Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Wall gov’t, not SAHO, calling the shots on wage offer to health care provider unions

For months now the Saskatchewan Association of Health Organizations (SAHO) have been trying to sell the public on the notion that it is calling the shots in the current contract talks with the province’s three health care provider unions.

But a series of briefing notes recently obtained from Saskatchewan Health through an access to information request seem to show that it is just an illusion.

On January 27, 2010, SAHO – which represents more than 40 health care employers in the province – tabled what it called “its final offer to the provider group of unions (CUPE, SEIU-West and SGEU), and requested that the unions take the offer to their membership for a vote.”

According to a news release, the offer is a four year contract including general wage increases of 4% – 2% – 1.5% – and 2%, maintaining market competitive wages relative to western Canadian provinces; retroactive pay of about 10% for the period April 1, 2008 to the present. Accumulation of retroactive pay ends on March 31, 2010; and market adjusted rates for specific classifications to address market related recruitment and retention concerns.

The unions understandably turned the offer down. They had presented a new offer of settlement only six days earlier and were expecting a response to that, the employers instead produced a final offer.

The unions have been without a contract since March 31, 2008.

SAHO issued a news release on May 3, 2010, saying it had provided the unions with an addendum to the final offer to clarify the intent of the language proposals in the final offer, and application of the proposals in the work place. In some cases the language has been changed or withdrawn to respond to concerns raised. The retro pay and general wage increase, however, remained unchanged with SAHO insisting “the final offer and addendum provide competitive wages for similar work in the western Canadian health care sector.”

In an op-ed piece published July 22, 2010, in the Leader-Post, SAHO CEO Susan Antosh reiterated that its final offer “reflects our goal of providing employees with competitive wages based on comparable markets in western Canada.”

It’s debatable if SAHO ever had a choice.

In a briefing note dated February 3, 2010, updating the collective bargaining process, Health Ministry officials give the clearest picture yet of who is really in charge.

While “SAHO is responsible for collective bargaining with the provider unions on behalf of the employer,” it is the provincial government that “is committed to providing competitive wages in comparable western Canadian markets,” the document states.

It seems the final offer was the Wall governments, SAHO only tabled it. The alleged non-profit, non-government association of health agencies appears to be little more than a political buffer doing the government’s bidding.

The February 3 briefing note also shows the Health Ministry continuing its long running bias against the health care provider unions, using language that puts them in a negative light.

“On January 18, 2010 the provider unions tabled a counter-offer with the conciliator that failed to demonstrate substantial movement,” the document states. Meanwhile, SAHO could do no wrong: “Despite best efforts on the part of SAHO, a large gap existed between the SAHO offer and the union demands.”

A briefing note updating the negotiations to March 8, 2010, appears to reveal Health Ministry officials hoping that the retroactive pay provision in the “final offer” creates division among union members.

“The offer is time sensitive as retroactive pay will stop accruing after March 31, 2010,” the document states. “There may be mounting pressure on the part of the provider union membership to resolve this matter before April 1, 2010 to ensure no loss in pay.”

It’s interesting to note that the reference to “mounting pressure” was removed from a subsequent briefing note dated April 6, 2010.

In a May 12, 2010, briefing note the Wall government again bad mouth the unions saying they “continue to refuse” to take the current offer to their membership for a vote, and without providing any evidence, claim there is discontent.

“We are hearing from some of their members that they want a chance to vote,” it says.

If the provincial government is indeed receiving that type of feedback from union members, it must be few and far between because it’s not being reported in the media, which you can be darn sure would be broadcasting it loudly if it were true.

A common message throughout the briefing notes is that it’s the government’s desire to see the collective bargaining process work effectively, and to that end it would not be appropriate for the minister “to become directly involved in the negotiations.”

Health Minister Don McMorris doesn’t need to be at the bargaining table to be involved in negotiations. As evidenced by the heavily censored briefing notes, he and his cabinet colleagues are the silent partners pulling the strings behind the scenes.

In fact, one of the briefing notes that were released has been blacked out entirely. Apparently, even the date and title of the two-page document is too sensitive to disclose. One of the reasons the Health Ministry give for severing the information is that it pertains to executive council. The provincial cabinet is involved up to its neck.

McMorris put himself on the firing line recently when he responded to a postcard campaign by sending a letter to health care workers tub thumping “the four-year contract offer proposed by SAHO,” and scaring them with details about the deadline for accruing retroactive pay.

“It is our view that the unions should give the final offer serious consideration and allow their members to vote on the contract,” McMorris said in the June 1, 2010, letter.

“It is important to note that as of April 1, 2010, retroactive pay no longer accrues. What this means is that on ratification of an agreement, union members will receive retroactive pay up to March 31, 2010, only.”

But when a Leader-Post reporter attempted to contact McMorris for comment they were directed to SAHO CEO Susan Antosh. [Health-care workers invite McMorris to talk (Leader-Post, June 18, 2010)]

In mid-July, SAHO inflamed the situation further when it bypassed union leaders and sent a letter directly to health care workers’ homes warning them that the final offer “will not increase” and that because retroactive pay ceased to accumulate effective April 1, 2010, they were “now working for 7.5% less than you would have been receiving had the agreement been ratified by March 31, 2010.”

“We think employees should have the opportunity to vote on the final offer and addendum. We encourage you to voice your opinions to your union,” the letter states.

The letter was signed by Susan Antosh on behalf of Saskatchewan Health Regions, but did not identify her as SAHO’s president and CEO.

On July 14, 2010, an email was sent to SAHO’s director of member relations, Marj Gavigan, asking was the letter sent to union members’ homes at the request of the employer, and, how did SAHO obtain the union members’ home addresses?

Gavigan replied the next day: “Employers have the home addresses of all employees and provided authorization for SAHO to access the data to send the letters. SAHO, as the employer representative in collective bargaining, facilitated the production and distribution of the letters.” It’s still unclear, though, who requested that the letters be mailed to workers’ homes.

According to the StarPhoenix, this was the first time SAHO had ever sent a letter to union members’ homes.

Gavigan told the newspaper the intent of the letter was to provide information that SAHO was concerned wasn’t being communicated to employees.

Barb Cape, president of the Service Employees International Union-West (SEIU), which represents health-care workers in the Saskatoon Health Region, said since the letter went out they have received numerous phone calls and emails from members who were upset the letter went directly to their homes.

“They feel the purpose of the letter was not to share information but to harass, to intimidate.” [Union slams SAHO (StarPhoenix, July 14, 2010)]

She has a point. With all the news stories, radio and newspaper ads, posters, news releases and communiqués, not to mention word of mouth, it’s hard to believe SAHO’s reason for sending the letter out.

In an op-ed piece published July 22, 2010, in the Leader-Post, health care provider union representatives Gordon Campbell (CUPE Health Care Council), Barb Cape (SEIU-West) and Bonnie Erickson (SGEU vice-president) noted the unions’ offer would cost the government less than 13% over a four year term compared to the 37% settlement with the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses (SUN).

“We have agreed to SAHO’s proposed general wage increase of 9.5%,” they explained.

“Health-care workers do not want SAHO’s offer because it is tied to major concessions to their rights. These concessions, if implemented, would undermine the quality of health-care services and worsen staff shortages in a growing number of health-care classifications. Health-care workers rejected these concessions in 2009 when they voted in favour of job action and rejected them again in 2010 at hundreds of membership meetings.”

SAHO’s position on retroactive pay makes its final offer increasingly less attractive, as well.

“Why would anyone care to vote for an offer that robs them of retroactive wages?”

Yes, why indeed.

Another bone of contention is SAHO spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on an advertising campaign to promote its final offer and addendum.

“SAHO has engaged in advertising since we tabled the final offer to the provider group in January in order to correct misinformation that was circulating regarding the details of the final offer,” Antosh said in an email on June 23, 2010, in response to a request for information.

“An ad campaign ran in February, and material was distributed to health care workplaces at that time. A second ad campaign ran in May when the addendum to the final offer was presented to the unions.

“The approximate costs of the radio, print and poster material for these campaigns as of May 31, 2010 is $210,450.00.”

Antosh said later the cost of the advertising campaign was charged to the organization’s labour relations budget and that no health regions contributed any funds.

The first SAHO ad to appear in the StarPhoenix was on February 6, 2010, regarding retroactive pay. The ad merely restates information contained in page two of SAHO’s January 27, 2010, news release for the final offer. There is no indication that the ad was run to correct misinformation.

The second SAHO ad to appear in the StarPhoenix was on February 10, 2010, regarding competitive wages. Once again, the ad simply repeats information from SAHO’s January 27, 2010, news release on the general wage increase and market adjustment for certain positions. There is nothing to indicate the ad was placed to correct misinformation.

The third SAHO ad to appear in the StarPhoenix was on February 12, 2010, and entitled ‘No Reduction in Benefits.’ The ad states that SAHO’s final offer “includes no reductions to shift premium, weekend premium or earned leaves.”

The ad also states “that the current level of benefits provided by the Extended Health and Enhanced Dental Benefits Plan will continue at no cost to the employee until March 31, 2010.” This information is in SAHO’s January 27, 2010, news release as well. Like the previous ads, there is no mention of misinformation being circulated.

Posted on SAHO’s website are three short radio spots – one in February for the final offer and two in May for the addendum. As can be seen in the transcript below, there is absolutely no discussion about misinformation. It appears the purpose of the ads was to promote the final offer and addendum and push for a vote by health care workers.

Radio ad dated February 16, 2010: “SAHO has offered a new contract that works for everyone. A contract that puts patients first, attracts more healthcare workers, and gets your Saskatchewan hospitals running better. Our final offer to workers includes competitive wages and benefits, and gives everyone a chance to use common sense when needs change. Patients first. Good for workers, better run hospitals. SAHO’s final offer works for everyone. Visit our website for more details.”

Radio ad dated May 5, 2010: “SAHO made a competitive offer of nine and a half percent to healthcare workers in the provider group. We recently met with the unions and have proposed an addendum. You’re working for 2007-2008 wage rates. You’re no longer accumulating retro pay. For full time employees this is an average of $250 for every month without a contract since April 1. We believe you should have the opportunity to vote on the final offer and addendum. See working-together.info for more details.”

Radio ad dates May 5, 2010: “SAHO made a competitive offer in January of nine and half percent to healthcare workers in the provider group. We met with the unions and have now offered an addendum to address concerns. Similar workers in British Columbia recently received a zero percent general wage increase. Health care workers here are no longer accumulating retro pay. This means an average of $250 a month for full time employees. Shouldn’t health care workers have the chance to vote?”

Given that the newspaper and radio ads aren’t clear on exactly what the “misinformation” was that was circulating, an email was sent to SAHO CEO Susan Antosh on July 15, 2010, asking for clarification. Antosh replied on July 19, 2010:

“The misinformation we were hearing was significant on a variety of issues. It also varied by region and bargaining unit.

“I believe the ads are clear in terms of what we were trying to correct.”

When the final offer was tabled on January 27, 2010, the three health care provider unions issued a joint news release and a coalition bargaining communiqué. On February 1, 2010, the unions issued a series of six handouts explaining different facets of the final offer. When you compare the content of these against SAHO’s newspaper and radio ads there does not appear to be any misinformation by the unions on the terms of the final offer.

Given the absence of specifics and SAHO’s seeming reluctance to provide additional details, it appears the claim of “misinformation” was a bit of a red herring.

On May 3, 2010, SAHO issued a news release announcing that it had tabled an addendum to the final offer. Antosh is quoted as saying: “We have been receiving feedback from a number of health employees. It became apparent that either the intent of the proposals in the final offer was not clear, or there was misinformation circulating, and we determined that clarification was needed. We have provided an addendum to that end, and are asking the unions to give it serious consideration, and allow the employees to vote on the final offer.”

According to the news release, the addendum to the final offer includes:

▪ Clarification for how positions within multi-site work places would be addressed
▪ Additional language for flexibility in bumping rights
▪ Withdrawal of proposed language related to home care hours of work
▪ Withdrawal of other proposals specific to CUPE and SEIU-West contracts

The addendum document posted on the SAHO website provides no insight into the nature of the “misinformation” that may have been circulating on the subjects that SAHO subsequently ran newspaper ads for: retroactive pay, competitive wages, and no reduction in benefits.

A new SAHO ad focusing on the unions’ “additional demands” and retroactive pay appeared in the StarPhoenix on May 14 & 28, 2010, only made matters worse. With the headline ‘Shouldn’t health care workers vote?’ the purpose of ad is self-self-explanatory.

SAHO’s justification for the expensive advertising campaign doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. The whole thing smells of a public relations exercise to try and sway public opinion in its favour. SAHO needed an excuse to get the campaign rolling, and misinformation was it.

Health Minister Don McMorris letter to health care workers

SAHO letter to health care workers’ home, p.1

SAHO letter to health care workers’ home, p.2

SAHO ad, StarPhoenix, Feb. 6, 2010

SAHO ad, StarPhoenix, Feb. 10, 2010

SAHO ad, StarPhoenix, Feb. 12, 2010

SAHO ad, StarPhoenix, May 14 & 28, 2010

Monday, July 19, 2010

Wall government refusing to disclose latest Saskatchewan Minimum Wage Board report and recommendations

The results of the first review to be conducted under the Saskatchewan Party government of the province’s minimum wage are being withheld from the public.

The Ministry of Labour Relations and Workplace Safety turned down an access to information request made in June for a copy of any final report or recommendations by the Saskatchewan Minimum Wage Board concerning its recent review of the minimum wage.

“Access to the records relevant to your request is denied, pursuant to section 16(1)(a) of The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act,” said Mike Carr, the deputy minister of Labour Relations and Workplace Safety, in a letter dated July 7, 2010.

Section 16 of the Act pertains to cabinet documents, including records created to present advice, proposals, recommendations, analyses or policy options to executive council or any of its committees.

The Wall government announced the review on September 25, 2009, inviting the public to submit their opinions, concerns and experience with the minimum wage by October 30, 2009.

Nearly ten months has passed and there has been only silence from the Wall government on the review’s outcome.

Dealing with the board’s report doesn’t appear to be a priority for the government. It’s not included in the former Advanced Education, Employment and Labour’s plan for 2010-11. And it’s not listed in the premier’s mandate letter (dated June 29, 2010) for new Labour Relations and Workplace Safety minister Don Morgan.

The last review of the minimum wage was done by the previous NDP government and took half the time. The review was announced on May 1, 2007, and the results made public just five months later. The board’s report is dated July 2007, so the review itself was completed in less than two months.

In a news release on October 3, 2007, the Calvert government announced a three stage increase that saw the minimum wage move to $8.25 per hour on January 1, 2008, to $8.60 on May 1, 2008 and to $9.25 per hour on May 1, 2009.

The plan called for an adjustment “in 2010 to bring the minimum wage to the Low Income Cut-off (LICO). Along with this increase, legislation will be introduced that permits the minimum wage to be indexed in future years annually on May 1, to the consumer price index. Indexing the minimum wage beginning in 2010 will ensure that minimum wage workers are able to maintain a standard of living equivalent to the LICO.”

However, the results of the November 2007 provincial election prevented that from happening.

On December 21, 2007, the new Saskatchewan Party government issued a news release announcing a three stage increase to the minimum wage identical to the one planned by the former NDP government. But one thing was missing – indexing the minimum wage to the consumer price index.

In an interview with StarPhoenix reporter James Wood, the then Advanced Education, Employment and Labour (AEEL) Minister, Rob Norris, said he wanted to take a “fresh look” in the new year at the idea of linking the minimum wage to LICO and indexing further increases.

“We’re reviewing it. We haven’t dismissed it by any means,” he said from Saskatoon. “I want to make sure I have a more informed opinion.”

Norris said the government would make a decision in the first quarter of 2008.

Wood noted that at the time of the October announcement, the Saskatchewan Party’s then-finance critic and now First Nations and Métis Relations minister, Ken Cheveldayoff, boasted his party was the first to recommend indexing the minimum wage. [Sask. Party will go ahead with three-stage hike to minimum wage (StarPhoenix, December 22, 2007)]

Just as the minimum wage was about to increase to $8.60 on May 1, 2008, Norris began to shamelessly stall on the government’s promise to make a decision on whether to index future increases to the rate of inflation as promised by the previous NDP government.

On April 22, 2008, Norris told reporters the issue was still being studied.

According to the StarPhoenix, Norris said that “predictability” of increases for employers and employees is the government’s focus.

But he would not say how that relates to the NDP’s plan.

Norris said there are other options being considered, which he declined to name. The feedback from the business community on linking the minimum wage to inflation has been “mixed,” he said. [Minimum wage hike schedule under review (StarPhoenix, April 23, 2008)]

There’s nothing ‘mixed’ about how the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) and Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce view the subject.

The CFIB told the Leader-Post at the time that it recommended the provincial government reject the previous announcement to raise the minimum wage to the low income cutoff and then indexing it annually to the consumer price index.

“We just think those are non-starters. We hope the government will adopt a more common-sense alternative,” said CFIB spokeswoman Marilyn Braun-Pollon.

Rather than increasing the minimum wage, Braun-Pollon said small Saskatchewan businesses owners would like the government to increase the basic personal tax exemption and introduce a two-tier wage system. [Minimum wage on the way up (Leader-Post, April 30, 2008)]

In the November 2009 edition of its newsletter action!, the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce said it “is strongly opposed to indexing the minimum wage to the consumer price index or any other form of economic indicator. Indexing minimum wage to either the CPI, inflation, or one of many other economic indicators is not a reliable indication of affordability or net economic impact.”

The Saskatchewan Chamber says it’s also against raising the minimum wage from its current rate, and even seems to suggest that, given the huge personal income tax cuts the Wall government enacted in 2008, low-income workers in the province have more than enough after-tax money left in their pockets. [action!, Nov./Dec. 2009]

It sure would be interesting to know how much the CFIB’s Braun-Pollon and Saskatchewan Chamber CEO Steve McLellan are paid each year. Unfortunately, neither organization posts this kind of information on its website. One can safely bet, though, it’s a lot more than the minimum wage.

Raising the basic personal exemption is an idea the business community flogs every time the subject comes up. The fact is it won’t help most low-income earners because they already don’t pay provincial tax.

While it is true that a higher minimum wage means workers will pay more in CPP and EI contributions, the result will be an improvement in EI benefits if they become unemployed and higher CPP payments when they retire.

Then there’s the hit to the treasury. How would the provincial government compensate for the loss in revenue? The Wall government is already cash strapped and looking to slash 15 per cent of the civil service over the next four years. What’s left to cut, programs and services? The business weasels at the CFIB and Saskatchewan Chamber would love that.

Most workers likely understand that the income taxes they pay help to cover the costs for important public services like health care, education, libraries, community centres, parks, swimming pools, sports fields, fire, policing, and public transit.

The two-tier wage scheme would benefit the hospitality and retail industries where wages are already low, the turnover rate high and part-time is prevalent. Employers could conceivably go through dozens of workers without ever having to pay them the full minimum wage. Coupled with the Wall government’s decision in July 2009 to establish age 14 as the absolute minimum age of employment, the situation becomes even more exploitative.

The CFIB had lobbied for changes to that legislation to help address labour shortages across the province, especially in the hospitality sector. According to Braun-Pollon in a May 1, 2009, letter to then AEEL deputy minister Wynne Young, that sector “had the second highest long-term vacancy rate in Saskatchewan.” The CFIB tried to sell the issue as providing young workers with an opportunity to get some valuable work experience.

The CFIB routinely use British Columbia as an example of what they’re after. Introduced by the BC Liberals in 2001, the so-called “training wage” allows employers to pay someone new to the workforce as little as $6 an hour for their first 500 hours of employment. Imagine someone working part-time at 10 hours per week. It would take almost a year before they became eligible for the full-time minimum wage. And there’s nothing to prevent employers from letting someone go when they reach 500 hours, and then hire another worker at the cheap rate. It’s discriminatory and devalues workers.

The then BC Labour Minister, Graham Bruce, said enforcement of the 500-hour limit for the first-job wage will be complaint-driven, meaning it would be up to young workers and parents to go after unscrupulous employers.

According to the Vancouver Sun, the training wage was requested by the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association and the Retail Merchants’ Association of B.C. [Training wage to take effect Nov. 15: $2-under-minimum rate just what food industry was seeking (Vancouver Sun, October 30, 2001)]

In the legislature during question period on April 30, 2009, Andy Iwanchuk, the Opposition NDP’s labour critic, asked Norris point blank, ‘is the Sask Party government going to link the minimum wage to LICO and index it, or is the minister still reviewing this?’

Norris replied: “Mr. Speaker, I certainly appreciate the opportunity to provide an update. I think as I’ve said previously in this Assembly, my first analysis on the timing was probably a little bit optimistic. That review still continues, Mr. Speaker.”

Despite follow-up questions from Iwanchuk, Norris would not say anything further.

On May 1, 2009, the minimum wage increased to the current $9.25 per hour. Even at that rate, Saskatchewan’s minimum wage is still well below a living wage. A provincial government news release issued on April 17, 2009, said there are approximately 12,000 minimum wage earners in Saskatchewan.

Then on July 13, 2009, came the announcement that the Wall government had replaced all five members of the province’s minimum wage board.

The provincial government made the sweeping changes to cast “fresh eyes” on the issues, the StarPhoenix reported.

“Essentially these are positions that we thought needed to be refreshed,” said AEEL Minister Rob Norris.

Opposition labour critic Andy Iwanchuk charged the Saskatchewan Party government doesn’t want a board that might make recommendations about minimum wage it doesn’t want to implement, such as indexing, the article said.

But Norris insisted that option is still on the table and will be considered by the board.

Norris said he has encouraged the new board to consult with members of the Enterprise Saskatchewan board, set up by the Saskatchewan Party government to offer advice on furthering economic development in the province.

“I think by working more closely with Enterprise Saskatchewan, the new board will actually be in a position to receive feedback from a wide variety of sectors and I look forward to hearing about the work as it gets underway and, obviously, as they complete it by the end of the year,” Norris said.

An NDP news release charged some new board members “have strong ties to the Sask. Party, including donors, former political candidates and members of the business community who have campaigned on its behalf in the past.”

Sandy Ewert, one of the new members, ran for the Saskatchewan Party in 2003.

The five-member board now consists of: Wayne Watts of Saskatoon, chair of the board; Wayne Sannes of Moose Jaw; Margaret Hasein of Biggar; Judith Riddell of Carlyle; and Sandy Ewert of Martensville. [Minimum wage board revamped (StarPhoenix, July 14, 2009)]

That Enterprise Saskatchewan is a major player in the debate was never revealed before.

What Norris failed to mention – and the print media to report – is that the Enterprise Saskatchewan board, along with its 18 sector teams and 3 strategic issues councils, is industry-led and comprised of many Saskatchewan Party supporters and contributors. Their primary function is to identify so-called barriers to economic growth and make recommendations to the provincial government on removing them. The CFIB and the Saskatchewan Chamber have a close working relationship with the Saskatchewan Party government, and have long disliked the province’s labour laws, including minimum wages. To them, they’re barriers that must be dismantled. And the Wall government has been only too happy to oblige since taking office.

In March 2008, the Wall government fired the entire Saskatchewan Labour Relations Board and installed its own people – like management-side lawyer Ken Love as chair, a longtime Saskatchewan Party supporter. Deputy Premier Ken Krawetz warned that more personnel changes were coming to provincial agencies, boards to commissions to better reflect Saskatchewan Party ideology.

Krawetz was head of the new Saskatchewan Party government’s transition team following the November 2007 election.

“We’ve seen an NDP government in place for 16 years. This is the first time the province has had a new government and we need to ensure that we move forward based on our philosophy and the renewal that we need,” he told reporters at the legislature. [Provincial bodies to reflect Sask. Party philosophy: Krawetz (StarPhoenix, March 14, 2008)]

No doubt the new minimum wage board members were expected to conduct their deliberations last fall accordingly.

ATI request to AEEL for minimum wage board report

Premier Brad Wall with CFIB's Marilyn Braun-Pollon (center)

Premier Brad Wall with Sask. Chamber of Commerce

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Saskatchewan Construction Association lands more private meetings with Wall and cabinet; members donated $148,850 to Sask. Party in 2009

Premier Brad Wall at private meeting with SCA on May 31, 2010

Cabinet at private meeting with SCA on May 31, 2010

To hear them tell it, the Saskatchewan Construction Association (SCA) is a big wheel in the Saskatchewan Party government decision making machinery.

According to association president Michael Fougere in the organizations 2009 strategic plan, the SCA “has risen in prominence as a consistent and strong provincial voice on issues of the day.” The Wall government “routinely turns to the SCA for advice and information on public policy. Annual meetings with the provincial Cabinet, pre-budget advice to the Minister of Finance, and on-going meetings with Ministers and senior officials provide the SCA with significant access to decision makers. These meetings provide the SCA with tremendous opportunities to help shape public policy.”

The organization boasts in its June 2010 newsletter that on May 31 the SCA board of directors met with Premier Brad Wall and the provincial cabinet. “This yearly meeting provides a great opportunity to lobby the provincial government on issues that directly affect our industry,” it states.

“The SCA definitely has the ear of the government as many of the issues your provincial association has brought forward have been addressed by various ministries.”

Some of the issues discussed were: Maintaining a competitive advantage in personal and corporate income taxes; continuing strong investment in infrastructure; and, of course, thanking the government for moving forward on Bill 80 – a deeply flawed and divisive piece of labour legislation the SCA appeared to help initiate.

In October 2008, association president Michael Fougere sent a letter to then Advanced Education, Employment and Labour (AEEL) Minister Rob Norris calling on the Wall government to “establish abandonment rules” and “end the monopoly of the Building Trades in the construction industry.” Norris did just that on March 10, 2009, when he introduced Bill 80 without first consulting any worker groups, but not before cabinet met privately with the SCA board on November 26, 2008.

Bill 80 was passed without amendment on May 19, 2010, with the Wall government refusing to wait for a report from the legislature committee that spent days holding public hearings on the bill last year.

The May 31 meeting between the two parties appears to have been the second one held in less than a month. According to a briefing note obtained from AEEL through an access to information request, the SCA met with cabinet on May 5, 2010, to discuss Bill 80, as well.

[Note: The above mentioned briefing note is dated August 11, 2009. However, the document makes reference to several events that occurred after that. On July 12, 2010, Ms. Jan Gray, the access coordinator and privacy officer for Advanced Education, Employment and Immigration, advised that the correct date of the briefing note is April 23, 2010.]

Previous to that, SCA President Michael Fougere met with Clare Isman, Deputy Minister, AEEL, and Mike Carr, Associate Deputy Minister, Employee and Employer Services, AEEL, on November 27, 2009, to discuss Bill 80.

The optics of the cozy relationship couldn’t be worse, especially when other organizations with issues just as important to discuss are given the brush-off by the premier’s office.

Terry Parker, business manager of the Saskatchewan Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council, has tried on several occasions to arrange a meeting with Wall but was denied each time.

“We requested the meetings in regard to Bill 80. All the requests were made in writing, his office kept referring us to meet with Norris,” Parker said in an email on July 7, 2010. “We must of made the request at least 3 times over a year and a half.”

It’s the same story over at the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (SFL), which represents over 95,000 members, from 37 national and international unions.

When asked recently if the labour group has ever met with Wall and cabinet, SFL president Larry Hubich said no.

“The SFL has never had a private meeting with Premier Wall and his cabinet to discuss labour issues. Nor have we ever had a meeting with Wall and his cabinet to discuss any matter,” Hubich said in an email on June 1, 2010.

Hubich wrote to Wall in 2008, on behalf of the SFL executive council, and requested a meeting with him and the cabinet to discuss issues important to labour, but was instead assigned to meet with a caucus committee headed up by Saskatchewan Party MLA Glen Hart.

“That is the only time that the SFL executive council (as an organization) has had a meeting with any of the Sask. Party members, except once Rob Norris came to meet with the SFL executive at our regular meeting,” Hubich said.

Wall can find time to meet with industry associations and business lobby groups, yet refuses to extend the same courtesy to labour groups. Aside from ideology and a deep seated hated for unions, perhaps it has something to do with political contributions.

Last year, corporate donations to the Saskatchewan Party accounted for 51.31 per cent of the $1.69 million that the political party took in. And how much did the party receive from trade unions? Try zero.

Of the $871,294 in corporate donations the Saskatchewan Party received in 2009, it appears that $148,850 (or 17.08 per cent) came from members of the SCA or its affiliates.

The figure was obtained by comparing the businesses listed in the SCA’s 2010 Membership Roster and Buyer’s Guide with the names of corporate donors in the 2009 financial statements filed by the Saskatchewan Party with Elections Saskatchewan.

The membership guide is not limited to private businesses, it also includes several provincial government agencies:

▪ Ministry of Government Services
▪ Enterprise Saskatchewan
▪ Saskatchewan Environment
▪ Saskatchewan Housing Corporation
▪ SaskPower
▪ SaskTel
▪ SGI Canada
▪ SaskEnergy
▪ SaskWater

There’s something unsettling about publicly funded government institutions belonging to organizations whose main job is to lobby government to adopt policies that serve the interests of its private sector members. Particularly troubling is Enterprise Saskatchewan, listed as a member of the Saskatoon Construction Association. SCA President Michael Fougere currently serves as a director of that agency – a post he was appointed to by the Wall government. SCA past chair Erick Erickson sits on the agency’s construction and land development sector team, which reports to the Enterprise Saskatchewan board. A key function of the board and sector teams is to identify barriers to economic growth and make recommendations to government for their removal. This, of course, could one day financially benefit the businesses that Fougere and Erickson represent.

Aug. 11, 2009, AEEL briefing note (should be Apr. 23, 2010)

Nov. 19, 2009 AEEL briefing note


Affinity Credit Union, $1,126.80

AGRA Foundations Ltd., $751.20

Alford Floors & Interiors Ltd., $695.80

Alliance Energy Ltd., $4,344.77

All-Rite Plumbing & Heating Ltd., $498.56

Alpine Interior Systems Ltd., $880.22

Alton Tangedal Architect Ltd., $347.90

AMEC Americas Ltd., $1,502.40

Anderson Rental & Paving Ltd., $2,803.41

AODBT Architecture Interior Design, $380.22

Aquifier Distribution Ltd., $1,000.00

Ardel Steel Ltd., $1,395.80

Associated Engineering (Sask.) Ltd., $375.60

Banadyga Eldred Mitchell Partnership Architects, $1,391.60

BMTR Ventures Ltd., $2,000.00

Brandt Tractor Ltd., $2,894.00

Bridge City Electric Sask. Ltd., $2,052.40

Brownlee Beaton Kreke, $1,890.16

Buddwill Enterprises Ltd., $550.00

Business Furnishings (Sask.) Ltd., $1,850.30

Canadian Western Bank, $1,886.23

Carmont Construction Ltd., $300.00

CCR Construction Ltd., $347.90

Central Asphalt & Paving Inc., $375.60

Choice Electrical Supply Ltd., $506.96

Cindercrete Products Ltd., $2,748.24

City of Regina -- Purchasing, $1,913.45

Clark's Supply & Service Ltd., $500.00

Clifton Associates Ltd., $1,391.60

Community Electric Ltd., $1,000.00

Crown Cleaners (1996) Ltd., $969.81

Deloitte, $749.28

Dominion Construction Company Ltd., $2,894.00

Dura Construction Ltd., $347.90

Elance Steel Fabricating & Erecting Co. Ltd., $1,502.40

Federated Co-operatives Ltd., $1,502.40

Fries Tallman Lumber (1976) Ltd., $1,965.04

Frontier Builders, $365.50

Frontier Peterbilt Sales Ltd., $506.96

G & C Asphalt Services Ltd., $543.28

G & R Mechanical Contracting Inc., $423.23

GE Ground Engineering Ltd., $347.90

Glacier Glass Ltd., $347.90

Globe Excavating, $451.36

Graham Construction and Engineering Inc. (Graham Group Ltd.), $3,543.76

Hamm Construction Ltd., $600.00

Handyman Rental Centre, $1,301.01

Harry J. Jedlic Architect Ltd., $472.54

HDA Engineering Ltd., $1,391.60

Henderson Insurance Inc., $253.48

HVAC Sales Ltd., $1,391.60

Inland Metal Mfg. (1994) Ltd., $497.66

J.A.B.A. Construction Ltd., $453.48

J.C. Kenyon Engineering Inc., $635.34

JBS Engineering Inc., $801.01

JNE Welding Ltd., $2,102.80

KGS Donovan, $1,391.60

KPMG LLP Chartered Accountants, $16,896.07

Lafarge Canada Inc., $347.90

Loraas Disoposal Services Ltd., $8,192.61

Magna Electric Corp., $1,391.60

Maxim Chemical International Ltd., $695.80

McDougall Gauley LLP, $3,308.00

Merit Contractors Association Inc., $3,360.99

Meyers Norris Penny, $4,403.15

Miners Construction Co. Ltd., $1,551.20

North American Rock & Dirt Inc., $801.01

North West Regional College, $339.55

Northern Resources Trucking Limited Partnership, $2,253.60

P. Machibroda Engineering Ltd., $502.34

P3 Architecture Ltd., $1,391.60

Pavement Scientific International Inc., $3,104.42

PCL Construction Management Inc., $3,043.76

Peter Kiewit Sons Co., $2,267.49

Pro AV, $347.90

PSW Architecture & Interior Design Ltd., $695.80

Quorex Construction Ltd., $347.90

Redhead Equipment Ltd., $4,035.03

Resource Management International Inc., $300.00

Ritenburg & Associates Ltd., $1,496.81

Robertson Stromberg Pedersen LLP/
RSP (Saskatoon) Legal Prof. Corp., $4,566.25

Saskatoon Regional Economic Development Authority, $375.60

Saskatoon Wholesale Tire Ltd., $550.00

Saunders Evans Plosker Wotherspoon Architects Inc., $1,391.60

SIAST, $1,502.40

Silvester Glass & Aluminium Products Ltd., $543.28

Site Management Services Regina Inc., $521.85

Stantec Consulting Ltd. (Stantec Architecture Ltd.), $2,009.36

Tech Electric Ltd., $500.00

T.G. Marketing, $300.00

Tierdon Glass Ltd., $869.75

Trane Saskatchewan, $1,186.35

Turnbull Excavating Ltd., $500.00

Victory Companies (Victory Majors Investments Corporation), $375.60

W.F. Botkin Construction Ltd., $2,115.16

Wallace Construction Specialties Ltd., $375.60

Wappel Construction Co. Ltd., $347.90

WaterMark Consulting Ltd., $400.00

Westridge Construction Ltd., $1,891.60

TOTAL: $148,850.79

Monday, July 05, 2010

Harper, Wall govts flouting infrastructure agreement requirements; Mendel renovation was 4th on city’s priority list, Destination Centre 7th

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced on January 16, 2009, an action plan to accelerate infrastructure spending by reducing duplication, streamlining regulatory processes, and fast-tracking federal review and approval processes to get Building Canada projects started sooner, who knew that it would be at the expense of such important things as governance, accountability and long term planning?

On April 11, 2008, federal Agriculture Minister and Saskatchewan MP Gerry Ritz joined provincial Municipal Affairs Minister Bill Hutchinson in Regina to announce the signing of a framework agreement between the two governments. The agreement provides approximately $635 million through Building Canada, the Government of Canada’s $33 billion long-term infrastructure plan.

The funding is in addition to funding from the Gas Tax Fund and Municipal Rural Infrastructure Fund already being provided to Saskatchewan. The Government of Canada will provide more than $755 million in funding, between 2007 and 2014, for infrastructure projects in Saskatchewan under the Building Canada plan.

Under the agreement, the Government of Canada will provide more than $236 million from the Building Canada Fund (BCF), a centrepiece of the overall plan, toward infrastructure initiatives in Saskatchewan.

The program will operate through two components: the Major Infrastructure Component (MIC) and the Communities Component.

The Building Canada website states the MIC will target larger, strategic projects of national and regional significance. Projects under the MIC will be selected through federal-provincial discussions to establish priority investments, and with municipalities and the private sector, where appropriate. All projects will be subject to due diligence review to evaluate the extent to which they meet economic and environmental criteria.

The Communities Component is focused on projects in communities with populations of less than 100,000. Projects will be selected through an application-based process and, like projects under the MIC, will be evaluated on the extent to which they meet environmental, economic and quality of life objectives.

According to a federal government news release, the Canada-Saskatchewan Framework Agreement outlines how the Building Canada Plan will operate in the province. It also establishes a governance framework through which the two governments will work together to identify and address infrastructure priorities.

In a letter to Infrastructure Canada’s assistant deputy minister of policy and communications, John Forster, dated May 8, 2008, which was obtained through an access to information request, Saskatchewan Ministry of Intergovernmental Affairs official Dylan Jones indicated that Highways and Infrastructure would be implementing the agreement on behalf of the Government of Saskatchewan. George Stamatinos, assistant deputy minister, policy and programs, would be the lead on the file.

It’s important to note as well that no changes appear to have been made to the framework agreement since it was signed. Section 10.3 provides for amendments, but the Wall government says there have been none. In response to a query, the deputy minister of highways and infrastructure, Rob Penny, advised in a letter dated May 12, 2010, that, “there have been no amendments to the agreement to date.”

One of the seven stated objectives of the agreement is the establishment of an Infrastructure Framework Committee (IFC).

According to the agreement, the IFC is meant “to facilitate improved cooperation and coordination between the Parties regarding Public Infrastructure initiatives in Saskatchewan.”

Section 7.2 describes the structure of the committee: “Each Party will, within 60 days of the date of this Agreement, appoint one person to be a co-chair of the IFC. The Co-Chairs will be the only voting members of the IFC and a quorum for a meeting of the IFC shall exist only when both Co-Chairs are present. The Co-Chairs may jointly agree to invite representatives of other federal, provincial or municipal entities to participate in meetings of the IFC as observers. If a Co-chair is absent, he or she may designate an individual, in writing, to substitute for him or her and as such, this designate will fully represent the Co-chair.”

The co-chairs are identified in a letter dated September 2, 2008, from the then federal minister of transport, infrastructure and communities, Lawrence Cannon, to Saskatchewan’s minister responsible for intergovernmental affairs, Bill Boyd.

“Thank you for your letter of May 13, 2008, in which you indicated that Mr. John Law, Deputy Minister of Highways and Infrastructure for the Government of Saskatchewan, would be the provincial co-chair to the Infrastructure Framework Committee,” Cannon wrote. “In turn, I would like to inform you that as per section 7.2 of the Canada-Saskatchewan Infrastructure Framework Agreement, I am appointing Mr. John Forster, Assistant Deputy Minister, Policy and Communications, Infrastructure Canada, as federal co-chair of the Infrastructure Framework Committee (INC).

“The Government of Canada is committed to implementing the Building Canada plan in Saskatchewan as quickly as possible. To that end, my officials have begun discussions with officials in your department to conclude the Provincial-Territorial Base Funding Agreement.”

‘As quickly as possible,’ are words worth remembering.

The role and mandate of the IFC, as outlined in Section 7.3, is that it “will act as the forum where the Parties can bring forward their infrastructure priorities and issues generally, reflecting the integrated views of their respective governments, and as they relate to the BCF and Base Funding. The IFC will assist in ensuring that there is collaborative and meaningful discussion between Canada and Saskatchewan about infrastructure issues related to federal and/or cost-shared programming.”

As part of its mandate, the IFC is expected to act “as the principal forum to discuss and coordinate issues and priorities relating to federal funding of public infrastructure in Saskatchewan.” It will oversee “the progress and status of infrastructure programs under the Building Canada Plan” and review “changes to the Saskatchewan Infrastructure Plan, pursuant to Schedule B.”

The IFC will review priorities and discuss “projects of interest to be funded under the Major Infrastructure Component.” It will also establish sub-committees as needed.

Section 7.4 states that any decisions of the committee “must be unanimous and recorded in writing.”

As for meetings and administrative matters (Section 7.5), the IFC will “meet at least once each calendar year. No more than twelve (12) months shall pass between IFC meetings. Additional meetings shall be held upon the request of either co-chair.”

The IFC must “keep minutes of meetings, which shall be approved and signed as a true record at the following IFC meeting,” as well as “establish rules and procedures with respect to its meetings and those of its sub-committees, including rules for the conduct of meetings and the making of decisions.”

The Harper and Wall governments have violated this part of the framework agreement on at least one major front. That being the committee has never met.

An access to information request dated April 1, 2010, was submitted to Infrastructure Canada for copies of any records regarding the IFC, including the minutes to any meetings, from April 11, 2008, to September 30, 2009.

In an informal email response on April 17, 2010, Hank Schriel, the Infrastructure Canada access to information advisor handling the file, advised: “We do have a few relatively minor administrative records about the formation of this committee (letters nominating members to the committee) but I wonder if that is what you had in mind? This committee has never met so there are no substantive records at all (no agendae, minutes or records of decisions).”

That the IFC has never met was reaffirmed in the department’s official response on April 29, 2010.

“The reason we have no other relevant records is that to date this Committee has not had a formal meeting,” Schriel said in a letter signed on behalf of Infrastructure Canada access to information coordinator Sylvie Plourde.

Infrastructure Canada had just 3 records responsive to the request, the aforementioned letters from Dylan Jones to John Forster and Lawrence Cannon to Bill Boyd; and an August 12, 2008, memorandum (for decision and signature) to Cannon recommending that Forster be appointed the IFC co-chair in six jurisdictions: Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Nunavut, Northwest Territories and Yukon.

The IFC is an integral part of the agreement’s governance framework, and yet there is virtually no records concerning it. Nothing to explain why it is inactive and not being allowed to fulfill its role and mandate as the “principal forum” for the two senior levels of government to bring forward, for review, discussion and coordination, their infrastructure priorities and issues generally as they relate to the Building Canada Fund and Base Funding.

In deciding not to meet as required, the Harper and Wall governments are sidestepping an important part of the accountability that is built in to the agreement – the paper trail, the signed and approved meeting minutes and written record of decisions.

Through the Building Canada Plan, Saskatchewan will receive $175 million in base funding for core infrastructure priorities.

Like the MIC projects, the IFC acts as the “principal forum” where base funding priorities are brought forward for review and discussion. But again, the committee has never met.

The lack of IFC meetings would also appear to affect the Communities Component of the Building Canada Fund, too.

The Government of Canada’s contribution under the Communities Component is pursuant to a Communities Funding Agreement to be negotiated between Canada and Saskatchewan. Section 3.4.4 of the agreement, which pertains to governance, states that the funding agreement “will be overseen by a subcommittee of the IFC to be appointed from the Parties’ senior officials and which may also include representatives from or in consultation with provincial municipal associations.”

Presumably, the sub-committee would report to the main committee, which in turn would be recorded in the meeting minutes. With no functioning committee to report to accountability is once again thwarted.

The Harper and Wall governments blatant flouting of the framework agreement doe not end there.

Under Section 6.2 of the agreement “Saskatchewan agrees to develop a Saskatchewan Infrastructure Plan in accordance with the guideline in Schedule B and to provide this plan, and any updates, to Canada, in a format satisfactory to the Federal Minister, within one year of the date of this Agreement. This plan will help the Parties better understand and situate infrastructure priorities in Saskatchewan. Should Saskatchewan update its Infrastructure Plan, this update would be discussed by the IFC.”

Schedule B indicates that the plan is “a long-term, 5-10 year.”

“The Parties agree on the importance of long-term planning to better address public infrastructure priorities,” Section 6.1 states. “Planning plays a vital role in the sound and effective management of our public infrastructure, given the long-term nature of infrastructure investments, the challenges of managing assets throughout their life cycle and constructing new infrastructure in response to continued growth. Long-term plans can serve as a critical tool to identify priorities as well as develop integrated strategies that address competing pressures in a predictable and manageable way.”

So important is the long-term infrastructure plan that the Wall government has decided not to develop one.

On June 22 and 23, 2010, emails were sent to the following highways and infrastructure officials inquiring about the status of the Saskatchewan Infrastructure Plan: Josh Safronetz, executive director, major projects; George Stamatinos, assistant deputy minister, policy and programs division; and, Doug Wakabayashi, communications director. None responded. It was only after contacting Highways and Infrastructure Minister Jim Reiter and deputy minister Rob Penny on June 24, 2010, that the query was taken seriously.

In a letter dated June 28, 2010, highways and infrastructure deputy minister Rob Penny wrote: “You are correct in identifying the Canada-Saskatchewan Infrastructure Framework Agreement requires the province develop an infrastructure plan. The Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure is tasked with the preparation of the required plan; to date the ministry has not completed nor looked to implement a Saskatchewan Infrastructure Plan.”

Penny did not explain why.

The news that there will be no long-term infrastructure plan is surprising given that the Wall government told the people of Saskatchewan there would be one.

In its 2008-09 annual report, Highways and Infrastructure had this to say: “The Ministry initiated the development of the Saskatchewan Infrastructure Plan that is a signature document establishing a comprehensive infrastructure plan for Saskatchewan.”

However, there is no mention of the initiative in the ministry’s plan for 2009-10. What happened to it is a mystery.

Provincial government records show that the Ministry of Municipal Affairs is involved in this issue as well. According to its 2009-10 plan, the ministry’s key priorities last year included:

▪ Implement a new provincial-municipal Saskatchewan infrastructure plan in partnership with the Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure, which is leading the plan’s development, to meet Saskatchewan’s requirements under the Building Canada Plan.

▪ Provide details to the Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure to inform the development of a new provincial-municipal Saskatchewan infrastructure plan, which is required to meet Saskatchewan’s requirements under the Building Canada Plan.

The ministry plan for 2010-11, however, is silent on the Saskatchewan Infrastructure Plan. It seems to have vanished into thin air.

Highways and Infrastructure Minister Jim Reiter and former Municipal Affairs Minister Bill Hutchinson appear to have some explaining to do, as does Infrastructure Canada who would surely know what’s going on as well.

The Harper and Wall governments’ flagrant breach of the framework agreement calls into question the legitimacy of the project review and approvals process as it relates to Building Canada Fund – Major Infrastructure Component and Base Funding projects across Saskatchewan.

Section 3.3.4 of the agreement describes the role the IFC co-chairs play in the project approvals process for MIC projects:

“The IFC Co-chairs will present and discuss priorities for infrastructure funding under the Major Infrastructure Component. The Co-chairs will endeavour to present an integrated and consolidated view of the Parties’ priorities for funding under this Component. Priorities presented by the Provincial Co-chair for consideration will be consistent with Saskatchewan’s Infrastructure Plan, while Canada’s review of funding priorities will be guided by its intention to further the Building Canada Fund program objectives and to focus two-thirds of overall funding under this component on National Priority Categories. Each Co-chair will recommend projects to be considered as a priority for funding to his or her respective Minister. The Federal Minister will approve funding provided by Canada for projects to be funded under the Major Infrastructure Component of the Building Canada Fund. Prior to approval of funding, each Party may conduct its own due diligence review of the project and the Parties agree to cooperate in any project review, including the sharing of relevant studies, information and data.”

The Wall government’s decision not to develop and implement a Saskatchewan Infrastructure Plan seriously impacts this part of the agreement. Any priorities for infrastructure funding presented by the co-chairs for consideration must “be consistent” with such a plan. With no plan in place how can projects qualify?

Furthermore, the opening sentence of Section 3.3.4 notes that IFC co-chairs “will present and discuss priorities.” Section 7.3 clearly states that the IFC is the “principal forum” where such discussions are to occur, but the Harper and Wall governments have chosen not to convene the committee. With no meetings, where minutes are taken and decisions recorded, how can the co-chairs fulfill their obligations and recommend projects for funding to his or her respective Minister?

Not having a Saskatchewan Infrastructure Plan also impacts the Base Funding portion of the framework agreement. Under Section 4.3 – Eligible Initiatives and Eligible Recipients, “Saskatchewan agrees that funded initiatives will be consistent with the Saskatchewan Infrastructure Plan.” But there is no plan.

On September 23, 2009, the federal government announced funding commitments for three MIC projects in Saskatoon: Flood Control Project, Water Reservoir Project, and the Destination Centre. Given that no IFC meetings have occurred or a Saskatchewan Infrastructure Plan implemented, as required, it seems reasonable to conclude that these projects should not have qualified or been approved for funding.

Especially brutal is the case of the Destination Centre.

Shortly after the framework agreement was signed, Highways and Infrastructure requested from the City of Saskatoon a list of projects for funding under the Building Canada Program.

Subsequently, in a letter dated July 21, 2008, Murray Totland, the city’s then general manager of infrastructure services, submitted an “initial list of candidate projects” to highways and infrastructure assistant deputy minister George Stamatinos.

“Further to our recent telephone discussion on the allocation of the Building Canada Funds – Major Component, I am taking your advice and presenting you with a list of projects that the City of Saskatoon is interested in submitting for funding under this program,” Totland wrote. “I am also submitting a similar list for the Base Funding component of the Program. Both lists are on the attachment and provide tentative project start dates, as well as our current estimated cost. The lists are also is our current order of project priority. You will note that our list of candidate projects certainly exceeds the amount of available funding, the reason being that we wanted you to see our full list so that we have options as we work through our discussions.”

Fourth on the city’s priority list was the Mendel Art Gallery expansion and renovation project, just behind the expansion and rehabilitation of the city’s water reservoirs, the Confederation Park flood protection project, and the 25th Street extension. Coming in a distant seventh was the Destination Complex at River Landing. The city considered the rehabilitation of the Traffic Bridge (5th) and upgrades to Gordie Howe Bowl (6th) more important.

At the city council meeting held October 14, 2008, city administration reported that it had “just begun discussions with the Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure” on the “specific program requirements and the criteria for both the Major Infrastructure Component and the Base Funding program,” and that a “list of candidate projects which should meet the program funding criteria” was being developed.

The city’s 2009 capital budget (approved December 15, 2008) shows that the Mendel project, as well as the Destination Complex (or Centre), were still being considered for Building Canada Funds.

On January 5, 2009, the Globe and Mail reported that the City of Saskatoon had “submitted a list of half a dozen projects a few months ago, including the expansion and renovation of the Mendel Art Gallery” for Building Canada Funds, but had not yet received a go-ahead from the federal government. [Tories say building money ‘is flowing’ (The Globe and Mail, January 5, 2009)]

On January 8, 2009, Mayor Don Atchison and Mendel board chair Art Knight sent a letter to then Tourism, Parks, Culture, and Sport Minister Christine Tell seeking a one-year deadline extension of the Building Communities Program Agreement covering the contribution by the province of $4.09-million for the expansion and renovation of the Mendel, which they told the minister was a “worthy and important project” that “will be successful.” The pair also said the delay in moving forward with the project was due in part to “finalizing a formal request for funding from the Building Canada Program.”

However, something happened after that because on April 3, 2009, Atchison and Knight suddenly announced that the Mendel would be moving into the proposed Destination Centre to be located at River Landing. The Mendel name would be stripped from the building and replaced with the Art Gallery of Saskatchewan. That the new building would cost $58-million versus $24-million to renovate the Mendel didn’t seem to bother anyone.

The Mendel project is shovel-ready and could have gone to tender in March 2009. The Destination Centre, on the other hand, is still in the design stage. According to the city’s 2010 capital budget, construction on the underground parkade was anticipated to begin in 2011. Work on the actual centre itself would start in 2012.

But that’s not the case anymore.

“The best estimate we have now is that the underground parkade will likely start in 2012. During the 2011 Capital Budget cycle all information, including anticipated construction dates, will be updated,” said Linda Andal, a financial policy and strategy analyst with the City of Saskatoon, in an email on July 6, 2010.

The decision to move the Mendel was the result of secret discussions and backroom deals by the three levels of government. “With our partners in the City, Provincial and Federal governments, we have come to the conclusion a new building is the best fit for Saskatoon’s expanding future and our city’s amazing new urban riverfront,” the Mendel board said in a glossy brochure released at the press conference to announce the move.

Saskatoon citizens and the Mendel family were kept in the dark until the last minute.

Adding insult to injury is River Landing itself which has become a financial albatross for taxpayers tripling in cost from $42.1 million in 2004 to at least $135.6 million today. The main reasons given for moving the Mendel is the availability of Building Canada funds and River Landing’s desperate need for an attraction.

On April 9, 2009, the city submitted its final list of capital projects that required funding from both the Major Infrastructure Component and the Base Funding Component under the Building Canada Fund to Highways and Infrastructure. The Mendel was not included.

In all, the city submitted just three projects for MIC funding: Water Reservoirs, Flood Control, and Art Gallery of Saskatchewan.

In June 2009, Infrastructure Canada received a project proposal from the City of Saskatoon for the Destination Centre. Less than three months later it was approved for funding.

The lack of transparency and accountability surrounding this issue is appalling.

To date, no details on the closed-door discussions between the City of Saskatoon, provincial and federal governments to move the Mendel have been made public. In fact, there appears to be little in the way of a paper trail.

According to a January 12, 2010, email from the city clerk, at the time of the 2009 capital budget in December 2008, city administrative staff and federal officials were discussing “project eligibility” for the Building Canada Fund.

In February 2010, a freedom of information request was submitted to Infrastructure Canada for copies of any records from November 1, 2008, to December 31, 2008, regarding or relating to the Mendel Art Gallery. This covered the time period the city said discussions were taking place. And yet, on February 25, 2010, Infrastructure Canada advised that it had no records responsive to the request.

In a letter dated March 19, 2010, responding to a freedom of information request, the city clerk noted “that prior to the City’s formal submission of April 9, 2009, there was only informal dialogue between officials of the City and the Province as to the eligibility of the many potential projects that were being considered.” There “was no formal correspondence, merely emails between officials” that the city did not keep copies of.

And this is only one project. How many other questionable Building Canada-related projects are out there?

[Note: This post was updated on July 6, 2010, to include new information from the City of Saskatoon on the start-up date for construction of the Destination Centre parkade.]