January 9 2006


January 9 2006


Election-wise, Alberta’s seen as a waste of time. Our future is a waste of time?



Wells’ Second Rule of Politics teaches us that when everyone in Ottawa knows something, it isn’t true. Everyone knew Stephen Harper would be the angry

PAUL WELLS avenger, hammering the Liberals day after day on corruption. Everyone knew the first half of the campaign wouldn’t count. Everyone knew nothing would happen between Christmas and New Year’s. Wrong again.

Everyone knows that, since Alberta is sewn up for the Conservatives, there’s no point in any of the leaders wasting much time there. But surely places can be interesting even if they don’t contain a lot of swing ridings. So I headed to Fort McMurray.

The Fort McMurray-Athabasca riding is

immense, running from a little north of Edmonton all the way up to the Northwest Territories. It probably is sewn up for Tory incumbent Brian Jean, a brisk lawyer and entrepreneur with an upswept shock of red hair. He ran for the first time in 2004 and carried 60 per cent of the vote, thumping his Liberal opponent, a three-term mayor of Fort McMurray. When I called this year’s Liberal, Mel Buffalo, he filled a quiet moment in our conversation by saying, pleasantly, “They’re throwing me to the wolves here, eh?”

The traffic into and out of town is like something out of a Mad Max movie. Sometimes people die.

If you were leading a national party, you’d probably give Fort McMurray a miss too. A general election is a lot of things, but nobody pretends it’s a serious discussion about the future of the country in all its gorgeous complexity. But there is a lot going on up here at the north end of Alberta that would be worth thinking about, if anyone wanted. It all begins with the immense oil-sand deposits in the area. Brian Jean (pronounced Gene, not Zhawn) sat at the Franklin Ave. Quizno’s—which he owns—and described some of the effects.

“We provide three per cent of the GDP of Canada right now and we’re going to be at six per cent in seven years,” he said. “Financially there’s no more important spot in all of Canada for Canada’s future.”

In real money, that means $36 billion was invested in the oil sands from 1996 to 2004, with perhaps another $45 billion to come by 2015.

“We do have other things,” Jean said. “We have a lot of the softwood, a lot of the cattle, a lot of natural gas. But we have 98 per cent of Canada’s oil. And oil is Canada’s future. It gives us the ace up our sleeve to accomplish the things we need to. And it has been ignored dramatically by the federal government over the past 10 years. It’s unbelievable.”

Jean’s family moved to McMurray in 1968 from the British Columbia interior. They opened a general store, then launched the town’s first newspaper. Brian Jean bought the building with the Quizno’s and the print shop in 1997, then built a car wash in the parking lot out back. “Our net worth as a family has gone up 10 times in the last 10 years—from $2 million to $20 million. Some from good investments and some, quite frankly, just from the environment.”

It’s quite an environment. The immense mines and petrochemical plants north of Fort McMurray have drawn tens of thousands of workers, mostly men, who don’t mind hard work in return for excellent money. You can make $100,000 or more in the plants, and the population is exploding as a result, from about 35,000 in 1995 to over 60,000 today and perhaps 100,000 by 2012.

So it’s a boom town and it’s raining money. Remind me what the problem is?

“We have no housing,” Jean said. “We have no land to build housing. We have no people because they can’t live anywhere.” A modest bungalow will run you $400,000 around here. There are stories of people paying $700 a month for a cot in a walk-in closet. That’s great if you’re making the big bucks in the plants, but if you have an ordinary service job, it puts most housing out of reach.

Which makes Fort McMurray the Canadian capital of wage inflation. “This Quizno’s, for instance, closes at least once a week because of shortages of staff. And I’m paying $14, $15 an hour to most people here.” The restaurant closes? Why? “Somebody just doesn’t show up. They get a better job down


the street somewhere. It’s not a normal town; they don’t give notice.”

You don’t need to spend much time in Fort McMurray to see what Jean is talking about. In most of the world, restaurants advertise their food. Here restaurants, bars, retail outlets all advertise their job openings.

‘We need another million people in Alberta and certainly 30,000 or 40,000 in Fort McMurray’

Well, “advertise” is a little gentle. Basically they beg. “JOIN OUR TEAM,” a sign outside McDonald’s said. “DRIVERS EARN AN AVERAGE $180 A NIGHT,” said a sign outside a video rental shop.

Since it can be a pricey town to live in, many live in Edmonton instead and race up Highway 63 into Fort McMurray by the tens of thousands every Sunday night, returning in equal numbers on Thursday or Friday. The resulting traffic clot is like something out of a Mad Max movie. Sometimes people die.

“I will not travel on a Thursday night, a Friday night or a Sunday night,” Jean said. “I will not let my kids on the highway during those days and I’ve made a position that my campaign workers are not allowed to travel then as well. And nobody fights that, let me tell you. Nobody complains.”

Let’s pause to tally a few of the issues at play in Fort McMurray-Athabasca. Natural resources. The environment. Public infrastructure. Canada-U.S. relations, because who do you suppose buys most of that oil? The rise of China, because it’s a burgeoning secondary growth market. Immigration. “We need another million people in Alberta and certainly 30,000 or 40,000 in Fort McMurray,” Jean said.

What else? Fiscal federalism: at the sprawling, otherworldly Syncrude plant north of town, company spokesman Alain Moore pressed into my hands a study showing that the federal government already gets about 41 per cent of the revenues from the oil sands, compared to 36 per cent for the Alberta government.

Mel Buffalo makes a pretty good case that Aboriginal policy should be one of the riding’s issues too. Buffalo, the Liberal who volunteered to me that he’s being thrown to the wolves, is a Samson Cree who drove up from Edmonton for lunch in the café of the Radisson Hotel. He’s the president of the Indian Association of Alberta and, after studying

j many subjects at NATIONAL many schools, he’s ~ “ now a master’s theology student at St. Stephen’s College, University of Alberta. He says that, instead of importing talent from across Canada and outside the country to work at the plants, it’d be better to train and empower the local community, particularly members of First Nations. “They’re not anti-development,” he said. “They want in on the development.” Of course it’s not the only plank in Buffalo’s platform. Like the incumbent MP and just about everyone else, Buffalo wishes Highway 63 could be upgraded so it would begin to handle the traffic. But his first issue is simply scraping enough money together to mount a decent campaign.

Alberta can be a tough place to be a Liberal. “I asked the head office if there were any ridings open. Mine was already taken, Wetaskiwin in central Alberta. So they said, ‘Fort McMurray might be open, we’ll get back to you.’ Two days after the writ was dropped, the western regional director, Kent Davidson, gave me a call and said, ‘If you’re interested, Athabasca-Fort McMurray is available.’ I said sure. And the rest is history.” Is Paul Martin’s proposed handgun ban a popular issue among rural, small-town and boom town Albertans? “Hunters don’t use handguns,” Buffalo said, before adding, “plus Alberta can opt out and say, ‘we don’t want that handgun legislation.’ I’m sure Alberta would opt out because there’s a significant gun lobby here.” So one of Buffalo’s campaign planks is his support for a policy that probably won’t be implemented where he’s running. While it’s understandable that the national leaders have no time for Fort McMurray, it’s also only fitting that the feeling is mutual. At the Newfoundlanders’ Club on Riedel Street, where you can get a pretty good plate of panfried cod and scrunchions, Bruce Nicolle and Maitland White shared a drink and discussed their disdain for just about the entire political species.

Maybe not quite yet. Buffalo was welcome to run up here, but the national campaign is so busy trying to prop up Anne McLellan in Edmonton that there’s no money left for Fort McMurray-Athabasca. “I don’t have five cents to put together,” Buffalo said. “It’s really exciting. I’m doing a low-profile campaign. I don’t want to get into a position where I’m having to use my own money. I want to sort of get $100 from 100 people, that sort of thing.”

Buffalo’s been making as much use of free media as he can. “I wrote a letter to the editor of the Edmonton Journal on gun control, which should be appearing as a guest column,” he said. “It was about a two-page letter regarding how helpful gun control is to alleviate the problem of gang violence within our native communities, particularly in central Alberta.”

“Politics isn’t worth a roll of beans,” said Nicolle, who’s originally from Rocky Harbour,

Nfld. “They’re in it for their own good.” That being said, he’s a Martin man. “For me personally, Paul Martin, it’s too bad he got caught in this Adscam because he’s a good man.” White, the more soft-spoken of the two, from Sandy Cove, nodded. “For me, he’s the man.” And if Stephen Harper wins? “It

won’t be too long before we have another election, that’s what I think.”

The First Nations community ‘is not antidevelopment. They want in on the development.’

The two have moved so far from home for the opportunity, even if it comes with its share of monotony and high property costs. “Somebody’s got to populate the world and it might as well be us,” Nicolle said. “We sure do a good job of it. The Island could sink if we all went home. I could go there and collect the welfare, but who the f— wants to do that? Too much pride for that.”

I can’t stop thinking there should be some-

body in this campaign who could speak to the contradictory bundle of hope and frustration, opportunity and risk, that has come to characterize so much of the current national moment. Or at least somebody who’d like to try. There’s more to the story of Fort McMurray than the simple question of whether it can be slotted into a red or blue column, just as there’s so much more to the story of Montreal or Waterloo or Windsor or Prince Rupert or Halifax.

In St. John’s I heard Paul Martin say, six or eight times, how much he loves Newfoundland and Labrador. There was no reason to doubt him. But I took a stroll down Water Street and bought books of poetry by Des Walsh and David L. Benson, and the fierce and often angry love in their work seemed entirely alien to this campaign or any I could imagine.

Walsh has a poem he wrote on Yonge St. in Toronto in 1995. He writes about how A

sudden scream of sirens and voices/ reminds all from there that where we’re from/ is a gift, something we open at birth/ and carry with us for the rest of our lives. Elsewhere, back home, he is much darker: I have seen the damage/ from Trepassey to Plum Point, the beached bones of nationhood/ corroded like dreams of plenty.

The scale of what happens in this country on any given day—the hope and pain, the amazing possibilities and the intractable challenges—is so far beyond the abilities of our leaders to describe, much less address, that I’m left wishing only that some of them would admit as much.

On Friday, Martin said, more or less in passing, that Canada is now engaged in a “great national battle” over Quebec’s future. Really? And his solution double the length of his daycare program? To ban handguns, unless some premier somewhere doesn’t want to ban them? Stephen Harper, meanwhile, wants to cut the GST and station troops in our big cities. It all seems a bit off-topic, somehow. It’s a big country out there—and it never looks bigger than when teams of strategists try to reduce it to 40 battleground ridings. M