Do you remember the moment you decided what you were going to do with your life? I do. In my early 20s, working a job as a disability support aide, the parent of a child tearfully told me she had been denied funding for respite services. As a single parent, she didn’t know how she’d make it without that support. The next day, I picked up the phone and I advocated, hard, and got her that funding. In that moment, I realized the power of advocacy, of having someone willing to fight with you. I realized I wanted to be that person for as many people as possible. So I became a teacher.
Fierce advocacy, for me, is the root of the identity of an educator and central to the role of all public-service workers. Robust public health care, education and public services are the cornerstones of equity in our society. The strength of these public institutions is upheld largely by the collective will of those who believe that everyone deserves the same high-quality public services, regardless of their income level or ability.
Through collective action, these public goods have been hard-won and defended against those who would seek to privatize and profit off of them, but during periods of crisis, some governments enact a “shock doctrine” to exploit the chaos and uncertainty of a disaster by aggressively pushing through pro-privatization legislation. Normally, efforts to dismantle public institutions face broad community and worker resistance, but capacity for resistance is uniquely drained in times of crisis. If this sounds familiar, it’s because you’re living through it right now.
In the midst of a pandemic, the UCP government has masterfully accelerated the dismantling of our public health-care system by alienating Alberta physicians, pushing a privatized online physician service and ramming through Bill 30: The Health Statutes Amendments Act, which establishes a two-tier health-care system.
For public education, they’ve cut critical grants, forced layoffs and cancelled a desperately needed curriculum rollout. Most recently, they’ve announced Alberta schools will reopen under a vague plan and funding model so strikingly insufficient that a recent national poll indicated nearly 30 per cent of Alberta parents have decided to keep their children at home this fall, the highest percentage anywhere in Canada.
It gets worse. Bill 32: Restoring Balance in Alberta’s Workplaces Act, often described as unconstitutional, limits worker’s ability to defend against these attacks through collective action. Many argue that workers should wait for the courts to resolve this, but court processes are lengthy. In the meantime, the damage done to our public health and education systems will be irreparable.
So how do we defend these critically important public goods? Let’s imagine the institutions of public education and health care are a school bus and we, the community and workers, are passengers. The Alberta government is our bus driver and under the guise of austerity, they have intentionally removed several important engine components, half the seats and failed to do basic maintenance for decades.
The bus driver is declaring it’d be best for everyone to Uber everywhere because this bus is falling apart and inefficient. He is clearly, deliberately, steering the bus towards a cliff. We’re alarmed, but the driver tells us we’ll be disciplined if we get up out of our seats. What should we do? Should we stay seated and plead politely with the bus driver to have a change of heart? Or, should we get out of our seats anyways, together, and take back control of the steering wheel?
Teachers, doctors, nurses, public-service workers, parents and community members, the choice is ours and the choice is clear: We can resist and defend public health care and education, united, or we can sit on our hands, clench our jaws and cross our fingers that at the end of the plummet, there’s something left to salvage from the smoking hole in the ground.
Madison Bashaw is a parent, teacher, graduate student and advocate for disability rights who volunteers with The RAD Educators Network, a collective of Alberta based educators working for equity and social justice education.