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U of C economist teaching crash course on equalization and fiscal transfers

By Kristy Koehler, May 14 2019—

Equalization payments are always a hot topic in Alberta and the rhetoric was ramped up even more than usual during the recent provincial election. To cut through some of the noise and educate people on the topic, University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe has put together a one-day course entitled “Making Sense of Equalization and Fiscal Transfers in Canada.”

“These one day courses are meant to be relevant for the general public rather than a course you take for a credential,” says Tombe. “The idea was, it’s such a big issue — not just in Alberta but it’s an issue that comes up repeatedly in many parts of the country — that we should probably start to talk about exactly how these programs work, where they came from, why they exist, pros and cons, rather than just a lot of the political rhetoric that we hear.”

The course will spend some time on the history of federal-provincial transfers, exploring how the policies in place today evolved over time. While much of the history takes place after Confederation, the course will touch briefly on pre-Confederation.

“Regardless of what any one individual thinks about a policy, it exists and has evolved over centuries,” says Tombe. “In Canada, we’ve been fighting over interprovincial fiscal transfers since the mid 1790s. The first fiscal transfer in Canadian history was really between Upper and Lower Canada. It was very contentious at the time and it’s the fight over fiscal transfers at the time that was in part behind why Canada was unified to begin with. We’re not living through anything new here. Canada is a large, diverse, ever-changing country and it’s arrangements like these that attempt to balance competing interests.”

Tombe says that he personally does not agree with the existence of the equalization policy, but thinks “reasonable people can differ.” The course is unlikely to convert an ardent supporter into someone who is vehemently opposed, but aims to arm people with facts.

“I think that there’s nothing about understanding how a policy works that would lead you to support or oppose the policy,” says Tombe. “If you oppose it, it’s good to ensure you’re opposing it for reasons that are actually related to the functioning of the policy rather than certain types of misunderstandings and misinformation out there. And, equally, if you support a policy, it’s also good to check that support against how the policy actually works. There’s nothing about the one-day course that would tilt someone to support or oppose it.”

Tombe says most of the public conversation around equalization — certainly in Alberta — is entirely misplaced. The goal of the course is to have attendees able to participate in public conversations over federal transfers and how they impact Alberta.

The course runs Sept. 28 from 9:30 a.m. –  4 p.m. More information and registration is available online, at the U of C Continuing Education website.

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