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Academics, rural municipalities raise concerns about Alberta's Bill 18

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Alberta legislation pitched to protect provincial priorities could slow down grant funding and allow federal money to be spent elsewhere, say officials representing rural municipalities and faculty members at post-secondary institutions.

Bill 18, which was introduced by Premier Danielle Smith last week, would require the provincial government to approve all federal funding to provincial entities.

That would include federal money going to cities, towns and universities across Alberta.

"I simply can't see how it helps anybody in the province," said Dan O'Donnell, a professor at the University of Lethbridge and the president of the Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associations.

If passed, the legislation could slow down grant funding or force it to go to other researchers out of the province, O'Donnell warned.

"(It forces us) to not compete on an equal playing field with every other academic, every other researcher, every other scientist," O'Donnell said.

In a statement released Monday, the Mount Royal Faculty Association (MRFA) shared some of the same worries as O'Donnell.

Bill 18 "will have a negative impact on the amount and type of research that is conducted in the province," the statement said in part.

"We had no idea this was coming down and I find it kind of troubling," said MRFA president Lee Easton.

The premier has said the legislation is needed to keep the federal government's "ideologies" out of Alberta municipalities and academics, but the faculty association said that's not how federal funding is passed out to students and researchers.

"These grants are awarded by arms-length agencies through a competitive peer review process, and only those deemed the strongest application receive federal funding," the statement said.

Easton also said the proposed rules threaten academic freedom in Alberta and could cause federal grant money to be awarded to researchers in other provinces.

"What this means is that people are going to say, 'No, I won't go there. Why would I go there when I can't get my research funded?'" Easton said.

Rural municipality group 'definitely concerned'

The group representing small and medium-sized towns and cities in Alberta says it was also caught off guard by the proposed legislation.

Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA) said the rules would reduce municipal autonomy when it comes to federal funding and the projects the money is needed for.

"We're definitely concerned, as we see this as another level of red tape for us and another level of bureaucracy," said Kara Westerlund, a councillor in Brazeau County and vice-president of the RMA.

"A lot of our rural municipalities don't have the capacity within their administration to be spending even more time trying to go through a grant application."

The province says the legislation is needed to ensure every municipality gets its fair share of funding.

"Bill 18 is about getting more money for municipalities and Albertans in general," Ric McIver, Alberta's municipal affairs minister, said Monday.

"That's what we got elected to do and, by golly, we're trying to keep our promise."

Details of how federal funding would be reviewed and what could be exempt from the legislation are not yet known.

The province says it will establish those details in the coming months through consultation with stakeholders. 

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