboriginal residents have borne the burden of poverty.

While average wage rates are on the incline, and earners in the upper tax brackets are earning more than ever, the minimum wage in Alberta is still $7 -- the lowest rate in Canada. The wage increases workers have been able to attain are barely able to compensate for inflation—which averaged 5% for most of 2007. The cost of living is increasing more rapidly than wages. While the average wage is closer to $20 per hour, lower wage earners simply can't keep up.

The promise of lucrative employment continues to draw migrants from across Canada and internationally. However, the reality for the many who arrive with no plan, no contacts, and no place to live is a sad one. "Sure, there are opportunities," Hope Hunter, director of Boyle St. Community Services, an inner-city anti-poverty organization stated, "but you need support and resources to take advantage of those opportunities."

It is a struggle, within the non-profit sector, to help provide some of those supports and resources. Panel speaker Heather Day, a program coordinator with Ben Calf Robe Youth Intervention Program, described how even full-time social agency workers are struggling to make ends meet. Social agencies cannot recruit the staff they need and turnover rates are higher than ever, making it even more difficult to tackle the effects of poverty. Workers become clients, snowballing the effects of the Alberta 'disAdvantage.'

With acute awareness of these contrasts, conference participants declared--defiantly, passionately, and optimistically--their intolerance for the social injustices they encounter in Canada's 'richest' province. While some asserted the importance of simply working around government social policies that seem to hamper progress, others emphasized the importance of participating—actively—within our democratic system.

To outside observers, Alberta can appear to be a province of complacency, inaction and apathy. The Alberta disAdvantage conference shows, however, that there is also resistance, collaboration, action, and hope. for those disadvantaged by the province's economic direction.

"We are still in a democracy, despite years of one-party rule," one panel speaker told the conference-goers. "We have education, motivation, research, knowledge, and examples from history of what individuals can do... we have the opportunity to make change."

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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