by Terry Inigo-Jones, Communications Staff
No one saw this coming.
The world watched in horror as George Floyd was slowly killed on video in May. The resulting anger sparked a global protest movement that put police actions and police budgets in the spotlight.
Soon, chants of “Black Lives Matter” and “defund the police” were being heard at mass protests around the world, even here in Alberta where rallies attracted thousands of supporters in Edmonton and Calgary and reached into smaller communities. The protests later expanded to include Indigenous lives and all people of colour.
“While we have seen protests many times over the years, this time was different,” says AUPE executive Secretary-Treasurer Jason Heistad, who is also co-chair of the Welcoming & Inclusive Community Committee in his home town of Innisfail. “We have not seen rallies against racism and injustice on this scale. It seems like there has been a cultural shift and the time for action has finally come.”
“We have not seen rallies against racism and injustice on this scale. It seems like there has been a cultural shift and the time for action has finally come.”
Earlier in July, Edmonton City Council voted to cut $11 million from the Edmonton Police Service (EPS) budget over two years. The money (about 1.5 per cent of the EPS budget per year for the two years) will instead go to housing, social and community services, and a community safety and well-being task force.
In June, a motion to remove police school resource officers (SROs) from Edmonton public schools was narrowly defeated at the public school board, but there was unanimous support for an independent study. If the study shows the program does more harm than good, the board says it will consider ending it.
“We need to start asking serious questions,” says Heistad. “If funding was diverted from policing to social supports and health care, would there be better outcomes? Would it be more cost effective? Would we all be safer?
“What if we used our resources to tackle the real crimes of injustice, racism and prejudice instead of on criminalizing people who need help?”
Defunding the police is an important issue for AUPE’s 95,000 members, he says, with many working on the front lines of health care, public services, law enforcement, security and correctional services.
“We need to be at the forefront of this conversation. The changes that are coming are going to affect us.”
Direct Impact asked five AUPE members what difference it would make to them and the people they serve if a little extra funding was diverted to their work.
Here's what they had to say...
Jessica Dill, Licensed Practical Nurse, Safe Consumption Site (SCS), Sheldon M. Chumir Health Centre, Calgary
“In my work I encounter so many people who have enormous talents, gifts, wonderful spirits, but so much of their potential is limited, truncated by the fact that they are living in a system that criminalizes everything they do in order to survive.”
Dill envisions a world where the resources currently spent on criminalizing and incarcerating vulnerable people are instead spent on community safety, justice and wellness.
“For example, when a supervised consumption site has somebody in mental distress inside in the bathroom, do we really need for there to be a full SWAT team response to come in?”
She argues that stable funding for the Downtown Outreach Addictions Partnership (DOAP) teams who provide essential services to people in need would far better serve the public.
Being able to provide more help at the SCS would also benefit the workers, because being constantly under-funded is stressful.
“There is a great deal of moral distress that comes to us from having to try to empty a leaky boat with a tiny thimble for a bucket.”
Dax Lydiard, Correctional Service Worker, Calgary Young Offender Centre (CYOC)
Another area where extra funds would be welcomed is correctional services.
Lydiard recalls the release of the movie Indian Horse in 2017, based on Richard Wagamese’s book about an Indigenous boy growing up in the residential school system. A learning program was created aimed at Indigenous youth based on the movie, with online modules and other tools.
Lydiard recognized that this would be a great resource at the CYOC, and he was right.
“It has been hugely successful, trying to get us a little more in line with the Truth and Reconciliation Act, as well teaching our (Indigenous) youth about intergenerational trauma,” he says.
The cost of such an important and potentially life-changing resource? A mere $150.
But to get that approved, he had to enlist the support of the CYOC director and programs director and apply for funding from the federal government.
“That’s how tight our budget is,” says Lydiard.
Lydiard stresses that he is pro-police. His father was with the Calgary Police Service (CPS) and many CYOC workers have gone on to police careers. He sees a need for increased opportunities for collaboration between the CPS and correctional services, so they can learn from each other.
He would also like to see more resources for other programs that allow staff to spend more time with the youths, to build better relationships, creating better outcomes, better de-escalation and more prevention of problems.
Extra resources and staff would also mean quicker responses to emergencies when they occur.
“Knock on wood, lucky streak, whatever, the Calgary Young Offender Centre in my 16 years has never had a death,” he says. “I had a kid that had hanged himself and was foaming and convulsing when I cut him down, and we saved him. I have used Narcan (naloxone used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose) … and saved them,” he says.
He’s hoping to spend his entire 30-year career without a death. Having more staff will mean more lives will be saved.
Corine Heffernan, Leasing Clerk, Capital Region Housing Corporation (CRHC)
“Let’s be honest, housing is one of the most important services out there. You need a house to survive,” says Heffernan.
Unfortunately, budget cuts have meant years of being short of staff and short of resources. This means that when Albertans in need come looking for help, it isn’t always there.
“Because we are so behind, it can take up to six months for us to even just process an application,” says Heffernan.
With the pandemic surging and the economy in bad shape, demand for affordable housing is growing. However, the shortage of funds mean that even when units become available, there sometimes isn’t enough money to clean or repair them, and they are shut down rather than put back into service.
What would a little extra funding mean?
“Well, we would be able to house more people, right? That’s more families we put into homes. It’s a very frustrating thing for our families and for us, too, because, how much ‘no’ do I have to say? I am constantly saying no,” she says.
Garnett Robinson, Child and Youth Care Counsellor, Youth Assessment Centre, Lac La Biche
The assessment centre is a 24-hour residential treatment facility. Youths can live there for several months while staff help them with issues such as stabilizing their behaviours and developing problem-solving skills.
“The basis of child and youth care is the relationships we form with the children. It’s difficult to have a serious relationship when you can’t spend one-to-one time with the person,” says Robinson.
The centre has a high staff-turnover rate because workers leave to take better-paying jobs. A little extra funding to stabilize and increase staffing would make a big difference in the work they do with the children, allowing those relationships to flourish and produce positive outcomes.
Robinson also envisions a better community outreach program that reduces the number of children coming into care and ease the transition back to the community for children who have spent time in care.
“That means that you can then work with the youth to prevent them from needing to come into care, providing skills to them and the parents, and then when they go out of care to deal with the inevitable problems that arise when they go back to their homes.
Randy Ramsden, District Conservation Officer with the Environmental Enforcement Branch, based in in Cochrane
Ramsden’s work centres on environmental and resource-based law enforcement, public safety and human-wildlife conflict prevention. It’s about keeping people safe and protecting the environment. It’s important work.
He strongly opposes defunding the police, but says the government needs to provide enough funding for workers to do their jobs and keep both Albertans and workers safe.
“Taking money from one group and giving it to another doesn’t solve the big-picture problem of everyone needing adequate resources to provide Albertans with the services they need,” he says.
He’d like to see extra funding to put more boots on the ground where he works.
“The government has said numerous times that they want more people on the landscape, specifically (in) enforcement,” he says. “With extra funding you can put more people on the landscape to deal with environmental issues that we are coming across, to deal with public-safety issues we are coming across, to deal with the enforcement issues we are coming across, to deal with human-wildlife conflict prevention.”
Rather than having to react to situations as or after they occur, a little extra money would allow workers to be proactive, to get out and prevent problems from occurring.
“It would save lives. Quite frankly, in the public-safety, mountain-rescue world, more people on the ground, more education to the public, would reduce the public making bad decisions.”