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.

 

Standard
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.

Standard
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.

Standard
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.

Standard