Canadian Politics (Federal), Published Articles

Council debates attendance at FCM in Ottawa

Originally published in the Whitecourt Star

How many councillors should represent Whitecourt at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) conference in Ottawa?

That was a subject of debate at Town Council on Feb. 13, with a motion in favour of sending four councillors passing by a razor-thin margin.

The vote was 3-2, with Mayor Maryann Chichak, Deputy Mayor Paul Chauvet and Coun. Norm Hodgson voting in favour. Two councillors — Bill McAree and Derek Schlosser — were not at the meeting.

“Since I started on council eight years ago, I’ve always been steadfast that the FCM conference is a very expensive one to go to, and I believe council needs to limit the attendance,” said Coun. Darlene Chartrand in explaining her vote against the motion.

The average cost per councillor is $4,904 and five members have indicated a willingness to go, which would cost the town almost $25,000, she added, suggesting that only two members be permitted to attend.

Coun. Eris Moncur joined Chartrand in voting against the motion, stressing the poor optics of council spending $25,000 on a conference in Ottawa while businesses are struggling at home.

“Given the economic times we’re in … I think it’s prudent for us to consider at least whether or not this is the right time, or a good time, for all members to be able to attend,” he said.

Chauvet suggested that the conference’s cost doesn’t take into account the economic opportunities provided by meeting with other municipal leaders and their federal counterparts.

“I understand the concerns. What actually happens, who actually goes, is different from who says they want to go. We have a responsibility to protect the interests of Whitecourt, but also to promote Whitecourt,” he said.

Due to attendance at last year’s conference, the town was able to get the federal government to commit $6 million to help with its river erosion problem, Chauvet added.

Chichak said she met with Adam Vaughan, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s parliamentary secretary, and he agreed to work with local MP Arnold Viersen to fix the south bank of the Athabasca River’s erosion.

“That (meeting) did result in us getting the approval through the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. I’m not too sure that project would have gone through without that actual contact. (Vaughan) was the one who pushed it through,” she said.

But Chartrand disagreed.

“I don’t believe for a second that the river erosion project wouldn’t have happened without the attendance,” she said.

Hodgson defended the mayor and deputy mayor’s position, saying that their appearance at the conference directly resulted in movement on the river erosion file.

“I was there and I saw and know what happened, but you weren’t,” he said. “You can believe what you believe.”

This year’s FCM conference will be held from May 30 to June 5 in Ottawa.

Data, Published Articles

Whitecourt, Woodlands County growing

Originally published in the Whitecourt Star

Whitecourt and Woodlands County are both growing, while Mayerthorpe got a bit smaller, according to the most recent census data released Feb. 8.

Whitecourt’s population increased to 10,204 from 9,605 in 2011, when the last census was released — an increase of 6.2 per cent.

However, this is a slight decrease from the municipal census of 2013, which put the town’s population at 10,574, resulting in 370 more people than the 2016 federal survey.

Mayor Maryann Chichak attributed this discrepancy to differing methodologies in gathering census data.

“More visits are done to households to ensure that they’re counted in the municipal census,” she said.

“We did online. We did door-to-door. We’d go back two, three, four times to ensure we got an answer. Unfortunately, with a federal census, they made two or three attempts and if they don’t have a response back, then the houses aren’t counted,” she said.

Chichak estimated that there’s a five per cent variance between municipal and federal numbers.

“When you compare apples to apples, it was nice to see that continued steady growth from the last federal one,” she said.

Mayor pleased with Woodlands’ “healthy” growth

Woodlands County Mayor Jim Rennie was thrilled that the census showed his municipality’s population increase to 4,574 from 4,306, a growth of 10.4 per cent.

“The Edmonton Journal called themselves the fastest growing city in Canada and their percentage wasn’t a lot higher than ours,” he said.

According to the census, Edmonton grew by 14.8 per cent between 2011 and 2016.

The provincial average for Alberta is 11.6 per cent, making it the fastest growing province. The national average is five per cent.

“We’re a community that’s lucky to be blessed with growth,” said Rennie, calling the population increase “healthy” and “somewhat balanced.”

Mayerthorpe got smaller

But not all towns in Alberta grew from one census to the other.

Mayerthorpe’s population shrank by 5.6 per cent to 1,320, losing 78 people, since the federal census in 2011.

Lac Ste. Anne County, where Mayerthorpe is located, increased its population 6.2 per cent to 10,899 from 10,260 in the same timeframe.

“The population figures are disappointing and they’re not really unexpected,” Mayerthorpe Mayor Kate Patrick said, citing the economic downturn in the oilpatch as a factor in the decrease.

“We have a lot of oil and gas industry workers who lost their jobs in the last year.”

Patrick said that if the census was taken today, she believes the results would be different.

This is why she wants council to take a municipal census, which may not happen until 2018.

Canadian Politics (Provincial), Published Articles

Alberta environment minister meets with stakeholders, local mayors to discuss caribou conservation

Originally published in the Whitecourt Star

Alberta’s Environment and Parks minister met with local politicians and business leaders Thursday to discuss the government’s long-awaited Caribou Range Plan.

Phillips, who had just completed a helicopter tour of the area, says she wants to work with local governments and the forest industry to develop a plan that strikes a balance between economic growth and protecting the caribou’s natural habitat.

“We have taken the position that the environment and the economy go hand-in-hand and it’s our job to find those balances,” she said prior to the meeting at Eagle River Casino. “We’re open to hearing what the companies and municipalities are saying.”

Present at the meeting were Whitecourt Mayor Maryann Chichak, Woodlands County Mayor Jim Rennie, Chamber of Commerce President Rand Richards and representatives from Alberta Newsprint Company and Millar Western.

The province has until October to comply with the federal government’s 2002 Species at Risk Act, which lists the boreal woodland caribou population as “threatened.”

The main targets for conservation in Alberta are the Little Smoky and A La Peche ranges, which according to the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) are 95 per cent disturbed.

The government issued a draft plan last year, which was criticized by the forestry industry as being too restrictive, due to reduced timber quotas.

“We will be filing a range plan according to the federal timelines,” the minister said. “Whether or not the federal government finds that plan to be adequate is another question.”

Phillips emphasized her government’s record of working with concerned industries to protect endangered species, offering the example of the government’s collaboration with oil and gas companies to restore old seismic lines from exploration in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

“What those end up being is the fragmentation of the landscape and they’re superhighways for wolves to prey on dwindling caribou populations,” which she said the oil and gas industry took the initiative to fix.

Alison Ronson, executive directors of CPAWS Northern Alberta, says that while it’s important to have stakeholders on board for conservation projects, the government shouldn’t lose sight of the bigger picture.

“Almost every stick of timber has been allocated to forestry interests and they have budgeted based on an understanding that they have rights to harvest on the land, so it doesn’t leave much wiggle room,” she said.

There’s already a guideline under the 2012 Federal Recovery Strategy of 65 per cent undisturbed habitat for each range to ensure the caribou population remains self-sustaining.

Government and business ought to keep this target in mind when they sit down at the table, said Ronson.

“There’s been a culture in Alberta for the last 50 years of allowing industry to operate almost unfettered, so the balance is actually very skewed towards industrial development on the landscape,” she said.

“Now we need to reign it in and realize that it’s not sustainable and make some changes to our practices.”