Province happy proposed camp ban defeated, local leaders ponder next steps

An aerial view of PTI Beaver River Executive Lodging oilsands work camp near Fort McKay, Alta. on June 18, 2013. Ryan Jackson/Postmedia Network

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Alberta’s municipal affairs minister Kaycee Madu says the provincial government is “very happy” a proposed municipal ban on most work camps near Fort McMurray has been defeated, calling it an “anti-business motion.”

In a Wednesday interview, Madu said he is sympathetic to the arguments raised by Mayor Don Scott and the councillors supporting the ban.

He also said he supports future council efforts encouraging commuters to settle in Fort McMurray. At the same time, he argued the motion would have caused more economic uncertainty in the oilsands at a time when council and the province is lobbying for more pipelines.

“I understand where they’re coming from and I think those issues will be dealt with,” he said. “But I don’t want it to be built in a way that discourages investment and economic growth.”

The motion calling for a moratorium on most work camps within a 75 kilometre radius of Fort McMurray was defeated during first reading in a 5-5 tie.

Councillors Mike Allen, Krista Balsom, Sheila Lalonde, Verna Murphy and Claris Voyageur voted against the motion. Councillor Keith McGrath was absent from the meeting.

Shrinking the size of the transient workforce and encouraging those workers to move to Fort McMurray has been talked about by previous councils, with much of those talks beginning in the late 1990s and early 2000s as the oil industry expanded.

Council’s long-term goal is to have commuters represent 10 per cent of Wood Buffalo’s population by 2030; they currently represent 30 per cent.

Major arguments were that many workers did not spend their income in the Wood Buffalo area or pay municipal taxes, while their presence increased land prices and service costs for residents to cover. Industry groups argued they had tried prioritizing hiring locally for projects without much success.

Since council began debating the topic in December, opponents and industry groups argued Wood Buffalo was not prepared for an influx of workers moving to Fort McMurray and the motion would push developers away from the region.

Madu says he has no issue with council efforts to have commuters bring their families to Fort McMurray. He also did not want to speculate on if the provincial government would have intervened had the motion been approved.

“We are thinking of ways to revitalize our communities,” he said. “But again, this was a wrong approach and I’m glad that a split decision by council prevailed and that was the right decision.”

Municipal Affairs Minister Kaycee Madu at the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce’s Mayor’s State of the City Address luncheon at Edmonton Convention Centre in Edmonton, on Wednesday, May 8, 2019. Photo by Ian Kucerak/Postmedia

Land availability during boom blamed for camps

Other regional leaders welcomed the motion’s defeat, but acknowledged the size of the commuter workforce is problematic for the region.

Ron Quintal, president of the Fort McKay Métis Nation, says most Indigenous communities in the Wood Buffalo region have business relationships with camp operators and oilsands operations maintaining a large transient workforce.

He argued the motion was created with little input from First Nation and Métis leaders, and approving the motion would have divided Wood Buffalo and Indigenous communities. The leadership of the Mikisew Cree First Nation in Fort Chipewyan also publicly opposed the motion.

“For us, it’s definitely a breath of relief. We opposed the motion at the outset when they were first discussing it prior to the first reading,” said Quintal.

“That doesn’t take away from the fact that we still obviously identified that there’s definitely a gap that needs to be filled with the population of Fort McMurray,” he said. “The fly-in,fly-out needs to be addressed in some way, shape or form.”

He also said some blame belonged to previous provincial governments for allowing the number of mobile workers living in camps and apartments to reach its current level.

Had land been released at a faster rate when the most recent oilsands boom began nearly 20 years ago, he argued, housing would not have become increasingly scarce or expensive during much of Fort McMurray’s most recent history.

“The infrastructure couldn’t handle the increased population,” said Quintal. “The Indigenous communities stepped up and partnered with camps with the purpose of finding housing for all these people. We found businesses interested in that and that’s what paid the bills for our companies.”

The Cenovus Birch Creek Lodge oilsands work camp south of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Larry Wong/Postmedia Network

Councillor Phil Meagher, who supported the motion, also argued the pace land was released to the municipality was too slow. As a result, the social and economic consequences made camp life look appealing too many oilsands workers.

“We’ve been talking about this issue for years. We’ve tried incentives and making it a good place to live,” he said. “it just seems like the oil companies have come up with a cheaper way to house their labour force.”

Industry groups argued this may have helped Fort McMurray when oil prices crashed in late 2014, even if it meant a high cost of living during boom times.

Had the number of laid off transient workers been permanent residents with families of Fort McMurray, the Oil Sands Community Alliance argued the community would have been unable to cope with the social fallout.

Scott says he still plans to pitch Fort McMurray as a place for commuters to settle, while OSCA’s leadership still plans to work with the municipality on the issue.

“Things are going to start unraveling if we don’t get a handle on things and the oil situation turns around,” said Meagher. “What we have to do is make Fort McMurray attractive enough people want to live here.”