ULFA President Statement on AB Bill 18

By now, much has been said about Bill 18, the proposed law tabled by the provincial government in April to vet all federal funding coming into Alberta, whether to infrastructure assistance for municipalities, or to Heritage Canada funding for cultural projects, or to research grants to academics. It is unclear the extent to which this was a premediated attack on the post-secondary education sector, or whether for PSE it is “collateral damage” from a more general attack on federal funding for Alberta, but the effect is the same. Government-imposed tests do not further the ethical practice of research because they are conducted by those outside that research world and who do not understand it. When those government tests are ideological, as the CAUT Motion on Bill 18 put it, they are antithetical to the ethical practice of research.   

This Bill came out of the Premier’s Office. There was no prior consultation with the post-secondary education sector and there appears to have been little consultation with Danielle Smith’s Minister of Advanced Education either. Rajan Sawhney did not attend the press conference when Bill 18 was announced. Her initial response to that announcement was that the legislation will have no effect on university research and that the government just needs Bill 18 to gather information. All that information, however, has been publicly available for a very long time. The government doesn’t need Bill 18 to get it.

The reaction to Bill 18 has been strong because the threat is dire. One exception has been long-time national commentator Alex Usher who argues that Bill 18 is like Quebec’s M-30. Potentially, it could be shaped like M-30, with exemptions for post-secondary education institutions, but here the position of Premier Danielle Smith is troubling. The Premier has publicly stated that the federal government ideologically interferes with university research, that it funds “only certain types of opinions,” and that a balance needs to be struck between conservative and liberal commentators. 

This is misinformed. While we do not know what the Premier means exactly, there is already more SSHRC funding nationally for management, business and administrative studies than for many social sciences. In Alberta specifically, business research receives more federal funding than most of the social sciences. It also fundamentally misrepresents how research funding from the federal agencies works. As ULFA Members know well, all of these agencies – the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) – decide who will be funded and by how much through a highly-competitive process of peer review. National and international experts in the disciplines scrutinize each application carefully. The only role the federal government plays is deciding the overall budget of each of the funding agencies. There is no government role whatsoever in deciding what academic research project will be funded and by how much. If passed in its current form, Bill 18 will create the very problem it is claiming to resolve.     

The General Faculty Councils of Mount Royal University and the University of Alberta have passed motions condemning Bill 18 and calling for exemption from it. At the University of Alberta the vote was unanimous and included the University President. I note that Bill 18 is on the agenda for the May 6th (Monday) meeting of the General Faculties Council here at Lethbridge.

In addition, the current and future Presidents of the Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associations are meeting today (May 3rd) with the Deputy Minister of Advanced Education. Every Faculty Association in Alberta has jointly requested a meeting with the Minister of Advanced Education, we hope before May 18th when the Second Reading of Bill 18 will begin. Regionally, the Western Regional Conference of faculty associations from across Western Canada is writing to the Minister of Advanced Education. Nationally, the Council of CAUT passed a motion, unanimously, on April 26th that condemns the Bill. Together, we will stop this unprecedented political interference in academic freedom.

Chris Burton

ULFA President