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Does Alberta need a parliamentary secretary for civil liberties? Expert weighs in

Though Alberta now has someone tasked with protecting post-secondary free speech, a member of the Centre for Constitutional Studies at the University of Alberta says he doesn’t think there is a problem with free speech being limited at campuses.

Dax D'Orazio is a research affiliate for the Centre for Constitutional Studies, and says there isn't abundant evidence to suggest it's a widespread concern.

"We actually don't have that much analysis and evidence to say that it is a problem of sufficient gravity, that public policy should be brought to bear," he said.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith revealed on the weekend that she had appointed a parliamentary secretary for "civil liberties" to help protect Charter rights.

She made the announcement on her call-in radio show, saying Tracy Allard, Grand Prairie UCP MLA, was sworn in on Dec. 13.

It was the first the government said of the new portfolio, which wasn't announced during the week.

Smith said Allard will enable free speech on all 26 of Alberta’s post secondary campuses, work around Ottawa's Bill C-21 amendments, which seek to reclassify what firearms are legal to own in Canada, and protect private property rights.

Alberta is the first to create a position focused heavily on tackling the issue.

D’Orazio called the move "unprecedented."

"I think what we need to bear in mind is that free expression on campus only became a problem, so to speak, at least from a public policy perspective, very recently."

D’Orazio noted in a 2021 research paper titled Free Expression on Campus: Assessing the Alberta Ministerial Directive, that the UCP made campus free expression a campaign promise in the 2019 Alberta election.

At the time, the party said it the would require universities and colleges to comply with free-speech policies based on the University of Chicago’s free speech policy (referred to as the "Chicago Principles.")

"Chicago Principles have been hailed as the ‘gold standard’ for potential policy frameworks in Canada," D’Orazio said in the paper.

After the UCP defeated the NDP in the election, Jason Kenney and Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides began developing a policy.

While in Ontario, the government has threatened to withhold funding from universities and colleges that don't adopt the Chicago Principles, D’Orazio found Alberta's policy lacked explicit sanctions for non-compliance.

D’Orazio says he found out what the government’s plan for post-secondary institutions was through a Freedom of Information Policy (FOIP) request. 

In FOIP documents obtained by D’Orazio from May 14. 2019, the government’s own research showed that post-secondary institutions in Alberta generally appeared to be committed to the principle of free speech. 

"Based on the initial analysis, up to seven institutions (including SAIT) appear to be mostly aligned with the Chicago Principles, while up to 17 institutions are somewhat aligned,” read the document. 

The University of Calgary and Mount Royal University’s overall compliance was rated as "somewhat aligned."

The province said the data was captured on public information readily available and that institutions may have further policies, that are not captured due to a lack of public availability.  

"There have been a lot of criticisms of university culture, understood very broadly, that it is running afoul of its core mission, that it's been captured by liberals and progressives and that universities are not necessarily teaching but indoctrinating," said D’Orazio.

"Universities more than ever are considered political battleground, and so what happens there is consequential, not just for what happens on campus but for politics more broadly."

Faculty associations for both Mount Royal University and the University of Calgary did not have anyone available to comment on Allard’s new position. 

The students association at the U of C said no complaints have been received from students about a lack of free speech on campus.

D’Orazio's research paper concluded that any public policy initiative based on the Chicago Principles is neither effective nor efficient, and unlikely to have a tangible effect.

After reaching out to the UCP government on Monday to clarify what Allard's position would be overseeing, the province responded saying as parliamentary secretary for civil liberties, MLA Allard would be tasked with:

"Reporting to the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Services:

  • Investigate potential reforms with respect to issues related to use of force and police oversight with the goal of  increasing transparency, accountability and fairness in the administration of policing services.

Reporting to the Minister of Justice:

  • Determine what steps can be taken in order to challenge Bill C-18, proposed legislation that will limit the Charter Rights and Freedoms of Canadians by affecting independent news outlets, content creators, and every Canadian who uses online media.
  • Determine what further steps can be taken to protect law-abiding firearms owners who face criminalization by the passage of amendments to Bill C-21 that target hunters, farmers and target shooters.
  • Assess whether there are needed amendments to legislation that will better protect the rights and  of civil liberties of Albertans.
  • Review and follow through on recommendations outlined in the Final Report of the Select Special Committee on Real Property Rights by further advancing work to constitutionally entrench the protection of property rights.
  • Review the Alberta Personal Property Bill of Rights to consider whether its scope and the protections it provides to property owners should be expanded.
  • Consider options with respect to the provincial constitution of Alberta, including whether to consolidate existing elements of Alberta’s constitution into a single statute, and whether any additional matters should be addressed in that statute."

In a statement to CTV News, Alberta NDP critic for advanced education David Eggen said

"The UCP has cut almost $700 million from Alberta’s post-secondary schools, massively increased tuition costs for students, and increased the interest on student debt during the worst cost of living crisis in 40 years.

“Danielle Smith and the UCP are endangering Alberta’s economic future by pushing post-secondary education out of reach for many of Alberta’s future job creators and innovators. Instead of repairing the damage they caused, the UCP are now spending Albertans’ tax dollars to pursue fringe conspiracy theories.

"An Alberta NDP government will strengthen our post-secondary schools, bring them back within reach of Albertans, and create a new downtown Calgary campus as part of building a resilient jobs economy."

With files from CTV News Edmonton