Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel is lashing out against the Alberta government's cuts to postsecondary funding, saying the province could "shackle the creativity of our brightest people" and undermine institutions that are essential to his city's growth.
Mr. Mandel made the comments in his state of the city speech on Tuesday. He'd initially pledged to announce whether he would retire or seek re-election this fall. Instead, he used the sold-out luncheon as a platform to go after the provincial government – with many cabinet ministers looking on.
Universities took deep cuts in last month's budget, with the province arguing its institutions must streamline operations and avoid duplication. But Mr. Mandel said the cuts threaten quality and academic integrity.
It is "short-term thinking" and "not real leadership," he said. "Real leadership means taking the long-term view. It means setting a course that people can believe in and being clear about long-term intent. It doesn't believe in 'good enough,'" he said.
Edmonton's postsecondary institutions, including the University of Alberta, are crucial to his city's economy and identity, he said.
"This is of no less significance to our city than the energy industry is to downtown Calgary. We all know how much political clout that industry has," he said, later adding: "We should expect nothing less than passionate, relentless defence of this sector from our provincial representatives, who should know better than to just stand by."
The speech was attended by Thomas Lukaszuk, Alberta's Deputy Premier and Minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education – the man responsible for the university cuts.
"It's lacking in leadership and is unlike what I would expect from Mayor Mandel," Mr. Lukaszuk said of the speech in an interview with The Globe and Mail. He argued that Mr. Mandel is "without a question" primarily upset about the province's refusal to commit funds to a new National Hockey League arena. The mayor's "very ill-informed" objection to university funding cuts "is another story," Mr. Lukaszuk said.
"He has never ever, once that I can recall, brought up anything relevant to postsecondary institutions," Mr. Lukaszuk said. "One decision – the arena – has definitely soured his perception of how Edmonton is treated."
Mr. Mandel mentioned the arena project in his speech, saying the city continues to wait for provincial financing, but focused on the issue of funds for postsecondary education.
The U of A president applauded the mayor's speech, saying that cuts put quality on the chopping block.
"The mayor has been extraordinary. An extraordinary leader, a visionary," Indira Samarasekera said in an interview. "And I am just so grateful that he has had the courage and the conviction to stand up and articulate so powerfully what needs to be done and why these cuts to postsecondary education – and the reason for the cuts – are, as he's put it, ill-considered. And [the cuts] can have potentially huge consequences for Edmonton, but more importantly for Alberta, and therefore for Canada."
Universities and colleges took the biggest hit in Alberta's budget last month, with the ministry losing $100-million. The U of A had been expecting, as was promised, a $12-million hike. It's now searching for $43-million in cuts.
Mr. Mandel said he wanted his speech to "send a message" to the provincial government. The two levels of government have worked well together, making Tuesday's clash unusual. He said it was his job to stand up for his city's postsecondary institutions.
"They drive a tremendous amount of our economy here. And to have them cut tremendously, to diminish their capacity, I think is really a mistake for our city. And I have to stand up for that," he told reporters. "This isn't about the city versus the province."
Mr. Mandel said he has not decided whether to run again in the fall. A successful re-election campaign would give him a tenure of 13 years, the longest in city history. Three other councillors considering bids – Karen Leibovici, Amarjeet Sohi and Don Iveson – all said after the speech that they won't run against Mr. Mandel should he seek a fourth term.