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Tripping hazard: Protest penguins destroyed at Alberta legislature grounds

EDMONTON — A colony of 800 snow penguins was set up on the grounds of the Alberta legislature to send a strong message.

EDMONTON — A colony of 800 snow penguins was set up on the grounds of the Alberta legislature to send a strong message.

But before student union representatives from Edmonton's two universities could use their frozen creations Friday as a backdrop to protest provincial cuts to post-secondary education, most of them were wiped out.

Rowan Ley, vice-president of the University of Alberta Students' Union, said about a dozen students spent two hours the day before building the 30-centimetre tall penguin snow sculptures with moulds purchased at a local hardware store.

The snow penguins also had signs with the hashtag "Don’tFreezeOurFuture."

"We were going to have a media availability where we would have students talking about what upcoming cuts would mean to them, and we would share some facts and plans for what we were going to be doing in the next few weeks," Ley said in an interview Monday. 

"But the main attraction, of course, was going to be the penguin protest."

Ley said since it isn't safe for students to gather in big groups, the protest penguin installation was created with COVID-19 restrictions in mind. 

"The penguins were ridiculous, but the point of them was to draw attention to a very serious issue," he said. 

The province announced last year that tuition fees would rise more than 22 per cent over three years and universities such as the U of A saw $110 million in cuts. 

"Expenses for students are skyrocketing and our institutions are both going down in quality and going up in price," Ley said. 

And although only about 200 penguins were spared, Ley said the message still got out.

In a statement Monday, Alberta's Ministry of Infrastructure said the sculptures were removed because they were in walkway areas, creating potential tripping hazards for visitors.

"As such, groundskeeping staff removed the snow sculptures, as they would have removed any other obstruction," the statement read.

"We are reviewing the incident with departmental staff to ensure a proper balance between legitimate protest and safety on the legislature grounds."

Ley noted that they purposely built the penguins around the reflecting pool of the legislature, so they would not block walkways. 

But he added he isn't angry with groundskeeping staff. "They were just doing their job."

"We fully expected that the snow penguins would not be there for long and they were really silly to begin with," he said. 

"But they were able to start the conversation about cuts to post-secondary education and I'm very grateful for that."

Demetrios Nicolaides, Alberta's minister of advanced education, said in a statement that all Albertans must face the province's unprecedented financial and economic challenges together, including the post-secondary sector.

"I was a student leader myself during my undergraduate days and I understand their concerns around funding," his statement Monday read.

"I am open to hearing ideas about how we can balance funding to institutions and manage tuition increases, all within the context of limited government resources."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2021. 

Daniela Germano, The Canadian Press