Crime, Published Articles

Mayerthorpe arsonist sentenced

Originally published in the Whitecourt Star

Lawson Schalm, the volunteer firefighter who pleaded guilty to four counts of arson in March, was sentenced to two years imprisonment at Mayerthorpe Provincial Court on July 6.

“The offences are indeed grave and concerning for the court,” said Judge Charles Gardner in his sentencing ruling, referring to the 18 fires Schalm started.

The major arson committed by Schalm, 20, was burning down the CN trestle bridge in Mayerthrope on April 26, which Gardner said “caused what can only be described as catastrophic destruction.”

Repairing the bridge cost $7.5 million, Gardner added.

Some of the other fires were small, merely burning grass, while others destroyed property, but the “potential for greater loss … was very great,” he said, noting that one fire was started across the street from a gas plant.

Schalm volunteered as a firefighter from the age of 15. His position as a firefighter created a significant breach of trust that “is not a normal one,” Gardner said.

Other aggravating factors include the number of fires, significant damage, foreseeable risk and that the arsons continued after the trestle fire.

However, Schalm “quickly and forthrightly” confessed to the crimes when he was informed he was a suspect, which Gardner listed as a mitigating factor.

A psychological assessment commissioned by the defence came to the conclusion that Schalm was not a pyromaniac, nor was he bipolar, making the risk of recidivism minimal.

Instead, the psychiatrist said the accused “struggles with self esteem and significant cognitive deficits,” stemming from his upbringing.

Schalm was adopted when he was six years old, coming from a family marked by “neglect and domestic violence,” said Gardner.

He also cited Schalm’s “strong family and community support,” age and lack of a prior criminal record as additional mitigating factors.

“Clearly, a jail sentence is called for,” he said, sentencing Schalm to six months in jail for the first three counts and 18 months for the trestle fire, crediting the accused with three months time served.

Schalm also must pay the Town of Mayerthorpe $8,653.53 in restitution, as well as attend three years probation once his prison sentence is finished.

Gardner also imposed an 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, which he said could be altered or lifted by Schalm’s probation officer.

Father, lawyer speak out

Schalm’s father, Albert, a Northern Gateway Public Schools trustee and former Mayerthorpe mayor, said the past year has been an extremely difficult one for his family but that they’re ready to move on.

“There’s always things that happen, there’s always things that go on that we have to live with, have to go with it and my son’s going to pay a price,” said the elder Schalm.

He said his son “has always been a good kid” and that he’s “always been proud” of Lawson, despite his poor decisions last year.

Lawson has been living with his parents and brother since his arrest and Albert said that his recent high school graduation demonstrates his effort at self improvement.

“Huge credit to the high school for allowing him … to finish. Huge credit for him to want to finish,” he said.

Albert described the sentencing as “fair” and “thorough.”

“We didn’t expect a pardon,” he said. “There’s no way that was going to happen.”

Albert also credited the Town for being “very patient” and forgiving.

“That’s how my son has been able to move on for the most part. It’s because people forgive him,” he said.

Edward O’Neil, Lawson’s defence lawyer, said he was similarly satisfied with Gardner’s ruling.

“It was a very humane sentence passed by a very fair-minded and very respected judge,” said O’Neil.

He added that this case was hard on all parties involved.

“It’s a very difficult case because it’s a very sad case. (Lawson) did something he sincerely regrets and comes from a wonderful family,” O’Neil said. “They’re fundamentally decent people.”

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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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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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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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