Published Articles

Town discussing $500,000 loan to Wolverines

Originally published in the Whitecourt Star

Whitecourt Town Council voted unanimously to continue discussions regarding a proposed $500,000 loan to be provided to the Whitecourt Wolverines Junior A hockey team.

The proposed funding will be used to expand the Scott Safety Centre arena, which will provide the team with its own changeroom.

Administration will be bringing an outlined agreement back to council for final approval.

Whitecourt Mayor Maryann Chichak said the arena upgrade was the product of talks the Town entered into with the Alberta Junior Hockey League team after it officially committed to staying in Whitecourt for the foreseeable future on Feb. 21.

“They had decided to stay here and then we had discussions after the fact about how every other Junior A team in Alberta has their own dressing room,” she said.

Team owner Brent Stark emphasized that he would be paying $250,000 of the $750,000 total renovation cost and that he intends to repay the loan.

“Quite frankly, on my end of it it’s not the greatest asset move. I’ll never own it outright,” said Stark.

Stark said that having a separate locker room is important because of the bonding experience it fosters by allowing the team to be there hours before the game.

“We’ve got players coming from all over and that’s where a team gets together … We’ve got kids coming from all over the map. It allows them to build some camaraderie,” he said, adding that the current dressing room is often being used by other leagues and teams.

A plan for the franchise to pay back the loan is in the works, said Chichak.

“When the final proposal comes to council, and the final paperwork, it will include things like the capacity to repay the loan (and) how they would be paying it back,” she said.

“The team itself and the ownership will have to put in a plan that they will show to council how they will be able to repay that debt and I think that they have a few options that are available to them,” Chichak said, declining to specify what they are.

There is a precedent for such a loan, she said, citing the golf course borrowing “between $2.5 million and $3 million” to finance its clubhouse in 2010-11.

A contractual obligation for the Wolverines to stay in Whitecourt will likely be part of the final agreement, Chichak added.

Ownership explored the possibility of relocating the team in December 2016, due to declining attendance.

Stark said that although the team’s finances haven’t been in the best shape recently, the team hopes to become profitable for the next season.

“We’re going to hit up Whitecourt hard, sharing our marketing plan this year to see if Whitecourt buys into Junior A hockey,” he said.

Having a private locker room isn’t going to make a significant impact on the team’s financial position, said Stark.

“It’s minimal. Nothing huge, that’s for sure, but it will drop it down a bit,” he said.

The Wolverines had a historic playoff run in 2016-17, winning the North Division championship for the first time.

Stark said he has yet to receive full financial disclosures from the past season, but that the increased attendance speaks for itself.

“As far as the playoff run, just look at the attendance alone. We’re playing for the north final and have 650 people in the stands,” he said.

However, according to league attendance data provided by Stark, the Wolverines saw a significant drop in regular season attendance to 12,726 in 2016-17 from 21,702 in 2015-16.

Chichak called the town’s relationship with the Wolverines “a great partnership.”

“It’s giving the team the ability to have their own dedicated dressing room. They’re going to be repaying it back with their own funds and we’re participating by providing a loan up front for them to accomplish that,” said Chichak.

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Canadian Politics (Federal), Opinion, Published Articles, U.S. Politics

Beware of those who cry ‘fake news’

Originally published in the Whitecourt Star

Since last year’s U.S. Election, the term ‘fake news’ has entered our political discourse like a ton of bricks.

Although intended to signal an actual phenomenon — web articles that appear to be actual news but are entirely fabricated to serve a political agenda — the term has taken on a life of its own.

It seems that those who are most quick to label reporting they dislike “fake news” are its truest purveyors.

As George Orwell wrote in his masterful 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies something not desirable.” What he said then of the ‘fascist’ label could be said of the ‘fake news’ epithet today.

The most prominent practitioner of calling undesirable news fake is, of course, U.S. President Donald Trump, who refused to allow CNN reporter Jim Acosta to ask a question at one of his first presidential press briefings, because, “You’re fake news.”

The question of whether fake news — like an article that baselessly claimed that Pope Francis had endorsed The Donald — helped propel Trump to victory in the U.S. Electoral College is entirely debatable.

That Trump himself used blatant falsehoods to stir up emotion amongst his supporters, however, both on the campaign trail and in office, is beyond dispute.

Some of his most egregious claims, for those in need of a refresher, include the allegation that three million people voted illegally in the election where he lost the popular vote by three million, that he personally witnessed thousands of Muslims celebrating on the streets of New Jersey after the September 11 terrorist attacks and, my personal favourite, his insinuation that “Lyin’” Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the JFK assassination.

Clearly, when Trump cries “fake news,” he’s projecting his insecurities onto the American news media, which although not without its flaws and frailties, is largely in the business of reporting facts.

This psychological projection is by no means exclusive to the pro-Trump crowd, or even the U.S.

Here in Canada, there are those who criticize “the media” for its apparent coziness with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, citing the soft news surrounding our media savvy prime minister, such as his Star Wars socks that inexplicably got international media coverage.

It’s rather disingenuous to claim that the Canadian media hasn’t covered Trudeau’s ethical lapses, such as his cash-for-access fundraisers that are increasingly being outlawed provincially.

Sure, the media as a whole could do better reporting hard news rather than fluff, but this has little to do with ideological bent.

It’s more about how revenues are generated in the digital world. Traditional newspapers and news media outlets need content that generates clicks, which generate advertising revenue, which allows them to chase important stories.

There is no such singular entity as the media — different media organizations have distinct ideological bents, and that’s as it should be.

With that said, there’s certainly a credibility gap in news reporting.

The New York Times, which in many ways is the gold standard of news reporting, has yet to fully recover its credibility after it presented allegations of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, based on the claims of anonymous sources within the Bush administration, as objective fact.

This significantly weakens the paper’s clout when it goes after fake news sources, whether it’s the president of the United States or Russian bots.

Skeptics can point to its role in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion and ask how the Times is any different.

This is a misguided criticism, as most newspapers, though they all have an ideological slant, don’t generally fabricate news for ideological purposes.

When we lump the news media, for all its flaws, together with the malicious intentions of fake news, we do a disservice to the journalists who put all they’ve got into holding the powerful to account, regardless of where they sit on the political spectrum.

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Canadian Politics (Federal), Canadian Politics (Provincial), Global Affairs, Published Articles

Trump lumber tariffs cause local concern

Originally published in the Whitecourt Star

U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision on April 24 to impose a 20 per cent tariff on Canadian lumber was met with stiff opposition from local industry leaders.

“We’re completely opposed to it,” said Brock Mulligan, spokesman for the Alberta Forest Products Association and the Alberta Softwood Lumber Trade Council.

Since 1982, U.S. trade representatives have claimed that the Canadian lumber industry is unfairly subsidized, due to its harvests occurring mainly on public land, whereas it is done mostly on private land in the U.S., Mulligan said.

“We’ve seen this happen before and time and again their allegations have been thrown out by various tribunals, whether it’s NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) or WTO (World Trade Organization). We’re confident that this will happen again, but unfortunately we’re going to have to go through the process,” he said.

The previous agreement on the U.S.-Canada softwood lumber trade expired in October 2015.

Whitecourt Mayor Maryann Chichak emphasized that this is an ongoing dispute in U.S.-Canada relations, regardless of which president or prime minister is in power.

“The issue of softwood lumber is one we’ve faced now for the fifth time. We’ve weathered the storm before and we will weather it again. It’s just a matter of how long that dispute will continue on,” Chichak said, predicting that that there will be no regional job losses in the short term.

“As this dispute continues, if it’s not resolved, then we will see job losses, not just for our community but across Alberta and Canada,” she said.

The looming threat of job losses underscores the importance of the provincial government coming up with a caribou range plan that is economically and socially feasible, Chichak added.

“A poor range plan compounded by a dispute that continues could have very devastating effects on communities such as Whitecourt and Woodlands County,” she said.

The dispute also underscores the necessity of Canada expanding its market access for lumber beyond the U.S., Chichak said.

According to Canada Trade, China and Japan comprise 20 per cent of Canadian lumber exports.

“This brings a heightened awareness to the importance over the upcoming decade that we really strengthen and encourage industry and our provincial government to look for other markets for lumber, that we don’t rely on the United States in the event that there’s a sixth dispute in the future,” said Chichak.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley recently returned from a 10-day trade mission to China and Japan, for which Chichak expressed her approval.

But there are limits to expanding Canadian access to east Asian markets, said Mulligan.

“With the Russian rouble collapsing recently, not only are they closer to us, but they also have a big currency advantage on us too,” he said.

The Japanese market has always been dependable for high-grade Canadian lumber, but there isn’t a lot of room for growth there, due to its ageing population and slow economic growth, Mulligan said.

Mulligan said the tariff would backfire on the U.S., due to its dependence on Canadian lumber for homebuilding.

“They depend upon having an adequate supply of lumber. The Americans don’t produce enough for their own market and they need Canadian lumber,” he said.

Tariffs would increase the price of a single family home in the U.S. by $1,236, which would push more than 150,000 families out of the housing market, said Mulligan, citing a study from the National Association of Homebuilders.

Countries like Chile and Russia, who were previously too far to access the American market, would be at a competitive advantage with the artificial increase in Canadian prices, he added.

“We’ll probably see a substitution of their products in, but the American consumer will have to pay a higher price,” Mulligan said.

Local MP, MLA weigh in

Conservative MP Arnold Viersen, who represents Whitecourt and the area, emphasized the importance of this dispute to his constituents.

“Softwood lumber, the pulp and paper industry, (and) forestry in general is a big deal in northern Alberta,” said Viersen, noting that 6,000 people in his Westlock-Peace River riding work in the industry.

He agreed with Chichak that this is simply the return of an ongoing dispute that would occur regardless of who’s in charge.

“It’s perhaps different in terms of Donald Trump’s bluster, but it’s the same players at stake,” Viersen said.

He said it’s largely the result of certain union interests in the U.S. who are trying to protect their workers’ employment.

“They’re not that concerned about the end user of the product. They’re worried about their jobs, so basically this is an easy way to protect some of their market share,” said Viersen, who agreed with Mulligan that the move will increase the price of American lumber by restricting the market’s supply.

Viersen said that Trudeau and his Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, who was previously the international trade minister, should have prepared better for this issue to come up.

“We knew this was coming along. We’ve been through this before,” he said. “It should’ve been top of mind.”

Whitecourt-St. Anne MLA and Agriculture and Forestry Minister Oneil Carlier similarly emphasized the industry’s local vitality.

“Our government stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Alberta’s forest workers, their families and communities that rely on a strong forestry industry,” said Carlier.

He said the Alberta government has been working closely with the federal government, particularly a task force headed by Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, to explore the most appropriate course of action.

“All options are on the table,” Carlier said, that the provincial government had anticipated the re-emergence of this dispute.

He cautioned against linking the softwood lumber dispute with other trade issues, such as supply management for dairy farmers.

“There’s a lot of known measures here in the softwood lumber agreement and in other potential disputes there are so many unknowns,” said Carlier.

It’s important to distinguish between the U.S. administration’s tough rhetoric and what actually occurs during negotiations, he said.

“It’s at this point just comments out of the blue that aren’t necessarily tied to any potential negotiations that haven’t even yet started taking place. Once those have taken place, we can have a little more meat and potatoes where we can go and make those gains,” Carlier said.

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