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Doug Griffiths

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Alberta's Municipal Affairs minister is under fire after saying people living in rural areas believe they "do all the work" of the "grassroots economy," while city residents "sit in high-rise condos."

Doug Griffiths, a Progressive Conservative cabinet minister from a rural riding in central-eastern Alberta, made the comments in the legislature Wednesday in response to questions from Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman, who represents a downtown Edmonton riding.

Ms. Blakeman asked why rural areas got far more money, per-capita, under the Combined Low Expenditure Assessment (CLEA) tax program than urban ones. The program pours money into municipal districts and counties, but not cities and towns. By Ms. Blakeman's calculation, cities get $28 per person, while rural residents get $2,000 per person.

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Contrary to Alberta's wild west ethos, it's Canada's third-most-urban province, with Statistics Canada data showing over 80 per cent of its residents living in urban environments. Only Ontario and British Columbia are more heavily urbanized.

Mr. Griffiths responded by saying the Liberals were trying to pit urban and rural residents against each other, before evoking the rural side of the argument himself.

"It could be asked by rural Albertans why 17 per cent of the population that lives in rural Alberta, that has all the oil and gas revenue, does all the work, all the farms, all the agriculture. And everything associated with it goes to support urban Albertans, who sit in high-rise condos and don't necessarily contribute to the grassroots of the economy," Mr. Griffiths told the legislature, as shouts erupted in the house, concluding: "I will not do us-versus-them."

NDP MLA Rachel Notley, from an urban Edmonton riding, was due to speak next, telling the house: "Well, Mr. Speaker, I sense an emergency press conference over that one."

Indeed, shortly after, the Minister – responsible for the province's dealings with cities, towns and municipalities – spoke to reporters and stressed it wasn't his view, but that of people he's spoken to.

"I've heard many people say, 'we have the farms, we have the oil patches, we do all the work, how come all the money gets spent in the city?' So the argument could be made the other way," he said, later continuing: "I've heard rural Albertans say we have the farms, we have the oil and gas. Those guys live in high-rises and they get excellent school programs and we sit out in small schools and we don't get any support and we don't have the infrastructure we need. That's what they say."

The rural-versus-urban bickering is unproductive, Mr. Griffiths told reporters. "Everybody feels like they drive the economy, most people feel like they don't get enough back… we're all Albertans trying to build a stronger Alberta."

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Ms. Blakeman called his comments "serious," saying "he meant to be insulting and he was insulting." Ms. Blakeman said the PCs "don't care" about big cities.

"We've got huge disparities in Alberta. We've got cities that are really stressed financially for providing services, and then we have municipal districts and counties that, frankly, don't know how to spend all the money they've got," she said. "…I'm in for a fight with this minister, because he clearly feels the money should stay in rural Alberta with just a few people having a whole pile of money."

Alberta's energy sector means a wide range, from rich to poor, among municipalities – those with a refinery or development are awash in royalti She noted that, in all of the back and forth, Mr. Griffiths didn't say why he thinks the CLEA program should so disproportionately benefit rural residents. "I would argue it should be redistributed."

Mr. Griffiths is a former teacher first elected in 2002, when he was 29. He ran for the party leadership in 2011, finishing in last place but impressing many observers with his debate performances. Alison Redford, who won the leadership race and is now premier, appointed him Municipal Affairs minister soon after the race was over, in late 2011.

The PCs are not the only party to have raised the ire of urban voters. After last year's election, rural MLA Gary Bikman told CTV that his Wildrose party didn't do well in cities because rural residents "possess more common sense."

Speaking to reporters outside the legislature Wednesday, Mr. Griffiths didn't apologize, but conceded "I probably could have said it a little differently, I guess, but the point was that's what I've heard rural Albertans saying."

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