Protesters seize day

More than 600 protesters marched along city streets Saturday to show their disdain for Progressive Conservative health-care cutbacks in what could be Red Deer’s largest anti-government rally ever.

Shirley Costley of Calgary marches along Gaetz Avenue

More than 600 protesters marched along city streets Saturday to show their disdain for Progressive Conservative health-care cutbacks in what could be Red Deer’s largest anti-government rally ever.

Throngs of people climbed off chartered buses from Calgary and Edmonton in order to attend the Stop the Cuts! rally organized by Public Interest Alberta, Friends of Medicare and other lobby groups.

Organizers believe the protest was the biggest ever in the city.

The province aims to reduce health care costs overall by three per cent and as part of that has called on some nurses and other professionals to take early retirement. Several hundred hospital beds will close in Calgary and Edmonton.

David Eggen, executive director for Friends of Medicare, said their main purpose was to target the 1,200-some delegates attending the two-day Progressive Conservative annual general meeting at the Capri Centre, rather than the party leadership.

“We know there’s a lot of anger,” said Eggen. “We see that from the polls and we see that from the attempts to cut health care and education.”

According to one recent poll, the party’s popularity has dipped to a 16-year low while the upstart right-wing party Wildrose Alliance is gaining ground.

“I am sure that the size of the rally won’t be lost on Mr. (Ed) Stelmach and the whole cabinet,” Eggen said.

The boisterous group chanted “no more cuts!” and banged on pails as they marched towards the hotel. Some carried signs with messages of “Defend Medicare” and “Bye, bye Ed” while members from some of Alberta’s largest unions waved flags.

Traffic was halted for about 10 minutes as the marchers crossed Gaetz Avenue to their destination. Some drivers beeped horns as a sign of solidarity. Several Mounties and security personnel watched while the group paraded peacefully around the hotel parking lot.

Despite their best intentions, the protesters’ pleas were not heard inside the hall where Tory members gave one of two standing ovations to Premier Ed Stelmach on Saturday. He received 77.4 per cent support from party faithful to continue as leader.

Stelmach said later the government will remain a “strong supporter of public health.”

“The ministry of health will not see a reduction in funding,” Stelmach said. “They didn’t see a reduction last year and they won’t this coming year. There will be an increase in that department because our senior population is increasing, we have more people moving into the province, we’re doing more in terms of various surgeries.”

Money must also be set aside for widespread health issues like flu pandemics so there are enough resources to treat sick people, Stelmach added.

Guy Smith, president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, called Stelmach “a decent man” after meeting him for the first time on Friday.

“The trouble is, he’s got people in his party who are pushing policies that are damaging to Albertans,” Smith said.

Stelmach’s vow to rein in government spending has Smith concerned.

“We haven’t seen an increase in spending in public services,” said Smith, who represents about 76,000 health care, government and municipal workers. “We didn’t get the kind of increases in staff resources even during the good times.”

Chris Leclerc, 18, of Red Deer, protested because he wants “adequate health care for all.”

“You have to try and figure out ways to make it better, and stop screwing up things,” Leclerc said.

Albertans have been outraged over the Calgary Flames getting H1N1 flu shots ahead of others and the province’s general handling of H1N1 vaccination clinics.

“If people are upset about the Calgary Flames, there are people who are jumping the queue all the time,” said Gail Desmoulins of Calgary. “People who have money can jump the queue to get an MRI or CAT scan ahead of those who can’t afford to.”

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