Canadian Politics (Provincial), Published Articles

Mixed local response to proposed Alberta riding changes

Originally published in the Whitecourt Star

The changes proposed to the Whitecourt-Ste. Anne riding by the Alberta Electoral Boundaries Commission’s May 25 Interim Report has received a variety of responses from local political leaders.

The report recommends adding three new ridings — one in Edmonton and two in Calgary — to account for their growing populations.

To maintain the current number of seats in the legislature, the report suggests three amalgamations of northern Alberta ridings, including one that would split Whitecourt Ste. Anne in two.

Under this formulation, Whitecourt and Woodlands County would join West Yellowhead, and Mayerthorpe and most of Lac St. Anne County would be absorbed by a new riding, Ste. Anne-Stony Plain.

Whitecourt Mayor Maryann Chichak was generally supportive of the changes, which she said reflect the province’s demographic reality.

“I think Whitecourt-Ste. Anne had a feeling that there may be some redistribution in our area, based on the fact that last time the redistribution was done, we were a little low on the population,” she said.

Chichak said that having Whitecourt join the West Yellowhead constituency, “puts us into a situation where we are with communities that have very similar industries as ours,” namely oil and gas, and forestry.

Edson, Hinton and Jasper are the largest municipalities currently part of West Yellowhead, according to Elections Alberta.

“We share a lot of common goals and a lot of common issues that we can work on together collectively,” Chichak added.

County mayors react

Woodlands County Mayor Jim Rennie was similarly supportive of the proposed redistribution, but was not without his criticisms.

“The more that I have a chance to reflect on it, while the geography is certainly going to be a challenge, it really is going to be an energy powerhouse of a constituency,” said Rennie.

Edson, Hinton, Jasper, Woodlands County and Whitecourt all have abundant forestry, and excluding Jasper, are rich in energy resources, he said.

However, this wasn’t what Woodlands County suggested to the commission, given the vast geographical distance between the proposed riding’s municipalities, Rennie said.

“We were trying to find a geographically centred bit,” he said. “You don’t want to have these huge ridings, but I think the solution they came up with for Woodlands County was a pretty good one.”

This geographical concern is why Lac Ste. Anne County Mayor Bill Hegy said he opposes the proposed changes.

“The idea of trying to make all areas somewhat equal in population just doesn’t match the reality of the province,” said Hegy. “Our preference is for things to stay the same.”

He added that if the proposed changes do go through, he wants to see the entirety of Lac Ste. Anne County included in the Ste. Anne-Stony Plain riding, rather than a small western portion of the county split into West Yellowhead, as is currently proposed.

“We’d prefer having everything in one riding,” said Hegy.

Whitecourt-Ste. Anne MLA speaks

Oneil Carlier, the Whitecourt-Ste. Anne MLA, called the proposals “very preliminary.”

“People can expect some changes, but as the first draft, I think we need to step back and see where we might be with the final draft,” he said.

“Right now, it generates some interesting conversation, but it’s really too preliminary to make any decisions based on how that might affect any particular MLA,” added Carlier.

Ultimately, any final decision on riding changes will be made by the commission, which Carlier stressed is non-partisan.

“The commission itself is independent from government, so they make their determination based on what’s best for Alberta voters, based on a lot of things, not just demographics, but geography (and) types of industry,” he said.

Public hearings for feedback on the interim boundaries are scheduled on July 17 and 21 in Grande Prairie, Vermilion, Edmonton, Calgary and Brooks.

Albertans can also submit written recommendations to the commission until July 8.

 

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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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Canadian Politics (Federal), Canadian Politics (Provincial), Opinion, Published Articles

Time for a name change

Originally published in the Whitecourt Star

The Canadian Football League’s (CFL) Edmonton Eskimos recently stopped in Whitecourt and Grande Prairie as part of their northern Alberta tour.

The trip has been presented as an opportunity to engage northern Albertans in the CFL by giving locals the opportunity to meet players from the closest CFL team.

But if the Eskimos are truly serious about engaging northern Albertans, they may want to consider changing their team’s name from a term used for Inuit people, many of whom reside in province’s north.

As Natan Obed, president of Canada’s national Inuit organization, observed in 2015 Globe and Mail opinion piece, ‘Eskimo’ has never been a term Inuit people have used to describe themselves. It was imposed on them by European settlers as part of the colonization process.

“The CFL football team does not honour our culture, our history, our present, or our future. The name is an enduring relic of colonial power,” wrote Obed.

It’s not just the Eskimos that have an offensive team name, of course. There’s the Cleveland Indians in baseball, Washington Redskins in American football and hockey’s Chicago Blackhawks, to name but a few.

These team names share a common thread — they’re all directed at indigenous peoples.

It’s noteworthy that Edmonton’s CFL team is the only professional Canadian sports franchise faced with this issue.

Canadians often pride ourselves on being more tolerant than our southern neighbours, so let’s act the part.

Particularly at a time of heightened awareness regarding the plight of aboriginals, it would be a measure of considerable goodwill for the team owners to at least consider a name change.

Toronto Mayor John Tory, a former CFL commissioner, said last year that the time was right for the Eskimos to change their name to something more inclusive.

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, whose overall politics are far more progressive than Tory’s, has been conspicuously absent from the debate, merely calling it “an important (question) to grapple with.”

Understandably, Iveson doesn’t want to offend fans of a popular franchise, but sometimes one must risk offence to do the right thing, particularly when it’s as simple as changing a name.

The CFL continues to defend the Eskimos brand, pointing out that the team doesn’t use race imagery in its advertising, unlike the Cleveland Indians’ notorious Chief Wahoo.

If the team is genuinely trying to avoid using discriminatory images, then it’s all the more reason for them to change its name.

So what would Edmonton’s CFL team change its name to?

Nearly anything would be less odious then the current moniker, but I think Tory was correct to suggest the team hold a contest for fans to select a new name.

This would be a means of truly engaging the entire community with the franchise, while demonstrating respect for indigenous peoples by treating their diversity of cultures as more than a caricature.

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Canadian Politics (Provincial), Opinion, Published Articles

Let GSAs do their job

Originally published in the Whitecourt Star

Alberta PC leader Jason Kenney recently came under justified criticism for insensitive remarks he made about gay-straight alliances (GSAs).

Kenney said that under his premiership, parents would be notified if their children were a member of a GSA, essentially an extra-curricular club for students to get together and socialize under the rubric of support for LGBTQ rights.

The problem with Kenney’s proposal is that this notification may be how parents find out their kids are gay, which is especially problematic if the parents are homophobic. It would have the effect of outing homosexual students to their family, something that makes the already difficult process of coming out even harder.

The law mandating GSAs if students request one, Bill 10, was ironically first proposed by the late leader of Kenney’s party, Jim Prentice. But it wasn’t implemented until the New Democrats won the 2015 election.

The Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association said they would send letters home to parents of students who request to form or join a GSA when the PC’s first came forward with their legislation to make GSAs obligatory.

This can be contrasted with the two Edmonton-area Baptist schools that are currently refusing to even submit a draft policy to Education Minister David Eggen, as the NDP government has requested of every school.

I’m not sure what’s worse — no provincially-mandated GSAs or ones that are completely toothless and don’t allow LGBTQ students solace from an often-hostile outside world.

It’s certainly a good thing that GSAs have become so publicly accepted that we’re no longer debating whether they should exist at all but how they operate. But their operation should be left up to the GSAs themselves, not dictated by politicians or school boards.

To be fair, Kenney said his proposal wouldn’t apply to abusive parents, but this exception itself raises some questions.

How would the school board know which parents are abusive? Is he talking only of physical abuse or the greyer area of emotional abuse? Does homophobia count as abuse under this framework?

With this stipulation, Kenney is throwing GSA advocates a bone while speaking out of the other side of his mouth to homophobes.

It’s worth noting that Kenney’s record on LGBTQ rights is lacking, to put it mildly.

In 1998, when the PC leader was a young firebrand MP for the Reform Party, he staunchly opposed the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling in favour of an Edmonton teacher, Delwin Vriend, who was fired from a Christian school for being gay.

This landmark ruling resulted in sexual orientation gaining protection under Alberta’s human rights legislation.

Kenney was aghast, standing in the House of Commons to denounce what he considered, “an unprecedented attack on democracy and on our constitutional order in what can only be described as an exercise as raw judicial power.”

Back to GSAs, Wildrose leader Brian Jean spoke out against Kenney’s proposal. This is particularly impressive coming from the leader of a party that as recently as 2012 had a candidate damn homosexuals to an eternity in a “lake of fire.”

In an April 5 Facebook post, Jean said, “that a child struggling with his or her identity or sexuality, I believe they should not be forced to talk about it before they are ready,” which is pretty close to the NDP’s position.

There’s no doubt some politics at play here, with the looming merger of the PC and Wildrose parties and necessary leadership race for the new conservative entity.

Kenney and Jean appear to be trading places with their bases, with the PC leader appealing to the hard right and the Wildrose leader pitching himself to the centre.

Time will tell which approach is more successful, or if the NDP can successfully turn this into a wedge issue for the 2019 election.

Either way, GSAs are a valuable tool in the fight against homophobia and should be permitted to operate independently.

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Canadian Politics (Provincial), Opinion, Published Articles

The virtues of Daylight Savings Time

Originally published in the Whitecourt Star

Daylight Savings Time (DST), when we move our clocks forward an hour in anticipation of springtime, has acquired a bad reputation.

NDP MLA Thomas Dang, with the support of PC MLA and leadership candidate Richard Starke, recently introduced a private member’s bill in Alberta legislature that would abolish DST in the Wildrose province, syncing its time zone up with Saskatchewan’s central time, saying, “It’s time we had one time.” In most parts of Saskatchewan, moving their clocks forward is a thing of the past.

The practice has been in Alberta since it was introduced by plebiscite in 1971 and now Starke wants to have a plebiscite on its removal. Dang said 82 per cent of respondents to a government-commissioned survey said they want to end DST.

Sure, nobody likes to have to start waking up an hour early in the middle of March, but DST is still quite valuable. Many people enjoy the longer days during the summer and their attendant social and health benefits — more vitamin D, increased exercise, more time spent socializing and overall improvements in mental health, according to the American National Institute of Health — as a result of the time-shift.

HBO comedian John Oliver, whom I often find myself agreeing with, criticized DST last year, arguing that it’s an anachronism from a time when Western societies were largely agrarian and farmers required maximal daylight. It serves no practical purpose today and may in fact cause harm due to the loss of sleep, he contended.

But, this explanation doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Farmers have long been opposed to DST, since their livestock don’t adjust well to the time changes. In fact, Dang said farmers overwhelmingly support his legislation.

Perhaps the provincial government is trying to reach out to farmers after their farm safety legislation, Bill 6, upset that community.

TV executives are also not fans of the time change, but for entirely different reasons — people don’t watch as much television when they’re enjoying the outdoors. Maybe that explains Oliver’s opposition.

The original goal of DST was to save night time energy use by having the sun up until later. It was introduced in post-World War I Germany to save on coal for that devastated economy. The impact of DST on energy use is highly debatable, but it’s a goal the provincial NDP ought to be sympathetic to, given their emphasis on energy preservation.

There are indeed widespread benefits to having more daylight in spring and summer, although the time adjustment is not without its possible hazards, as Oliver alluded to in his segment.

For instance, according to Dan Nosowitz of Popular Mechanics, traffic accidents tend to increase in the week following the March clock change, as drivers tend to be sluggish from losing an hour of sleep. However, since people tend to drive better in the light, Nosowitz suspects that there would be a decrease in accidents throughout DST’s eight-month duration.

Having it stay light out later also results in an overall decrease in crime. “The reason is simple: crimes tend to happen much more often in darkness. Extend the daylight, and crimes, especially outdoor crimes like muggings, go down,” writes Nosowitz.

So no matter how you put it, DST is a mixed bag — people lose a bit of sleep, which has negative consequences, but they also spend more time outdoors, with positive results.

In other words, “DST is both a rebellion against the clock and an acceptance that we are all slaves to the clock,” writes Nosowitz.

It’s far from perfect, but eliminating it is no magic bullet.

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Canadian Politics (Provincial), Published Articles

Province prepares for early wildfire season

Originally published in the Whitecourt Star

Whitecourt and area residents will have to be extra careful with their campfires earlier on this year.

Wildfire season in Alberta is starting a month earlier than usual — on March 1 rather than April 1.

“That gives the opportunity for our crews to get their equipment ready and do recruitment when they need to and hit the ground running when they have to,” said Oneil Carlier, Alberta’s minister of agriculture and forestry and the MLA for Whitecourt-St. Anne.

He said moving the start of wildfire season earlier has been on the province’s radar since the 2011 Slave Lake wildfires, but the NDP government is now putting it into law.

“It’s becoming increasingly important. The fact is that close to 70 per cent of the wildfires now are caused by humans, so all of us as Albertans can do better … and we should,” said Carlier.

Shannon Stambaugh, information officer for the Whitecourt Wildfire Management Area, said the issuing of permits for planned fires is a key component of the town’s strategy for combating wildfires.

“By allowing us to know where those fires are going to happen, we then know how to strategically look for fires,” she said.

The permits also come with a list of safety standards the town recommends for safe burning practices, said Stambaugh.

“It gives general guidelines for how individuals can burn safely and practically,” she said. For example, the town forbids burning when winds are 15 km/h or more.

“We can’t control Mother Nature, but we can control what humans do,” Stambaugh said.

Carlier said the natural fires can be alleviated using the latest technology.

The wildfires that aren’t attributable to human activity “are almost 100 per cent lightning strikes,” he said.

“There’s some really interesting technology out there where the department can track lightning storms and actually track the strikes. Even though we’ve had some bad fire seasons in the past few years, the vast majority of fires are tracked almost instantly and are put out within 24 hours,” said Carlier.

He said another way for governments to reduce forest fires is to increase corporate fines to a maximum of $1 million from $5,000, which has already been done in Saskatchewan and British Columbia.

Carlier stressed that the government wants to encourage people to enjoy the wilderness, but to do so in a smart, safe manner.

“Please go out and enjoy our wildlands, our forests and our prairies. We live in a beautiful province. But if you do so, please act responsibly. Make sure your campfire is out. Make sure you’re not that person that causes a wildfire,” he said.

Whitecourt and area residents can call 780-778-7272 to order their free fire permit at least a week before they want to use it.

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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.”

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