By Andrew Hanon, Communications Staff
The pride swelled in Dorothy Sigurdson’s voice as she recalls watching the provincial election results rolling in on May 5.
Seeing her daughter Lori win the seat in Edmonton-Riverview for the NDP was “phenomenal. It was like a dream come true for my husband. It was quite an emotional moment for our whole family.”
Lori Sigurdson, who now sits in Alberta’s first ever NDP cabinet, has progressive politics in her DNA. Her maternal grandfather was at the CCF’s 1932 founding convention in Calgary. Her father, Barney, was a union activist in the Ontario auto industry before moving his young family to Valleyview in Alberta’s Peace River country.
Dorothy explained with a laugh, “There were only about eight of us NDP supporters in town.” Party leader Grant Notley was a frequent visitor to their home, sometimes with his daughter Rachel in tow, and Barney drove them around the area on party business.
Lori was “always a leader. She was her student council president in high school and was always taking up causes.”
Sigurdson went into social work, and for three years was a member of AUPE Local 006. She went on to work for the Alberta College of Social Workers and teach university classes.
Sitting in her ministerial office at the provincial legislature in October, Sigurdson called the clients she served her heroes.
“Despite maybe having a disability, or just leaving a family or domestic violence situation, having other kinds of barriers to their success, they get up and they try again, do their best to support their families,” she says.
Five months into her job in the NDP cabinet, she called her new position “a great honour.”
“It’s been pretty exciting to be part of the first NDP government Alberta has ever had,” she said.
AUPE Executive Secretary-Treasurer Jason Heistad said that so far, the NDP’s approach to governing has been encouraging for the union. “In an economic downturn, it’s welcome to see a thoughtful approach to public finances, rather than the reckless cuts of the past. However, we will continue to watch this government and work toward ensuring that resources and staffing levels for public services are adequate. We hope to maintain a respectful relationship with this government, but AUPE will speak out forcefully when it’s warranted.”
Sigurdson’s two portfolios, labour and advanced education, have significant influence on all 87,000 AUPE members. Direct Impact sat down with her for a Q&A session on some of the union’s priorities. Here are her responses (some have been edited for brevity).
Direct Impact: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is one of the most pressing occupational health and safety issues in the province. It’s especially urgent for corrections workers, human services workers and emergency room staff, who are exposed to violence and trauma on a daily basis. Despite this, they are excluded from “presumptive coverage” with the WCB, which means before they can get help, they must first prove that their PTSD is work-related. Will you expand presumptive coverage to these workers?
Sigurdson: I just want to say, it’s so important that all workers have safe workplaces and that their wellbeing is ensured. It’s very important for us, and for me as minister of labour, to ensure that we have that safety and wellbeing in this province. And we do, as you said, have presumptive coverage for some of those front-line worker positions, firefighters, paramedics, police officers, and there is coverage for other workers after their diagnosis of PTSD. I’m certainly really open to continuing to hear from groups like AUPE and others regarding to what they would like to see going forward. I’ve asked my ministry staff to give me more information about this and we are looking at it.
Direct Impact: The Alberta courts have ruled that certain sections of Alberta’s labour laws that severely restrict public-sector workers’ Charter rights, particularly the right to strike, are unconstitutional. Your government has until April 1 to rewrite the offending sections. Will this rewrite be tied to a larger review of the province’s labour legislation? What other labour laws are going to be reviewed by your government?
Sigurdson: Well, you know that certainly, as a government, we feel labour legislation in Alberta needs to be modernized. There’s no doubt that it hasn’t been changed for some years, some longer than others. But the specific essential services legislation that you’re talking about, where we’re out of line with what the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled, that we do have a pretty tight deadline, at the end of March that we have to be in line with that, so we are having a focused review right now. It’s very important for us to hear from important stakeholders like AUPE regarding this in terms of how we’re going to write the legislation so that we are in line and, you know, concerns about what essential services are. Right now, what we’re going forward with is a very specific, focused review.
Direct Impact: Where do you stand on privatizing public services and public-sector jobs? As labour minister, what kinds of protections do you think public-sector workers should have against having their jobs contracted out?
Sigurdson: If we can just bring it back to what happened yesterday. Yesterday we presented our budget to Albertans and in that budget we had three pillars and one of those pillars was to stabilize and protect public services, you know, by making sure we are investing and making our public service strong. So certainly that continues to be our public commitment going forward. This isn’t the time to be cutting the public sector – it’s the time to be supporting the public sector and that will support our economy overall. We have people with mortgage-paying jobs, they’re contributing to the economy, contributing to serving Albertans in those public services, so we’re committed to serving a strong public sector.
Direct Impact: You are also Minister of Advanced Education. Alberta’s post-secondary institutions, their staff and students have been through the wringer in the past few years. Unstable funding has led to program cuts, program cancellations, staff reductions and even campus closures. In this uncertain economic climate, there is more demand than ever for access to career training and skills upgrading. What is your government doing to get post-secondary education off this funding roller coaster?
Sigurdson: I just want to acknowledge that it has been a very difficult time for the post-secondary education sector. One of the very first things we did in the spring session was invest $40 million back into the post-secondary sector, and froze tuition so students could have affordable, accessible post-secondary. That was a clear commitment that we’re continuing as a government, and yesterday we just gave you the whole number for the year, which is $133 million, and certainly we’re very committed to supporting that sector. And we are going to be doing a comprehensive adult learning review to really look at all aspects of the adult learning system to develop our plan going forward. Again, it’s very important for us to hear from stakeholders like AUPE regarding that and their ideas about the direction we should be taking, but that’s just something that’s certainly having well educated people who can then get mortgage-paying jobs and also to that whole diversity piece because we want to make sure that Albertans have all sorts of opportunities in different kinds of roles. We have a good, well-educated workforce, but it could be even better and we want to support that to happen.
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