Crime, Published Articles

Drug bust, 122 charges laid

Originally published in the Whitecourt Star

Four people from the Woodlands County area are facing a combined 122 charges after a large drug and gun bust, police announced on March 23.

Whitecourt RCMP and Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams (ALERT) concluded a two-month investigation with their execution of search warrants on March 14 at a Whitecourt home and a Woodlands County rural residence.

Police seized more than $30,000 worth of drugs — 310 grams of cocaine, 77 Percocet pills and 119 methadone pills — as well as three handguns, three shotguns and 16 rifles. They also seized a cocaine press and $8,580 cash from drug deals.

“A bust like this is quite significant for Whitecourt,” said ALERT communications director Mike Tucker. “None of those guns were lawfully possessed and we believe they pose a significant public safety risk.”

Tucker said that the nine days between the raid and its announcement was the result of tying up the investigation’s loose ends.

“There could be elements that are still ongoing,” he said.

According to ALERT’s news release, “in at least three instances firearms were lawfully acquired before being diverted into the hands of suspected criminals.”

The investigation began with a tip about alleged drug trafficking, Tucker said.

“This began with information that was received on this group. We believed that they were trafficking cocaine in the Whitecourt area and some of the surrounding communities. We worked hand-in-hand with detachment there to develop intel and enforcement strategy,” he said.

Tucker declined to disclose how many officers and agents were involved in the investigation.

Whitecourt Mayor Maryann Chichak praised this collaboration between the local RCMP and ALERT.

“This investigation and outcome is a great example of how ALERT works collaboratively with the Whitecourt RCMP Detachment to address serious crime issues. Our community appreciates and values the work that ALERT does throughout the province and in our community to keep our residents safe,” she said in a news release.

The 122 charges are spread amongst four people.

Jeffrey Smith, 30, from Whitecourt faces 29 charges; Clayton Taylor, 23, from Woodlands County faces 45 charges; and Alyssa Leakvold, 25, from Woodlands county faces 45 charges.

Dustin Jennings, 24, of Fort Assiniboine faces an additional three charges for firearms trafficking offences.

They are slated to appear at Whitecourt Provincial Court on March 28.

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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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Crime, Published Articles

Stabbing suspect denied bail

Originally published in the Whitecourt Star

Dillon Coulson, the man who turned himself into police in relation to a stabbing at a party, was denied bail on March 9 at Mayerthorpe Provincial Court.

Crown prosecutor Trevor Peeters successfully argued that Coulson cannot be trusted to abide by any bail terms, since he, “poses a substantial risk to re-offend.”

“His detention is necessary to maintain confidence in the administration of justice,” he said, noting that Coulson has been previously convicted of assaulting a peace officer, uttering threats and multiple charges of no compliance with the terms of release — seven in the past year alone.

According to the Crown, Mayerthorpe RCMP received a report around 5 a.m. on Jan. 28, 2017, of a man stabbed four times — once in the abdomen, twice in the back and once on his fingers.

“There are multiple third party witnesses who can corroborate that the accused committed the stabbing,” said Peeters.

One witness admitted to driving Coulson from the scene of the crime, he said.

Another witnessed the assault at a house party, providing the knife it was committed with to the police.

According to Peeters, the second witness said the two men had been in a fight, which escalated when the complainant hit the accused in the head with a metal bat.

“His demeanour immediately changed,” the second witness allegedly told the police.

Coulson then allegedly punched the victim and stabbed him.

“I blacked out and completely lost it. If I did it, I don’t regret it,” the accused told police after he turned himself in.

The accused was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the assault, which is a violation of the terms of his probation for a past conviction, the Crown said.

The Town of Mayerthorpe has a serious problem with crime commitment under the influence of drugs and alcohol, he added.

“The community would be outraged if he was given release,” Peeters said.

Defence lawyer Gordon Collins said that Coulson’s actions, rash as they were, resulted from the trauma of being hit in the head with a bat.

“The fight was a wrestling match until the victim picked up a metal bat,” he said, arguing that Coulson’s actions were criminal but not his intentions.

Since he can’t remember the stabbing, it’s irrelevant whether he expressed remorse or not, Collins added.

“If he’s convicted, he’s looking at some serious time,” he said. “No doubt about that.”

Collins asked that Coulson be granted bail under the condition that he live with his parents in Sangudo.

Peeters argued that living with his parents wouldn’t make Coulson anymore likely to abide by the terms of his release.

Judge John Higgerty agreed with Peeters, denying Coulson’s bail due to his extensive criminal record.

“Suffice it to say, 2016 was a very bad year for this man,” said Higgerty, citing his seven breaches of the terms of his release and conviction for uttering threats.

“He’s demonstrated a lack of adherence to the directives of the court,” he said. “I have no confidence whatsoever that he’ll obey the terms of his release.”

Coulson appeared in court via CCTV from the Edmonton Remand Centre.

His trial is scheduled for June 8, which will take the full day.

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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 (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.

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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.

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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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