Does Keith Wilson Look Like a Revolutionary to You?

In Alberta he does, taking down government by exposing a $16 billion scandal one power point at a time.

By Andrew Nikiforuk 4 Feb 2011 |

Andrew Nikiforuk, writer in residence for The Tyee, is author of Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, winner of the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize.

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Keith Wilson, an Alberta Tory's worst nightmare.

As Keith Wilson takes the floor of the Crossfield Community Centre just north of Calgary in late January, the 46-year-old does not look like a radical to be feared at the highest levels of power.

On the contrary, the blue suited, shorthaired, St. Albert lawyer looks every inch a father of four children as well as a former government employee who once worked for the Farmer's Advocate.

But when the man takes the stage, he quickly warns that seated audience of 300 citizens that "the contents of my talk may not be suitable for young viewers."

At first the dryly titled power point "Powerlines, Utility Corridors and Property Rights: Where Did They Go?" does not seem like a barnburner let alone a threat to Alberta's 40-year long one-party rule.

But by the end of the dramatic presentation, faces in the audience reflect the same sort of grim political determination for change now common in the streets of Egypt or Tunisia.

"No other jurisdiction in North America has concentrated so much power in the cabinet," says Wilson. "There are countries in Eastern Europe that tried it, but it didn't work out." Most heads in the crowd nod in total agreement.

Over the last seven months Wilson's presentation has provoked a political revolution in rural Alberta that has seriously eroded the Tory's key base of support. It has also prompted more disgruntled Albertans to the join the Wildrose Alliance in droves. (In one tiring week alone Wilson spoke to 2,500 citizens in Southern Alberta).

His factual talk (The Tyee checked all references) not only challenges a controversial plan to build $16.5 billion worth of transmission lines that will triple the province's electrical rates but carefully dissects the very draconian and unprecedented legislation (Bills 19, 36, 50) that gives the government the authority to build the lines without a single public needs assessment.

All aboard the 'information tour'

To date Wilson's "information tour" has made such an impression on Albertans that it has also spawned innovative protests throughout the petro state.

In one instance a bunch of Edmonton businessmen known as The Stickman erected a billboard in the city's downtown. It asks "How Many Progressive Conservatives Does It Take to Steal Your Land? Answer: 13 Call Your MLA. Repeal Bill 36." (Thirteen represents half the Tory cabinet of 23 ministers plus one.) More billboards are coming.

In Ed Stelmach's rual riding east of Edmonton more than 700 farmers and landowners have organized against the legislation as well as the Tory's transmission plans.

(Some observers suspect that Stelmach, who announced he's leaving politics, couldn't have won the riding again even if he tried. "Maybe the premier resigned because he finally read the acts that he passed," muses Wilson. )

Wilson, too, has also attracted well-informed allies.

"What Wilson is doing is trying to enlighten people about the consequences of the transmission expansion and remind them it's not too late to change things," says Sheldon Fulton, executive director of the Industrial Power Consumer's Association. His group, which represents the province's largest power users, opposes the transmission expansion as a threat to the province's economy.

"It's relief when a guy like Wilson reaches the same conclusions that Alberta's transmission expansions doesn't make much sense," explains Fulton.

The making of a dissident

Wilson's transformation into a political dissident happened quite by accident in 2009. Asked by the Law Society of Alberta to review three pieces of legislation (Bill 19, 36, and 50) rapidly passed by a government ruled by one party for 40 years, Wilson naively agreed to write what he thought would be a simple education paper.

He now jokes that he wishes he'd chosen to match pairs of missing socks at home instead.

"I couldn't believe what I was reading in these bills or that any government would put all this into words," says the lawyer, a long-term advocate of landowner rights who has famously defended farmers against toxic sour gas drilling. In fact Wilson read each piece of legislation over three times.

All three contain unique provisions that concentrate and centralize power in the hands of the provincial cabinet. The legislation also gives the government the authority to extinguish property rights willy-nilly.

Bill 36, the Alberta Land Stewardship Act, for example, granted new powers to the provincial cabinet to extinguish water rights, land titles and grazing dispositions and removed local land decision making from municipalities.

Moreover the bill "restricts through unprecedented legal drafting the rights of individuals to have access to due process, the Courts and compensation."

(While being debated in the legislature on May 27, 2009, Liberal leader David Swann decried the concentration of power and lack of legal recourse saying his objection to the legislation was about freedom.

Ted Morton, who is now seeking the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives, simply defended the legislation by saying, "It's not about freedom. It's loss of control.")

Bill 19, the Land Assembly Project Area Act, gave the provincial cabinet the power to freeze land for transmission projects for extended periods of time (30 years). Wilson found "no formal process through which affected landowners can seek to persuade cabinet of their concerns."

Lastly, Wilson looked at highly contentious Bill 50, the Electric Statutes Amendment Act. It transferred all public decision on the need for electrical transmission lines to "the closed door of the cabinet room." (Every political party in the province has called for its repeal.)

His understated conclusion in the paper: "The position of landowners in Alberta with respect to development and land use rights is in a considerable state of flux as a result of legislation recently passed by the Alberta legislature."

A challenge, and then silence

When he first presented his findings at a Law Society conference in Nov. 2009, a senior government deputy minister, Morris Seiferling, confirmed that "the individual comments in your paper I believe are correct." (Even MLA Ted Morton, the much-loathed architect of Bill 36, admits the bills gave the government "a lot of administrative discretion.")

Sieferling's confirmation, however, didn't make Wilson feel any better. "My legal paper has been in the public realm for 14 months now and this government has not issued a single document saying it's incorrect. That's scary."

582px version of Satirical billboard in Edmonton
Edmonton business group called The Stickman erected this billboard in the city's downtown.

When Wilson then pointed out the alarming content of say Bill 36 to several Tory MLAs and got no reply, he decided to leave the Conservative party. Like thousands of other Albertans he joined the Wildrose Alliance, which has repeatedly called for the repeal of all three contentious pieces of legislation.

Gathering allies

Last fall Wilson took his findings on the road for an "informational tour" (and his talks are strictly non-partisan) where he met Joe Anglin, a former U.S. policeman and transmission engineer.

For nearly six years the rural activist and former leader of the Alberta Green Party has lead a concerted public campaign to restore transparency and accountability to the province's deregulated electrical markets. (Watch for an upcoming profile of Anglin.)

The two men immediately hit if off. They now make joint presentations across the province filling entire community halls at often just a week's notice.

"Wilson uses his skills as a lawyer to explain what these bills are doing to ordinary Albertans," says Anglin. "He methodically marches people through the legislation in a way people can understand. It's very powerful."

Anglin, whose conference calls have been monitored by government officials, adds that province's transmission plans "are a boondoggle that make the Liberal sponsorship scandal pale in comparison."

In addition to describing the harrowing legal implications of the power-grabbing bills, Wilson's presentation highlights a number of startling facts often glossed over by Alberta's partisan and sleepy media.

Count the outrages

For starters, a 2009 study by the University of Calgary School of Public Policy found exactly what Wilson found in Bill 50: "There is inadequate attention to the costs of inefficient overbuilding and the consequence of higher than necessary electricity costs for Alberta consumers." The Utility Consumer's Advocate came to the same conclusion.

Second, the Industrial Power Consumers Association of Alberta, which represents 20 industries that consume 30 per cent of the province's power, has repeatedly warned the government that its $16-billion plan to expand transmission lines is unnecessary, uneconomic and unrealistic. It could also drive business out of the province.

"We simply cannot afford this transmission development plan and it is unnecessary... Alberta competitiveness is at risk,” says a damning Oct. 26, 2010 briefing to the Stelmach government.

Moreover IPCAA has described the government statements that there is "substantial risk of brownouts due to lack of transmission" as completely "inaccurate."

Third, in almost every jurisdiction around the world a utility commission transparently uses a public process to determine the need and cost of transmission lines.

But not in Alberta. "The bills centralize decision making and authority in cabinet in Edmonton. It's scary to think that 13 politicans have absolute power over your land, home and business. " (At this point the audience notably gasps and groans.)

Fourth, Wilson (and Anglin too) also makes it clear that the only beneficiaries of the Soviet-like bills as well the uneconomic transmission expansion remain Atco, AltaLink (a Calgary-based firm) and AltaLink's major owner, the Montreal engineering firm SNC Lavalin.

Under Alberta's dysfunctional electrical deregulation policy, Alberta taxpayers must pay for new lines, but AltaLink gets to own them. The company is also guaranteed a nine per cent rate of return.

Stelmach's response

Although Tory MLAs and employees of AltaLink have been invited to more than 24 meetings to date, none have appeared to challenge Wilson's findings.

After the Wildrose Alliance released a policy paper condemning the bills on Jan. 14, Premier Ed Stelmach announced that the government would review two of the controversial land-use bills, but not Bill 50.

"The intent behind these bills has been wrongly interpreted as an intentional attack on Albertan's private property rights, and nothing could be further from the truth,” Stelmach said a week before his abrupt resignation as premier.

To date Wilson has received but one bizarre government response to his presentation. It consists of a radio transcript of a Wilson interview that contains inserted so-called government "facts."

The facts contain misspellings, incomplete sentences and incoherent ramblings ("MOST of ALL Think why would anyone let alone a government consisting of over 30 rural landowners pass legislation to take way landowner’s rights." [sic]). It was released by MLA Evan Berger’s office.

"It's surreal," says Wilson, who used to work for Alberta's Farmer's Advocate. Wilson remembers the day when all government correspondence had to be vetted by a grammarian.

Angry audiences

When a regime or dynasty begins to fail, says Wilson, "the people around the leader are there not because of their skills but because of their loyalty."

At the end of the damning presentation ordinary citizens typically express either dismay or outright rage. (At the Crossfield meeting citizens tellingly condemned Ted Morton's role in drafting the authoritarian Bill 36 at least three times.) But the most overwhelming sentiment appears to be one of guilt.

"They blame themselves for not paying more attention," says the exhausted lawyer. "Democracy is not something you can take for granted and maybe we've done that for too long in this province."

(Full Disclosure: Andrew Nikiforuk is a rural landowner and member of the Livingston Landowners Group. As a taxpayer and long-time landowner's advocate, he is also opposing power line proposals in southern Alberta based on the absence of any public needs assessment and government legislation that attacks property rights.)  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Politics

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