In the build-up to the United Conservative Party’s budget release on Oct. 24, many non-governmental organizations and non-profits across the province signed on to a “growing coalition” called Keep Alberta Strong. The initiative is focused on continuing to make sure the province’s most vulnerable are not affected by spending cuts.
When advertising its own budget commitments, the UCP’s campaign website referred to the former New Democratic Party government’s spending as being “out of control.” The new government promised to “balance the budget within their first mandate.”
Those who support Keep Alberta Strong commend Premier Jason Kenney and the UCP in their approach to “bring back balance” to the province’s finances, according to an open letter on the group’s website.
But the letter also states that, while finances are important, support for the province’s most vulnerable should continue, namely in six areas: a quarterly payment to low-income families with children, social services funding programs, affordable transportation, affordable and quality childcare, social assistance and affordable housing.
Keep Alberta Strong currently includes over 40 non-profits and social organizations who are “committed to ensuring all Albertans have access to the opportunities and resources they need to contribute to our province’s economic prosperity.”
While the group supporters signed on to a letter in August 2019, they intend to continue advocating over the next four years.The Calgary Journal spoke with five of those supporters to gain some insight into why they back the initiative.
MRU Institute for Community Prosperity
The Mount Royal University Institute for Community Prosperity provides programs for students to conduct in-depth explorations of various social and environmental issues, such as climate change, the opioid crisis and affordable housing. This allows them to connect with and help out their communities.
And it’s the institute’s mandate of community prosperity that fuels their support for Keep Alberta Strong.
James Stauch, director of the institute, said they have signed on to support other initiatives in the past.
For example, they encouraged the federal government to expand the definition of a charity and have urged previous provincial governments to introduce stronger pay-day lending regulations.
He added it is important for the Institute to engage with and support other non-profit and social service organizations.“This is certainly not a fringe radical movement,” he said. “It’s simply a group of organizations that everyone would reasonably expect to say, ‘Well, okay, if we’re going to make deep cuts to public expenditures, just make sure the most vulnerable aren’t bearing the brunt of that.’”
Stauch said the Keep Alberta Strong initiative brings together non-profits, faith organizations and others “who are ensuring that the most vulnerable in society don’t get left behind as there are steps taken to review the fiscal picture and cut back on the common wheel and public investment.”
Those steps, he added, should still ensure access to affordable housing in the province, supports for those with disabilities and investment in public transit as we move towards more sustainable modes of transportation.
The Mustard Seed
For us to sign that letter is to recognize that we’re part of a system,” Steve Wile, CEO of the Mustard Seed told the Calgary Journal. “And, if that system is concerned, then we should be concerned as well.”
The Mustard Seed supports those experiencing homelessness and poverty in Alberta, offering shelter, clothing, meals, mental health and addiction counselling and other support services, as well as neighbourhood centres that provide low-income housing.
The majority of their budget comes from donors. But about 25 per cent comes from the provincial and municipal governments, most of which goes towards their shelters.
While a cut to their funding would affect their shelters system, Wile felt it was unlikely to happen and said it is not the reason they support the Keep Alberta Strong initiative.
“They’ve identified six areas and many of those areas impact our clients,” he said. “They would have an adverse effect on our clients, and likely, the most significant one of those six for us is the subsidized public transportation.”
Wile said they have noticed an improvement in the quality of life of their clients from the subsidized public transportation program.
According to Wile, the Mustard Seed has also witnessed an uptick in the number of jobs that their clients not only acquire, but can continue to sustain because of the ability to get around the city.
“That’s really one that has my heart.”
Vibrant Communities Calgary
The local non-profit organization, Vibrant Communities Calgary, focuses on poverty reduction in the city.
In January 2015, VCC signed onto the Enough for All campaign along with the City of Calgary, the United Way and their sister organization, Momentum.
While VCC doesn’t receive provincial funding, many of the organizations that they work with through campaigns like Enough for All do receive funding, which is one reason why they are involved with Keep Alberta Strong.
“We thought it was probably a good idea to bring awareness to the provincial government that it’s imperative that they maintain vital programs and services for people living on low incomes,” said Stevens.
While they don’t have a definitive plan to fight back against the UCP’s budget decisions, she added these changes have caused the social service sector to be more united than it has ever been in the past.
“We want to help each other out because, at the end of the day, it’s about the well-being of Albertans, especially Albertans living on low incomes,” said Stevens.
VCC’s sister organization, Momentum, is a community economic development organization in Calgary that works with many vulnerable groups in the city by providing them with entrepreneurial support, skills training and financial literacy.
Courtney Mo, public policy manager for Momentum, said the organization is committed to the goals of poverty reduction and that’s the main reason why they support the Keep Alberta Strong campaign.
Momentum receives funding through a variety of outlets, including all three levels of government, private and public foundations and individual donations.
Mo said her organization is supportive of the provincial government’s approach to finding efficiencies in spending, as well as working with the social services sector. However, she noted social services funding as a whole is vital in supporting the people that rely on the programs listed in the open letter.
“The low-income transit pass, for example, we found has been very important to participants,” she said. “[It enables] them to attend our programs, enabling them to attend work and education — to be able to move around the city.”
Another example, said Mo, is the Alberta Child Benefit, which provides a quarterly payment to low-income families with children under the age of 18. This program, she said, has helped to pull families and children out of poverty, enabling them to participate in programs, such as the ones offered by Momentum.
“Living in poverty is a full-time job,” said Mo.
“Being able to help people better meet their basic needs enables them to participate in education and training and learn about financial literacy and to be able to get ahead.”
Calgary Climate Hub
Approaching its one-year non-profit-status anniversary this November, the Calgary Climate Hub is an organization of volunteers focused on climate change initiatives and community engagement.In the last ten months, the CCH has pushed for stronger climate change actions in the city, including through their involvement with its climate resilience strategy and five-year budget decisions, where climate change was a major factor.
Their support for Keep Alberta Strong stems from a concern that the provincial government’s withdrawal from provincial climate initiatives, such as programs supporting more efficient energy production and the carbon tax, will put a strain on communities, innovation and investment.
Dr. Joe Vipond, co-chair of the CCH, explained there are consequential costs in everyday activities, such as driving a car, and the carbon tax is a simple and efficient way to mitigate both the costs and greenhouse gas emissions.
He added energy efficiency, such as upgrading light bulbs or replacing old appliances, also works to lower emissions and saves money down the road.
“It’s politically savvy — who doesn’t like saving money because they’re using less energy? — and it’s also a very effective way of decreasing our emissions,” said Dr. Vipond.
According to Dr. Vipond, CCH supports policies that bolster communities and municipalities, such as energy efficiency and the carbon tax, and that can help make Alberta more desirable for investors, new businesses and citizens.
“We’re trying to build a social base where we can have a plethora of voices to fight back on this,” said Vipond. “If we’re not organized, it’s hard to push back.
“It’s one thing to have individuals sitting in their house worried about stuff, but when they organize into a group they have a much more powerful voice, so that’s what we’ll be continuing to do.”
- By Stephanie Hagenaars