Getting the Axe

The UCP struck swiftly to stack public boards

By Tadzio Richards

Rod Skura was on a deadline. It was a Thursday afternoon, mid-August, and as an Alberta events-listing site had proclaimed: “Festival season is in full swing and you need to take advantage of it before it comes to a screeching halt.” The weekend festivities—“a whole lot of music, culture, food and fun”—were looming, but Skura was in an Edmonton office, on the phone. Alberta’s deputy minister of advanced education had university board chairs to fire, public agency appointments to rescind. He had to do it now. The next day would be what media call a Friday news dump—a “take out the trash day” as characters in the US political TV series The West Wing referred to it from the perspective of government public relations, where “any stories we have to give the press that we’re not wild about, we give all in a lump on Friday”—because the public is distracted on Saturday.

In a cabinet meeting earlier that day, August 15, 2019, the new UCP government gave the directive to rescind the appointments of selected board members from 19 public agencies in Alberta. These included the Workers’ Compensation Board, the Alberta Health Services Board, the Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis Commission (AGLC), the Municipal Government Board, the Human Rights Commission and the boards of 11 post-secondary institutions.

At the Thursday cabinet meeting, along with firing public agency board members, the UCP confirmed the appointment of 61 new board members, including 43 at Alberta’s post-secondary institutions. The wholesale change was a big deal. Alberta has over 250 public agencies, each with autonomy from government while also being accountable to government. Each of those “arm’s length” bodies—also known as agencies, boards and commissions (ABCs)—fills a public role. Agencies range from corporate entities such as ATB Financial to regulators such as the Alberta Securities Commission to service providers such as universities. Most board positions are paid, sometimes handsomely, though post-secondary board members are reimbursed only for expenses. Regardless of the role, or the pay, public agencies are expected to act at all times in the public interest. Collectively they’re responsible for administering almost 50 per cent of the provincial budget.   

The UCP board changes were announced on Friday morning. The speed of it was unusual, outside the norms of process for public agency appointments, and deputy ministers were largely tasked with doing the firing. They were busy that Thursday afternoon, Skura most of all.

Post-secondary board chairs were among the highest-profile firings. University and college boards of governors oversee their respective institutions’ budgets and hire the president, among other governance oversight duties. The chair is the spokesperson—the voice—of the board and is directly accountable to the provincial minister. That positioning put board chairs in the line of fire ahead of the new government’s first budget in October, a budget about which several commentators, including Don Braid at the Calgary Herald, had speculated, “The most obvious target for actual operating cuts is advanced education.” Though post-secondary board chairs and members are appointed for three-year terms, on August 15 the UCP government fired eight NDP-appointed board chairs before the end of their term. One of those high-profile chairs was Ray Martin.

“I got the call from [Skura] the night before the announcement,” said Martin, who had been appointed board chair at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) in March 2017. Martin is also the former leader—from 1984 to 1994—of the provincial NDP. As a political figure, he said he wasn’t expecting reappointment in 2020, but “had met with the minister [Demetrios Nicolaides] and I wanted to finish out my term.” He added that, at the time, his board was in the process of searching for a new president at NAIT. “I didn’t get any indication [the UCP government] was going to do anything immediate.”

“I don’t question that they want to bring in their own people,” he said. “Every government does that. But there has to be a
process. Here there was no process at all. And having the deputy ministers do [the firing]—deputy ministers follow the directions of the government, obviously, but they’re supposed to be non-partisan. The ministers are the political people; [Nicolaides] should have been the one on the call.”

Asked why he thinks he was fired, Martin said, “I think they wanted this done before the budget.”

The AUFA fails to understand why the need to replace members was so urgent that the government could not have waited until the expiration of their terms.” – Athabasca University Faculty Association

 

ON FRIDAY MORNING, AUGUST 16, the barrage of government announcements started with a press release from the Ministry of Advanced Education. CBC provincial affairs reporter Michelle Bellefontaine first tweeted about it at 9:03 a.m.:

@MBellefontaine the UCP government has appointed new board chairs for U of C, U of A, SAIT and Mount Royal. They all seem to come from business backgrounds.

Bellefontaine then quickly tweeted some of the changes: At the University of Alberta, Michael Phair, the former Edmonton city councillor and LGBTQ rights advocate who had been reappointed for a second term as chair of the board of governors in February 2019, was replaced by Kate Chisholm, a senior vice-president at Capital Power. 

At the University of Calgary, board chair Jill Wyatt—a former educator and CEO of Calgary’s YWCA—was removed for Geeta Sankappanavar, president of Grafton Asset Management, an energy investment firm.

At Mount Royal University, Sue Mallon, the CEO of Carya—a non-profit social agency that lists “long-term poverty reduction” as a key area of focus—was replaced by Alex Pourbaix, president and CEO of oil sands giant Cenovus.

In Fort McMurray, Keyano College board chair Maggie Farrington, chief executive officer of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, was ousted for Shelley Powell, a senior VP with Suncor Energy. At NAIT, Ray Pisani, CEO of Alberta Blue Cross, supplanted Ray Martin.

There were more; it was a massive shakeup at Advanced Education. Big news from a minister who to date had been relatively quiet—apart from sending letters earlier that summer to Alberta’s public colleges and universities demanding they adopt, or develop policy consistent with, the Chicago Principles, a US manifesto ostensibly designed to protect free speech on campus. Academic critics allege the manifesto—written in 2014—is intended to assuage conservative and right-leaning students’ concerns that campuses are “too liberal.” Adopting the manifesto, say critics, will lead to an increase of racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-abortion and climate-change-denying speech on campus. Minister Nicolaides had not given a detailed public defence of this policy, nor had he clearly signalled the extent of the upcoming budget cuts. Now he had a chance to speak about the changes to post-secondary boards. But that Friday morning he was nowhere to be found.

At 9:23 a.m. Bellefontaine tweeted: And the minister of Advanced Education
@demetriosnAB IS NOT AVAILABLE TODAY to take questions about this.

At 9:24 she added two tweets: I just got off the phone with his press secretary, who refused to tell me why he is not available. And what else could he be doing today?

Is he having surgery? Is he out of the country? Is he backpacking and out of cell range? COME ON.

More announcements arrived in media inboxes. Bellefontaine kept readers apprised.

At 9:48 a.m.: @MBellefontaine The govern-ment is just firing off the news releases today. There are changes to the WCB board, the municipal government board, the rules of court committee, and AHS.

At 10:02 a.m.: Now we have a release on the Human Rights Commission. One of the five new appointees, Moin Yahya, is a U of A law professor and a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute.

Later that day, finally, the Advanced Education press secretary got Bellefontaine an interview with Nicolaides. The new board appointments, the minister told her, were made based on competency, industry connections and experience managing large corporations. “There was no partisanship involved,” he said. “Determination was on skill set.”

ARGUMENTS COULD BE MADE for and against that claim. Of the 61 new appointments, 34 had not made a provincial political donation in the last five years. All 61 hold or have held some kind of senior management position, primarily in the field of oil and gas, finance, industrial construction and law. For all new appointees, their bios on the provincial public agency website specifically note that they were  “directly recruited” on the basis of having the required “competencies”—for example  “leadership, governance, finance, human resources, legal, risk management and/or strategic planning” in the case of new post-secondary board members.

Critics asserted that the professional sheen masked partisan motives. Several new board members were former conservative politicians, including James Rajotte, a former MP for Edmonton-Leduc and a colleague of Kenney’s in the Harper government, who was appointed to the board of governors at the U of A. Donna Kennedy-Glans, a former PC MLA in Calgary, joined the board at the Banff Centre, while Janice Sarich, a former PC MLA for Edmonton-Decore, joined the MacEwan University board. Len Rhodes—who was personally recruited by Kenney to run as a UCP candidate in Edmonton-Meadows and who left his job as president and CEO of the Edmonton Eskimos to run, and then lost—was named board chair of the AGLC, a position that in 2018 paid over $115,000 a year.

Other new appointees were long-hustling proponents for the free-enterprise cause. Andy Crooks, named by the UCP to the Municipal Government Board, first became a director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) back in 1993—when Jason Kenney was executive director of that organization. Crooks’s new public agency government bio omits those details, simply saying that he “held national, provincial and community social leadership positions,” but Crooks’s own blog boasts that he was CTF chairman for “almost two decades” and “is credited with the success of that organization.”

Part of that CTF “success” is a “partnership” relationship with the Atlas Network, a free-market-fundamentalist think tank based in Virginia. Billionaire US industrialist Charles Koch is a major funder of the Atlas Network and an interconnected web of libertarian foundations and “research centers” that includes the Mercatus Center at George Mason University—known as the “base camp” for the libertarian cause, and as the home of the Antonin Scalia Law School, where Moin Yahya, Alberta’s new Human Rights Commission board member, is an alumnus. As Michelle Bellefontaine tweeted on August 16, Yahya is also a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute, the Canadian think tank that in the past has been bankrolled by both the Atlas Network and Charles Koch.

In a smaller yet similarly ideological network, Tom Ross, a partner at the law firm McLennan Ross in Calgary, was named to the board of governors at the U of A. Ross was a co-director with Ezra Levant of the Ethical Oil Institute—an oil and gas industry cheerleader before Levant founded Rebel Media. Also connected to Levant is Edmonton lawyer Samantha Kernahan, appointed to the board at MacEwan University. Kernahan was at McLennan Ross in 2012 and acted as the lawyer for Ethical Oil when submitting a 143-page letter of complaint to the Canada Revenue Agency regarding the charitable status of Tides Canada Foundation. The letter made frequent reference to Vivian Krause, the self-described “researcher” whose conspiracy-tinged writings about foreign-funded activists “sabotaging” Alberta’s oil and gas industry inspired the UCP’s $30-million War Room.

Conservative donors were also among those appointed to public agency boards. At least 23 new board members had given donations to the UCP, or its founding Wildrose and PC parties, or to conservative candidates and political action committees (PACs) since 2014. Collectively those donations totalled over $175,000.

The money included $20,000 from Adam Waterous, now the new board chair at the Banff Centre, to the Wildrose party in 2015. Geeta Sankappanavar, the new board chair at the U of C, donated $25,000 in 2018, through her company, to Shaping Alberta’s Future—a PAC focused on electing Jason Kenney as premier. And topping the list of donors was Sue Riddell-Rose, CEO of Perpetual Energy, who was named to the board at Mount Royal University. Since 2014 Riddell-Rose has donated over $30,000 to conservative political actors in Alberta. In August 2019 she was also named to a government-created industry panel composed entirely of oil and gas executives tasked with advising the new UCP government on how best to cut “redundant and ineffectual” oil and gas regulation. 

Inarguably, the UCP appointed financial and ideological supporters to public agency boards. “It is reasonable for a new government to align the membership of provincial ABCs with the mandate it received from Albertans,” read a statement emailed to Postmedia by Christine Myatt, the premier’s spokesperson. “The previous government made appointments based on its priorities and mandate and it is appropriate for us to do the same.”

Not everyone was reassured, including some former civil servants. Anita Lunden, executive director from 2009 until 2014 of Alberta’s Agency Governance Secretariat, said the UCP appointment process “seemed to make a very political… statement about this government’s attitude about public agencies—that they wanted them more aligned with their views [rather] than allowing the people who were there to stay until their terms expired, which is what the NDP did,” she said. “From a good governance perspective, I thought, hmm, that’s not sending the best democratic message to the public.”

 

A COMMITMENT TO transparency—understood in a business or governance context to mean honesty and openness—is one way to mark the difference between UCP and NDP board appointment processes. Lunden, who worked in government for over 20 years and retired shortly before the NDP took power in 2015, says a commitment to transparency predated the NDP.

The PC government was often criticized for making partisan board appointments, but Lunden says that premier Ed Stelmach brought in a public agencies governance framework that mandated more transparency in the process, and premier Alison Redford made “a real move” to “make it easier for the public to find out what the vacancies were,” and to have “more diversity on boards,” though that didn’t always go smoothly. “It became a very lengthy process in the last years I was there under the PCs,” she says. “In order to be open and fair—by the time they recruited people, vetted people and did the interviews, there became so many vacancies that some boards couldn’t function…. You have to keep these boards full.”

A big challenge is that different boards need different skill sets, says Lunden. Human Rights Commission board members, for instance, have to be lawyers. “If you’re going to be on the Alberta Health Services Board,” she says, “you probably need to have some knowledge of hospital governance.” Each public agency has to develop a “competency matrix” to help identify skills gaps on the board, and at most agencies, “somebody on the board needs to have knowledge of finance,” but “you need a balance of skills. Sometimes it’s good to have someone from the outside asking good questions.”

Under the NDP, says Lunden, “the recruitment process became much more public.” Board vacancies were posted on a single, searchable government website, with the process for selecting board members based on six good-governance principles: transparency and openness, diversity, competency, agency engagement, consistency and timeliness.

The NDP put an emphasis on certain criteria—particularly diversity and gender equity—for filling board vacancies. But when they replaced an outgoing board member, says Lunden, they followed the norms of process: “By and large they did it as people’s terms expired, and the new selection process was applied once a position was vacated.”

In contrast, she says, in reference to the UCP appointments on August 16, 2019, and after, “The UCP just went in and terminated people and put new people in place. That did not seem consistent with the direction of the last 10 years, where more and more selections were made based on a thorough list of competencies and an open recruitment process.”

Some faculty associations agreed with that critique. At Athabasca University, board chair Vivian Manasc—an architect lauded as “an innovator in cold-climate sustainable design”—was replaced on August 16, a year before the end of her term, by former oil and gas executive Nancy Laird. In early September, the faculty association wrote the Advanced Education minister a letter. “The AUFA fails to understand why the need to replace members was so urgent that the government could not have waited until the expiration of their terms. The AUFA views this action as a political stunt designed to dampen resistance to austere pressure from the government.”

The Association of Academic Staff of the University of Alberta wrote the minister a similar letter, asking “…for clarification of what process was followed in advertising the board posting, seeking diverse and qualified candidates, and properly determining and assessing the skills, experience and qualifications of the new appointees to the U of A Board of Governors, including the chair.” The UCP minister wrote back to say new board members “were selected based on merit, skills and experience”—a response, said the AASUA president, that “has not addressed my queries.”

The UCP’s first budget on October 24 cut funding for Advanced Education by more than $600-million over four years. To fill that gap, the ministry’s new business plan said post-secondary institutions would be encouraged “to explore more entrepreneurial approaches to program funding and delivery,” and would be given “the freedom to compete and innovate by lessening regulatory and reporting requirements.”

Public agency board members are obliged to support the government’s direction, and if they don’t, they can be replaced—more quietly now than before. In September 2019, with little fanfare, the UCP “centralized recruitment” within Alberta’s Public Agency Secretariat. Instead of the six principles the NDP foregrounded for selecting new board members, the UCP now highlight only five. The ousted principle—“Transparency and Openness”—was on the government’s public agency recruitments and appointments page in August. By October it was gone.

Tadzio Richards is associate editor at Alberta Views. Story feedback: letters@albertaviews.ca

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