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Rallies held across Alberta to protest public sector rollbacks

Rally in Calgary held to protest public sector rollbacks
Thousands gathered at a rally in Calgary on Saturday to protest the United Conservative Party’s latest budget. As Michael King reports some protesters are already feeling the impacts.

Several rallies across Alberta on Saturday drew hundreds to protest cuts to the public sector following the UCP government’s second provincial budget.

According to organizers, rallies took place in Calgary, Medicine Hat, Red Deer, Lethbridge, Fort McMurray, and Banff.

The protests were organized by ABCan Forward, a non-partisan and non-union group behind the large protest outside the Alberta legislature on Thursday.

In Calgary, protesters began at Western Canada High School on Saturday morning, before marching to the Sheldon Chumir health centre and then to a rally at city hall.

READ MORE: Public sector supporters rally at Alberta legislature as provincial budget is tabled

“I feel like you’re going to feel the effects of these cuts for years onwards,” rally organizer Stephanie Quesnel told Global News Morning on Saturday. “It seems like the budget is affecting the most vulnerable in our province right now.”

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The rallies focused on key areas of the public sector including education and health-care funding, as well as programming facing cuts.

“We’re here to try to protect the most disenfranchised of our society, and we do that every day,” children’s services worker Darcy Sorochan said. “Now we have to do it with fewer staff, fewer resources, and just a crippling effect of exponential cuts.”

Protesters wore red to support those who are passionate about public education as well as to show unity amongst public sector workers.

Thursday’s budget maintains operational funding at current levels for some core services: $8.2 billion for kindergarten to Grade 12 education and $20.6 billion for health.

“I work in health care, and we already can’t meet the demands of the people,” medical lab technician Sandra Low said. “(Kenney) wants to cut more, and it’s only going to hurt the people.”

On Thursday, the government said it plans to hold the line on salary hikes for public sector workers while continuing to reduce jobs, mainly through attrition. The government is also pursuing benefit and salary cuts from thousands of public-sector workers.

The province is projecting it will spend $26.7 billion on public-sector compensation while full-time equivalent jobs are expected to drop by 1,436 this year, primarily through attrition.

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“We absolutely respect and appreciate the significant contribution our public sector makes to Albertans every day. We’re committed to working with them,” Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews said on Thursday. “During this time of fiscal restraint, during this time of slowly bending the cost curve of the cost of government in Alberta to align with other provinces, we’re hopeful that the public sector will co-operate.”

READ MORE: Alberta budget 2020 mired in red ink, but government to put ‘even finer focus on job creation’

Opposition leader Rachel Notley attended the rally in Calgary on Saturday and vowed to keep fighting for the province’s public sector.

“We are strongest when we have each other’s backs, and we know we’re going through tough times but the plan should not be to turn on each other and attack each other,” Notley said. “Two wrongs do not make a right, you don’t pile on private sector job losses by creating public sector job losses, that’s actually going to accelerate economic decline.”

Organizers said protesters understand the fiscal situation the province is currently facing, but believe the belt-tightening is being done in the wrong areas.

“When the public sector is cut significantly, that’s what throws recessions into play, and that’s the stuff that destroys economies,” organizer Adam Quraishi said.

But a spokesperson with the premier’s office said in a statement that the reductions in spending are necessary.

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“Alberta cannot continue spending billions more than it takes in every year. Our plan reduces spending by less than three cents on the dollar over a period of four years, while maintaining record spending on health, education, social and children’s services,” the statement read. “We recognize that those public sector unions seeking taxpayer funded pay raises may prefer tax hikes, but our province must live within its means.”

The 2020 budget projects a deficit of $6.8 billion on revenues of $50 billion. Debt is expected to rise to almost $77 billion by spring 2021 and to nearly $88 billion by 2023.

with files from Global News’ Phil Heidenreich and Michael King