Weekly update: Bonusgate, EMS dispatch returns and full-time regrets

The news and events of Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo.

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Happy Friday, Fort McMurray! The newsletter is taking off for the Canada Day long weekend and will return on July 5. The Fort McMurray Today website will still be updated next week with local news, including coverage of the public council meeting next Tuesday evening. Happy Canada Day!

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  • Fort McMurray Giants: Baseball action at Legacy Dodge Field. Next home games are against Okotoks Dawgs on June 21-23, Weyburn Beavers on June 26-27, Brooks Bombers on June 29-July 2, Saskatoon Berries on July 9-10, Lethbridge Bulls on July 11-14. Drum Brewery hosts watch parties of away games. Tickets and schedule.
  • Western Canada Ribfest Tour: A free drive-thru ribfest at Centerfire Place on June 21 and 22 from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and June 23 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
  • Pride YMM Festival: The eighth annual Pride YMM Festival returns to Heritage Shipyard on June 22. A list of local Pride Month events are online.
  • Fort McKay First Nation Treaty Days: Celebrating the 125th anniversary of the signing of Treaty 8. All weekend until June 23. Information.
  • RMWB Big Bins: The RMWB is hosting Big Bin events until June 29 to get rid of household items such as large furniture, appliances, renovation materials and scrap electronics. Dates.
  • CongoFest: The Congolese community of Fort McMurray invites the public to celebrate Congolese independence, culture and food. All funds go towards Mandla’s Foundation. Information.
  • Canada Day in Fort McMurray: The RMWB has a full schedule for Canada Day events in Fort McMurray, including the parade, fireworks, concerts and family-friendly events. Schedule.
  • JSYF Community Block Party Fundraiser: A fundraiser for the Justin Slade Youth Foundation. 10500 Morrison Street on Canada Day from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. Information.
  • Fam Expo: The Fam Expo is a mini comicon offering a Kidzone full of activities for the kids, vendor showcase, video game and board game stations, panelists, cosplay and food trucks. July 28 at Shell Place. Tickets.
  • Take the Pledge: Want a chance to win a helicopter ride AND reduce wildfire risk? Pledge to reduce wildfires in the Fort McMurray Forest Area by August 16 and you’ll be entered to win a helicopter tour of the region! Take the pledge today online.
  • Fort McMurray Fringe Festival: Local theatre company Theatre, Just Because is launching the first Fort McMurray Fringe Festival at Heritage Village on Aug. 31. Information.
  • Wood Buffalo Regional Library hosts all-ages weekly events.
  • MacDonald Island Park updates its website with upcoming events and programs.
  • Wood Buffalo Volunteers has volunteer opportunities for different causes and non-profits across Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo.
  • Obituaries: Obituaries, memorial notices and sympathy announcements.

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The municipal Jubilee Centre and provincial building on Franklin Avenue in downtown Fort McMurray on Sunday, April 19, 2020. Laura Beamish/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

More than $1 million in ‘Illegitimate bonuses’ went to most senior RMWB leaders: report

The RMWB alleges former HR director Kari Donnelly hid more than $1 million in “illegitimate bonuses” during a two-year period, including more than $100,000 to herself.

A June 7 lawsuit filed by the RMWB in the Fort McMurray Court of King’s Bench claims Donnelly went to great lengths to keep these bonuses secret.

The allegations, which have not been proven in court, happened when the municipality’s unionized and non-unionized staff were told by leadership there was no money for raises. Senior leaders have also spent years warning current and previous mayors and councillors that RMWB revenues are shrinking.

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The lawsuit alleges Donnelly approved bonuses between 2021 and 2023. Donnelly said “no comment” through a now-deleted LinkedIn account after Fort McMurray Today asked for comment. A statement of defence against the accusations has yet to be filed.

A municipal spokesperson said Wednesday the third-party investigation did not find any other current or former employees participated in the bonus approval process.

The recipients have not been fired and will not be repaying the bonuses. There are no plans to fire or sue anyone else over the handling of this matter.

A list of the current and former directors who accepted the bonuses was leaked to Fort McMurray Today and confirmed by the RMWB on Wednesday.

“The bonuses were a surprise to these recipients and were represented as merit-based recognition for their efforts and to address a chronic leadership recruitment and retention issue,” reads a statement from the RMWB.

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CUPE 1505 president Craig Milley is calling for the recipients to resign and that the bonuses be repaid. He said the union heard about the bonuses, but the amounts were unknown and the union did not want to go public without proof. Milley also said RMWB leadership denied the bonuses existed during bargaining talks.

An EMS dispatcher with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo’s Regional Emergency Services. Supplied Image/RMWB

Local EMS dispatch returns after lengthy fight

Local EMS services returned to Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo with the opening of a local dispatch centre in the region on Tuesday morning.

This ends more than three-and-a-half years of fighting between the municipality and the Alberta government, and fulfills a promise made in late November to return local EMS dispatch to the region.

The dispute began when Alberta Health Services announced in 2020 that EMS dispatch would be run from centralized hubs in Edmonton, Calgary and Peace River. The centralized model started in early 2021.

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Local emergency workers complained the centralized system sent them to wrong locations, caused delays and was staffed by people unfamiliar with the region.

“Today is a great day and another step in the right direction for community resilience for the people that live and work here,” said Mayor Sandy Bowman at a Tuesday morning press conference.

“When I look back to when I started… I did listen to some 911 calls and listening to those calls was completely heartbreaking to see people suffer and not being able to get the correct information to our first responders to get to the location.”

The RMWB will staff and run the dispatch centre following a five-year agreement signed in April. Local dispatchers will ease pressure on the other three dispatch hubs and offer surge support during a crisis.

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Regional Fire Chief Jody Butz said he is confident new technology from AHS will prevent local dispatchers from making similar mistakes when answering calls from elsewhere in Alberta. Local knowledge will prevent the same problems from returning to the region, he said.

“As reliant as we are on technology, there’s always that certain human element that can bring that local knowledge of the geography,” said Butz.

Councillor Funky Banjoko attends ceremonies for the National Day of Mourning at J. Howard Pew Park on April 28, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

Banjoko wants council to debate reversing surprise full-time council vote

Councillor Funky Banjoko is asking her council colleagues to reverse a June 11 decision to skip public feedback and promoting themselves to full-time councillors the next day.

Cancelling the idea will be debated at a special July 3 public meeting after Banjoko pitched the motion at an in-camera June 18 meeting. Banjoko originally voted in favour of both ideas. In a Thursday interview, she said those votes were the wrong decisions after listening to public outrage and criticisms from dissenting council members.

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“It was wrong. The process wasn’t followed, it didn’t make sense, it’s not achievable and it’s not realistic to say ‘the next morning we’re full-time,’” she said. “The process has to be followed. The community and the public has the right to give their opinions on the matter, especially something of this magnitude.”

The motion was proposed by Councillor Kendrick Cardinal and supported by councillors Banjoko, Ken Ball, Shafiq Dogar, Keith McGrath and Loretta Waquan. Those same councillors, with the exception of Ball, voted to skip public debate.

Mayor Sandy Bowman and councillors Jane Stroud and Allan Grandison voted against both motions. Councillors Lance Bussieres and Stu Wigle were absent.

“One of the qualities of a good leader, or even a good person, is when you make a mistake, you try and fix it. I haven’t met anyone who hasn’t made mistakes,” said Banjoko on Thursday. “I wasn’t comfortable with what was done and there has been lots of feedback on the matter. It is what it is and as a leader, we have to listen and I don’t think we did that right.”

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Members of the Chipewyan Prairie First Nation conduct an archeological dig on their reserve lands in Janvier, Alberta as shown in this handout image. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Ave Dersch

Chipewyan Prairie First Nation seeks more control over historical resources on lands

The Chipewyan Prairie wants more say in how artifacts and the places they come from are found, studied, preserved and displayed. They are one of the first bands in Alberta to develop policies that give more control over what their ancestors left on their traditional lands.

The Chipewyan Prairie’s band-run excavations have found artifacts such as the northernmost pre-contact pottery fragments ever found in Alberta, changing the narrative on the region’s history.

“I’m proud to find that,” said Shaun Janvier of the First Nation. “It makes me feel connected. I know the stories are true.”

There are no legal requirements for industry to ask area First Nations about where to look. A 2021 study from the Archaeological Survey of Alberta estimated eight per cent of pre-contact sites in the oilsands area have been disturbed by activity that is “non-compliant” with legislation.

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Industry is not obliged to contact First Nations if anything is found, although some companies do. Nor is checking in with local First Nations during a dig required by law. All artifacts automatically become property of the Crown and are sent to the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton.

There’s also more to Indigenous archeology than pottery fragments and arrowheads. Sometimes, the place itself is the historic resource.

“That’s why we need to co-manage our historical resources,” Janvier said. “They should actually consult with us.”

car show
Teenagers check out a 1978 Ford Mustang Black Cobra at the Fort City Car Show at Fort City Church on June 16, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

Community and cars shine at 10th Fort City Car Show

Brian Friesen did not know what to expect when Fort City Church held their first Father’s Day car show in 2012. More than a decade later and the church parking lot was packed with people standing between rows of chrome and rubber as the show’s Best 1950-59 Domestic Car award was named after Friesen.

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This is the 10th Fort City Car Show hosted by the Thickwood church. Pastor Doug Doyle said the show was cancelled after the 2016 Horse River Wildfire and during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Friesen moved to Calgary after organizing his final show in 2014, but was invited to celebrate the 10th event.

The show’s genesis begins in 2011 when Friesen and other volunteers organizers felt there were few community events for men and families. They were inspired by a similar car show held annually at a Calgary church.

Friesen did not know what to expect that first year, but his goal was to make it “the biggest car show in Fort McMurray.” This year he was happy to notice more strollers than cars.

“That’s always what the goal was, to give an opportunity for people to come out,” he said. “You can come out and talk and see what’s out there in the marketplace, and see what ideas people spend their money and passion on the iron that’s up in Fort McMurray.”

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Students at Frontenac Secondary School in Kingston, Ont. leave their phones in classroom tins following a policy that began at the school in March 2018. The Alberta government announced on June 17, 2024 that, with few exceptions, personal electronics and social media sites will be banned from classrooms. Julia McKay/The Whig-Standard/Postmedia Network

Fort McMurray public, Catholic schools prepare for classroom phone ban

Alberta students won’t get to use their phones, tablets, headphones, smartwatches, social media accounts or other similar technologies in classrooms. Exceptions can be made if teachers feel the technology is needed for learning, or if students need help with specific health, medical or special needs.

Fort McMurray’s Catholic and public school leaders say they will spend the summer coming up with policies for when this technology will be allowed during class time. The restrictions were announced Monday by Alberta Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides.

“I’m confident that together, these restrictions will reduce distractions, maximize learning time, support student mental health, and reduce opportunities for cyber bullying,” said Nicolaides at a Monday press conference.

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“I think there needs to be more work done. We haven’t even gotten on the topic of artificial intelligence and ChatGPT and other things, so I think we we need to just be responsive to changing technology.”

Natasha MacArthur-Poole, superintendent of the Fort McMurray Catholic School Division, said school leaders will spend the next few weeks developing their policies for the 2024-25 school year.

Linda Mywaart, board chair of the Fort McMurray Public School Division, said the board was already discussing the role of personal devices in schools with the student advisory council and how they impact student life. Mywaart said in an interview the response was mixed, but the announcement from Nicolaides will kickstart a discussion on its use.

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“It’s not technology in and of itself, it’s how and when it’s being used. I think that is more of the growing concern,” Mywaart said. “We’ve seen great things in terms of both literacy and numeracy using technology, so it’s absolutely a critical tool. But its use needs to be managed to keep it from becoming a distraction.”

Workers mow a municipal greenspace in this file photo provided by the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo on June 17, 2024.

Grass isn’t greener as RMWB helps new lawn care contractor catch up

It was rare that Chris Yarkie of C&B Contracting heard complaints about uncut grass in Fort McMurray. Municipal lawn care was rarely a major talking point among residents and for eight years, the Fort McMurray-based contractor held the contract to keep public lawns tidy.

That changed this past spring when the contract went to a competitor based in Edmonton. In recent weeks, Yarkie has watched large sections of Fort McMurray’s public greenspaces neglected. He’s not alone in his frustration.

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The RMWB put out a Monday post on their Facebook and X accounts asking people to be patient as crews rush to mow the lawns. A municipal spokesperson said in a Monday email that recent heavy rainfalls has delayed mowing.

Standing water and muddy, wet ground has slowed or stopped mowers and made it unsafe to cut sloped areas, such as greenspaces around ponds.

“Additionally, contractor familiarization with our processes, neighborhoods, priority areas, and the environment has been a factor,” reads the statement. “To ensure we meet our mowing priorities, staff are being temporarily reassigned to support mowing and grass cutting operations.”

Meanwhile, Councillor Keith McGrath has publicly criticized the contractor’s performance as well as administration for not sticking with a local company. So have residents, who have flooded the Pulse Line with complaints. The new contractor, Cortex Management, did not return requests for comment.

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“I think they just went with the lowest bidder, simple as that. They were looking for cost-savings,” Yarkie said in an interview. “We had a great track record with the RMWB, I’m pretty sure they were satisfied with our services… we thought for sure we’d be one of the best candidates for it.”

Robert Clark sings O Canada before the start of Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final between the Edmonton Oilers and the Florida Panthers on June 15 in Edmonton. Photo by Greg Southam/Postmedia Network
  • Chestermere chaos: The City of Chestermere is suing a mayor and three ex-councillors who were fired by the province last December. The municipality says more than $650,000 in public funds were spent without approval and includes personal legal fees, cameras to surveil city staff, booze and travel expenses for a councillor’s wife.
  • Growing pains: Banff is divided over a proposal to fight severe housing shortages by increasing density and eliminating residential parking requirements. The plan includes height increases and larger buildings, and aims to add at least 240 new housing units by 2027. Supporters argue these changes will create affordable housing in the booming tourist town. Opponents worry the changes will hurt Banff’s character, livability and green spaces.
  • Coutts trial: An undercover Mountie testified in a Lethbridge court that two Edmonton cops supported the COVID-19 blockade of the U.S.-Canada border at Coutts in 2022.  She was the third undercover female RCMP officer to testify at the trial of Anthony Olienick and Chris Carbert, who are charged with conspiring to murder Mounties at the blockade.
  • Pride review: A judicial review has ended between Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools and ex-trustee Monique LaGrange. A decision will be made in upcoming months. LaGrange was reprimanded for posting an image on Facebook that compared Pride Month to Nazi rallies. Pride and Jewish groups condemned the image. LaGrange resigned after the board disqualified her for breaking sanctions.
  • Game of drones: Fifteen anti-drone systems developed by Canada, U.S., Australia, U.K. and Israel were tested at the 2024 Counter Uncrewed Aerial Systems Sandbox, a four-week demonstration at CFB Suffield near Medicine Hat. The event is not a military exercise, but is meant to provide the Canadian Armed Forces with information when purchasing new defence systems.
  • Read up on the politics and culture of Alberta  with Postmedia’s subscriber-exclusive newsletter, What’s up with Alberta? Curated by the National Post’s Tyler Dawson every Tuesday and Thursday.

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