On Saturday afternoon three Alberta ministers visited Lethbridge, Alta. to talk about challenges and opportunities relating to agriculture and the 2020 budget.
The Lethbridge Chamber of Commerce hosted the information session and Q&A at Exhibition Park. The event allows local residents to meet their ministers and ask questions.
The event wasn’t the first information and Q&A session with ministers held by the Chamber of Commerce and organizers say it won’t be their last.
Finance Minister Travis Toews, Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen, and Associate Minister of Red Tape Reduction Grant Hunter were at the event.
Toews echoed the importance of having a diverse economic landscape in both Lethbridge and the rest of the province, and added that it was nice to be able to come down to Lethbridge to hear about the economic challenges and opportunities in the region.
Most of the audience members at the event, who were from the private sector, applauded the ministers on Alberta’s 2020 budget, and said they were content with the “fiscal” approach that the government is taking.
MLA Nathan Neudorf for Lethbridge East was also present to answer questions.
“Anytime you can get ministers to interface and talk directly with constituents in a locality is very positive because the message isn’t being filtered through different individuals,” said MLA Neudorf.
“It’s straight from the person asking the question to the minister and back, and that’s how people feel heard,” he said.
Neudorf said the space allowed for much talk about investments and research in the private sector, especially in the agriculture sector.
“The agriculture minister has been in the Lethbridge area numerous times… and understands how vital that industry is for southern Alberta.” he said.
The focus of the event was on the private sector and the general conversion mainly revolved around the agriculture sector in Lethbridge, and some of the concerns which were raised involved transportation, and addressing the labour shortage in agriculture.
“Thankfully we have very strong college and university programs here related to agriculture, related to research, related to that field,” said Neudorf.
He also brought attention to the training facilities that are available in the post-secondary institutions in Lethbridge, which match individuals to jobs in the agriculture field.
“Add to that, the efforts put forward by our labour and immigration minister to continue to draw qualified applicants through the immigration process to rural Alberta to support those businesses,” said Neudorf.
A push for construction on Highway 3, along with how COVID-19 is affecting some farmer’s ability to get their product to certain markets were other concerns that were raised by audience members.
During the Q&A session, one farmer in the audience stood up said he’s been having trouble shipping his agriculture commodities to Asia because of the outbreak.
“Because we have a commodities-based economy, certainly agriculture, and energy, forestry, we’re not insulated from those changes in commodity prices,” he said.
Minister Toews said, just like all Albertans, he’s hoping this period of “uncertainty” is a short one.
When Minister Toews was pressed with whether the Alberta government would be able to handle the prevalence of COVID-19, he pointed out that the province has set up a contingency fund, which consist of $750 million “to deal with emergencies, disaster relief, that kind of thing,” and he believes they are prepared with available funding should the province need it.
“With coronavirus… and the blockades that were going on, along with a very difficult harvest for farmers, there was also a rail strike this year — we are having issues of being reliable shippers, especially when it comes to agriculture commodities,” Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Devin Dreeshen said.
“So, that’s something we want to encourage the federal government, as well as the ag sector itself, to make sure that we can lobby hard and do everything we can to make sure we can get our products to market, that we aren’t losing customers,” Dreeshen said.
During a media scrum when Minister Toews was asked about the multiple job losses at both the college and university, which will be taking place through layoffs, retirement packages, and attrition, he said the government is trying to cut costs.
“Over the next four years there will be a… shift in terms of funding percentage,” said Minister Toews.
“Our advanced education system in the past has depended disproportionately on government funding relative to other provinces, and over the next three years that will shift,” he said.
“As you know, we have lifted the tuition cap, it’s been a cap that’s been in place for a number of years, and over that time tuition in this province as not kept pace with tuition rates across the country.”
Minister Toews added that post-secondary institutions can raise their tuition costs in order make up for the loss of funding. He said a cap of seven per cent has been put in place for tuition increases.