Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 7, 2005
Local voice of the voiceless grows louder
Justice group stands up for striking workers, low-income housing
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Despite a lack of fanfare, the Greater Edmonton Alliance (GEA) is alive and well, quietly training leaders and working on campaigns to improve wages for the working poor and to defend affordable housing.
Alliance members were also planning to travel to Brooks to show solidarity with striking packing plant workers there. However, a tentative deal in the dispute was reached last week.
GEA leaders say the organization is also busy building relationships in order to gain the necessary strength to become the voice of the voiceless.
"We are building relationships between our institutions and our individual members," said the Rev. Christopher New, a member of GEA's steering team. "In terms of actions and events, it may seem like nothing has happened but this organization is built and strengthened by these relationships that we are building."
That's right, said Father Patrick Baska, the pastor of St. Alphonsus Parish, one of several parishes with membership in GEA.
"If anything, the Greater Edmonton Alliance is not meant to be in the public eye constantly," Baska said. "In fact, the whole aim is to build and relate internally between ourselves to find common ground on issues pertinent to member institutions and then build up a power to address these issues."
St. Alphonsus has held several "relational meetings" for its parishioners and is planning another one before the end of the year. These meetings are like town hall meetings where parishioners discuss in small groups some of the issues that they feel need to be addressed, Baska explained.
Apart from relationship building, GEA has been busy identifying and training new leaders and working on campaigns for decent wages and more affordable housing.
After many years in the planning stages, GEA was kicked off last May at the Shaw Conference Centre before 1,000 people, including 300 Catholics.
So far about 40 institutions, including churches, religious congregations, social agencies and labour unions have joined the broad-based organization, which aims to use the combined power of member groups to lobby government and business to further social causes.
Member organizations put up about $300,000 in seed money to get GEA off the ground. Catholic groups like the Ursulines of Jesus and the Oblate Fathers gave $30,000 each while the Edmonton Archdiocese gave $90,000.
The alliance, with headquarters at St. Basil's Catholic School, 10210-115 Ave., is patterned after the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), a training institute that has successfully organized urban communities all across North America and Europe for the past 25 years.
Michael Walters, 34, the alliance's only paid staff, said GEA "isn't a typical kind of activist organization." The alliance identifies and trains leaders and creates a new culture of relationships inside institutions.
In the past three years GEA has sent 50 community leaders and potential leaders for training to the United States and has trained about 200 leaders locally, Walters said.
"The Greater Edmonton Alliance is a broad-based organization built on building relationships - relationships between diverse individuals and also diverse institutions," explained New, the pastor of the 120-member Edmonton Moravian Church.
"It is through those one-to-one relationships that we discern what actions we need to take on behalf of our city, on behalf of making our communities a better place to live."
Three months ago the GEA leaders met with Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel to discuss their sustainable income campaign. The group focused on the City of Edmonton because it has information that the city has contracts with companies that don't pay their employees decent wages, New said. "We are looking at our city and see that families with fulltime jobs are living in poverty."
The mayor agreed to provide GEA with information on the contracts the city has with various employers and to meet with GEA officials three times a year.
"Really what we want is to build a relationship with the mayor and we want him to recognize that the GEA is not a protest group but an organization that represents a great number of people and power in our city," New said.
Affordable housing is another GEA concern. Since September, a core team based at St. Edmund's Parish has been working with residents of Ascot Gardens in the Athlone area to try to help the residents to stand for their rights.
The Toronto-based owner of Ascot Gardens, 13119-132 Ave., wants to demolish the 200-unit housing complex and replace it with new, more expensive units which the current tenants may not be able to afford.
The city will take a second look at this redevelopment proposal in January.
"We are concerned about the displacement of these families," said Simone Demers, a member of GEA's steering team and leader of the St. Edmund's core team.
"We agree with rebuilding but what we are trying to do is to get the people who are actually living there to approach the developer or owner to get them to request affordable housing when this is redeveloped."
To Demers delight, a few weeks ago the residents decided to organize themselves to try to negotiate the future of their housing complex. "We don't want to do it for them, we are just walking with them," she said.
"We want people to use their God-given power to get their rights in a democratic society."
Demers, a former Catholic teacher and trustee, said people from several churches have joined her in the Ascot Gardens campaign "because they see areas in their part of the city that are going to be going through the same thing.
"So they are sort of learning with us how we can get people to use the power that they have and to have their voice. This is sort of a test case or something."
GEA also plans to tackle the rising cost of energy and the use of illegal drugs, especially crystal meth, Demers said.