Alberta’s justice system has been in a crisis for years. Now, the government is axing $100 million from the Justice and Solicitor General’s budget, threatening to make a bad situation worse and ushering in changes to multiple services.
Two in particular have workers on the front lines speaking out and saying incomplete plans will leave more Albertans hanging in the balance of the scales.
Court Clerks: The Final Burnout
AUPE represents close to 600 court clerks, but there aren’t nearly enough of them to cope with the work. For years these members have been dealing with unmanageable caseloads and suffering the fallout.
When the NDP held power, it did little to help these workers with illness and burnout. Today, it’s the same old song as the UCP stays silent on hiring more court clerks, while planning to cut 198 full-time AUPE jobs in the justice department.
According to Crown Prosecutor Damian Rogers, about 1,400 cases have already missed their 18-month deadline to get to trial because of courthouse backlogs and close to 150 cases have been dropped in Edmonton alone as a result.
The majority, he says, were for crimes including impaired driving and non-violent offences.
Albertans are still waiting for the UCP government to follow through on its promise to hire 50 new Crown prosecutors. The only action we’re seeing is the push to digitize the courts system. Court clerks have expressed concern at what this automation will mean for their work. There are already reports of people navigating through the court system, including victims and witnesses are already noticing the scarcity of simple things like tissue and water.
Between this and the $5 million cut from Legal Aid Alberta’s funding, which will affect some of the province’s most vulnerable low-income residents, AUPE vice-president Susan Slade says: “We’re walking into a disaster.”
RAPID Force: The Incomplete Plan
Squeezing more out of workers by expanding their scope of practice is a trend we’re seeing from the UCP government.
It’s happening with members who work in rural Alberta as peace officers in the Fish and Wildlife Enforcement Branch, Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Branch and the traffic arm of the Alberta Sheriffs.
The government is creating a new Rural Alberta Provincial Integrated Defence Force (RAPID), which will bring together officers working in different sectors and change the scope of practice for about 400 AUPE members.
Some members currently engaged in enforcing Fish and Wildlife regulations and traffic and commercial vehicle rules will be given the additional duty of responding to 911 calls in remote and rural communities.
Where once police and RCMP responded to these sometimes dangerous calls, peace officers will now be pulled away from their current duties, which include protecting the land from misuse and protecting Alberta drivers from unsafe road practices.
That’s a very different type of work and while many members are keen to help, they’re looking for answers to two big questions:
- How will the plan be rolled out?
- What happens to the other work that they still have to do?
Slade says: “Our members are keen on serving Albertans in whatever way they can. What they’re not keen on is a lack of planning. This is about the safety of Albertans in emergencies and about the safety of our members performing dangerous duties. It is too important an issue to be implemented without clear direction and adequate resources.
“When you ask your staff to take on a new role, to take on new skills – like carrying firearms and helping people in crisis – you need to have a bulletproof plan.
“So far, we’re not seeing that from Minister of Justice and Solicitor General Doug Schweitzer. If he doesn’t deliver, he risks the safety of rural Albertans, in particular farmers and Indigenous people in remote areas.”
Rural Albertans are wondering if the government’s supposed commitment to improve policing is more about trying to look good than providing real help.
On one hand, it seems the government is playing smoke and mirrors with AUPE members by shuffling workers and changing uniforms, but failing to add resources.
One the other, while it touts adding more RCMP officers to fight rural crime, it’s downloading a large portion of cost for the added police presence to small communities who don’t have the ability to pay without raising taxes.