Reporter Barry McDonald was delighted and honored to have been chosen winner of a photo contest held by the Hon. Verlyn Olson. The winning prize was an invitation by Mr. Olson to join him for a lunch.
McDonald embraced the opportunity to have a one-on-one with a leading politician…..but he also saw the opportunity to make for an even more interesting luncheon and suggested Mr. Olson also invite two Wetaskiwin Composite High School students to join them. Mr. Olson’s office responded immediately with a, ‘absolutely, yes by all means.’ The high school was contacted, explaining the offer and Co-Chairs of the H.S. Student Council were chosen to join Mr. McDonald and Mr. Olson.
Zena Leclercq and Colton Hutchinson are the Co-Chairs of the Wetaskiwin Composite High School Student Council. That one responsibility claims a great deal of their time and energy each and every day. They are also active participants in sports, regularly meet with fellow students and staff advisors, continuously planning and scheduling student activities, working at a part time job, following up with family commitments, practicing for an upcoming tournament and monitoring student association progress. And, somewhere in there they also attend classes and do assignments and homework.
The Honourable Verlyn Olson, QC (PC) is the Minister of Justice and Attorney General. He is the Deputy Government House Leader. He also currently serves as Deputy Chair of the Premier's Council on the Status of Persons with Disabilities, Chair of the Human Resources, Citizenship and Multicultural Education Committee, as well as a member of the Standing Committees on Public Accounts, Private Bills and Health. And, he has to balance all of those responsibilities with obligations to his constituents, family and friends.
And yet, all three were eager to take time from their extremely busy schedules to meet over a lunch and share some of the challenges and successes they were undergoing in their respective political lives.
The students listened intently as Mr. Olson described his life. “I practiced law in Camrose for 30 years and that is a profession where you don’t punch a clock. There was a lot of evening and weekend work so that prepared me for the demands of this job.”
He told the students he is, “responsible for supervision of a half a billion dollar budget, 577 lawyers and 3000 employees.” The ministry consists of the Department of Justice, the Alberta Human Rights Commission and the Human Rights Education and Multiculturalism Fund. The department’s budget also funds the Alberta Review Board, the Fatality Review Board, the Judicial Council, the Notaries Public Review Committee, the Provincial Court Nominating Committee and the Rules of Court Committee.
Add to that Communications, Corporate Services, Court Services, Criminal Justice, Human Resource Services, Justice Services, Legal Services and Safe Communities and Strategic Policy it’s understandable when Mr. Olson explained to the students, “ I won’t be home now until Saturday night (the luncheon was held on Monday) and then back into the city on Sunday night. This weekend I slept in my own bed two nights in a row which is very unusual.”
Zena pointed out some of the challenges they are undergoing as Co- Chairs of the Student Council. “February is a big month for us. Council meetings, something every weekend, agendas, recreation, go with my family for the Family Day weekend, student council meetings, practices for the tournament and studies.“ Colton was quick to add, “We are lucky to have a good executive and student council. The first half of the year has been successful. Going into our term we were living in the shadows of former executives and we put a lot of pressure on ourselves but it feels we have been successful.”
The conversation carried on. Since it was uppermost on the mind of Minister Olson as he was on the way to Edmonton to defend his budget submission, he enlightened the students about provincial government budgets. “There are always pressures to do things more efficiently so we try to do that and challenge our bureaucrats to do the same. The Premier has given me a mandate when she appointed me and wants a focus on certain things and those things cost money, so how do I get more money. We’ve been facing deficits the last three years so the province is very lucky we have surpluses from the good years but that doesn’t last forever.”
He added, “ The problem in Alberta is we are a resource based economy with oil, grain, lumber and coal that fluctuates on the world market. I remember I was elected in March when we had a surplus and everything was going well and the predictions were good. But the revenues changed and by the time we got to July, we had a $4.7B dollar deficit. That was a $12B dollar change in less than a year. Everyone wants sustainable programs years after year so it’s very challenging to budget.”
Zena, a card carrying member of the Metis Association, proudly explained the Metis are an Aboriginal people and carry on with many of the traditions and honor the lifestyle. She recognized an opportunity to share frustrations she and her family were experiencing with ‘game harvesting legislation’ with Minister of Justice and Attorney General. She explained the Metis have hunted for generations for food and as a way of life. “My family hunts for meat because the store bought meat is more expensive and less healthy but we are frustrated that we require a license to hunt or fish and can only do so at certain times of the year.”
Minister Olson responded, “Harvesting rights. I have to admit I don’t know a lot about it but I know it’s an issue that had come up before I came into this Ministry. If you have a specific question I will look into it for you. That is an example of where I can go to my staff and ask them to research it.” With that he pulled his notebook from his travel bag and recorded Zena’s inquiries.
Hon. Olson questioned the students about the level of interest in the election campaign and voter turnout when they ran for Student Council. Colton proudly responded, “We have 750 students and 75% of them voted.” Olson reflected, “A 75% turnout in high school and then into a provincial election and voter turnout drops like a rock??? And a lot of municipalities had a 20% voter turnout.” He mused, “I don’t know if there is something we (municipal, provincial and federal governments) can learn about how the high school voters are more connected with their elected officials and issues.”
The conversation continued until the three politicians respectively exchanged email addresses with the conviction to keep the communication routes open. As they returned to their busy schedules, all three must be complimented for investing valuable time to gain a better understanding of each other and implement that new knowledge in ways to make this a better place for all to enjoy.
Born and raised in Camrose, Mr. Olson was elected to his first term as a Member of the Legislative Assembly for Wetaskiwin-Camrose on March 3, 2008, and serves as the Prior to serving as a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta. Mr. Olson was a partner with the law firm Andreassen Olson Borth, where his practice focused primarily on real estate, wills, estates and counselling small businesses, assisting farmers, families, seniors and dependent adults.