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Updated: 1st December 2019 19:43 Edmonton

Alberta premier asks public sector for collaboration amid talk of general strike

Premier Jason Kenney says threats of a general strike by public sector workers will not go over well with Albertans and he asked unions to take a step back and look at the province’s economy. 

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Premier Jason Kenney urges unions to consider province's economy

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney answers questions from delegates at the United Conservative Party's annual general meeting in Calgary on Sunday. (Dave Chidley/Canadian Press)

Premier Jason Kenney says threats of a general strike by public sector workers will not go over well with Albertans, and he's asking unions to take a step back and look at the province's economy.

"I would plead with them to take a look at the general economic fiscal situation of this province," Kenney said at a news conference on Sunday.

"I do not think something like a general strike ... when we're in the fifth year of economic decline will be well-received by Albertans who pay the bills."

Kenney made his remarks one day after hundreds of teachers, nurses and other public sector workers protested outside of the Calgary Airport Westin Hotel where Kenney's United Conservative Party was holding its annual general meeting.

On Friday, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, the United Nurses of Alberta and the Health Sciences Union of Alberta were told to expect the loss of more than 7,000 jobs by 2023 as the government tries to balance the budget.

Protesters outside the hotel chanted about a general strike Saturday. Kenney briefly remarked on the demonstration during his speech at the UCP AGM Saturday night. 

"I'm reminded of what Premier Ralph [Klein] used to say," he said. "If a day goes by and there's not a protest, I'm wondering what I'm doing wrong."

They're making this out to be like the arrival of the apocalypse.- Alberta Premier Jason Kenney

Kenney was more serious in his news conference on Sunday, saying he wanted to have a collaborative, not confrontational, relationship with public sector unions, suggesting that job loss numbers could be mitigated if negotiators moderated their salary expectations.

Some unions have asked for increases of eight per cent, he said.

Kenney called the current cuts "a modest program of fiscal restraint" and accused the NDP Official Opposition of conflating what his government is trying to do. 

"They're making this out to be like the arrival of the apocalypse," Kenney said.

"This is ridiculous. This is, by modern Canadian fiscal standards, one of the most modest periods of fiscal restraint. And so I just wish everybody would be a little more objective in their language around this."

Questions about abortion, conscience rights 

Kenney's news conference capped the three-day UCP AGM, the second since the party formed in July 2017 following the unification of the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties, and the first since the party won a majority government in April.

Kenney and his government have faced criticism for pandering to the social conservative elements of the party on issues like school choice, parental rights, abortion and conscience rights for health care providers.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Education Minister Adriana LaGrange took on some politically sensitive questions about Christian schools, abortion and conscience rights during a session on Sunday morning, which allowed members to ask questions of Kenney and his cabinet.

Click on this thread to read some of the questions members asked:

Brian Coldwell, a pastor from Spruce Grove who oversees two Christian schools, fought the previous NDP government on the issue of gay-straight alliances.

He asked what additional measures the UCP government has in store to protect religious schools from "activists."

LaGrange said the government is working on its Choice in Education Act, which is intended to uphold parental rights in education by offering more choice in religious, charter and private schools if public schools don't align with their beliefs.

Robert Van Voort, a UCP member from Calgary-Foothills, suggested the government stop funding abortion in order to save health care dollars.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro answers party members' questions about abortion and conscience rights. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

Without actually uttering the word "abortion," Shandro said the service has been available in Canada for years.

"My job as minister of health is to make sure Albertans have access to health care services," he said. "Legal health care services. That includes health care services that have been determined in this country to be legal for decades."

Red Deer physician Dr. Martin Owen, who is on the council of the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians and Societies, took Shandro to task for his response to Bill 207, a controversial bill on conscience rights for health care providers.

Owen said Shandro and the government should have countered what he felt was "misinformation" about the bill.

Shandro said the bill was a private members bill and that he wanted to respect the process as it went through the committee. 

"I support conscience rights for medical professionals," Shandro told Owen. "I also oppose discrimination and I support access to health care, and I don't think those three things are mutually exclusive."

Although the standing committee of private bills and private members members has determined the bill should not go ahead, the legislature will vote Monday on whether to accept that recommendation.

The bill allows physicians to refuse referring patients for services like abortion and medical assistance in dying that violate their personal beliefs, and prevents them from facing discipline from their regulatory associations if a patient complains.

Critics say this could allow discrimination against transgender Albertans, and limit health care in rural areas.

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