Weekly update: Council backtracks, FMCSD staff shortage, wildfire closes Firebag

The news and events of Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo.

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Happy Friday, Fort McMurray!

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  • Fort McMurray Giants: Baseball action at Legacy Dodge Field. Next home games are against Saskatoon Berries on July 9-10, Lethbridge Bulls on July 11-14. Drum Brewery hosts watch parties of away games. Tickets and schedule.
  • Fort McMurray Food Festival: A schedule of events for the annual food festival has been posted online. All proceeds from the festival will support of Waypoints, which runs a family violence home and a crisis line for sexual and family violence. Fundraising has been difficult as demand for services grows locally.
  • Volunteer Fest: Spend the day learning about volunteerism and meeting local social profits. Food, games, music and awards will be at the event. Fort McMurray Heritage Village on July 6 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Information.
  • Pinoy Fiesta: The Filipino-Canadian Association hosts a celebration of Filipino culture. Fort McMurray Shipyard on July 12 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Entrance by donation.
  • Treaty Days: The Fort McMurray 468 First Nation is celebrating the 125th anniversary of the signing of Treaty 8 with its annual Treaty Days celebration. July 26-28. Information.
  • Local HERO’s Wheels and Wings Car Show: The foundation that oversees Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo’s medevac service is hosting its fundraiser car show at the Fort McMurray Airport’s North (old) Terminal on Snow Eagle Drive on Saturday July 27th from 10 a.m. to 3 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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Councillor Kendrick Cardinal defends making RMWB councillors a full-time position during a July 3, 2024 meeting in Fort McMurray. Screenshot/Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo

Council rescinds surprise full-time vote after weeks of public outrage

After weeks of public outrage and second thoughts, RMWB council cancelled a June 11 decision to skip public feedback and become full-time councillors.

Councillor Kendrick Cardinal, who proposed the promotion and skipping public notice, says he will keep pushing for full-time status. Councillor Funky Banjoko, who originally voted in favour of both motions, proposed rescinding the June 11 decision.

“I believe strongly that the characteristics, qualities of a great leader is the ability to listen, the humility to admit when we make a mistake and to act upon that to correct any error, and the strength to make amends,” said Banjoko at the Wednesday council meeting.

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Council voted 9-2 to rescind the June 11 vote, with only councillors Cardinal and McGrath opposed. This also meant Cardinal’s original motion had to be debated again, but only Cardinal, McGrath and Shafiq Dogar voted in favour of the idea.

This time, the public got their say. No speakers endorsed the June 11 actions. Councillor Keith McGrath was criticized for interrupting Councillor Allan Grandison, and Cardinal’s comments in a June 13 interview with Fort McMurray Today were criticized as out of touch with the public.

Some speakers supported the next council becoming full-time, although they wondered if the RMWB’s council should be smaller.

Decisions about salaries, staffing, expectations, and changes to ward boundaries and council size should be decided following public input and a third-party review.

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Other speakers doubted formal full-time status would attract the most qualified candidates. They also argued people with high-paying jobs or shift work would not walk away from their careers for a council term.

Throughout the evening, McGrath and Cardinal repeated arguments they made at the June 11 council meeting and in the media: that a full-time council could work closely with administration and the mayor, and would be more efficient in responding to the needs of the community.

One speaker argued council cannot have a closer role with administrative staff under Alberta’s Municipal Governance Act, and this would be the role of the CAO.

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An aerial view of Suncor’s Firebag steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) in-situ oilsands project north of Fort McMurray, Alta. on June 18, 2013. Ryan Jackson/Postmedia Network

Crews continue fighting wildfire near oilsands site north of Fort McMurray

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An out-of-control wildfire burning 70 kilometres northeast of Fort McMurray has grown to 120 square kilometres after it was spotted Tuesday. Investigators have determined the cause of the wildfire was lightning.

There is no risk to any infrastructure and the fire has not moved towards any communities or oilsands sites. The province and municipality has not ordered an evacuation warning for the area. As a precaution, Suncor Energy removed all non-essential personnel from its Firebag oilsands mine on Thursday.

There are 142 people and 14 helicopters fighting the wildfire. Airtankers on Friday dropped retardant in strategic locations. Two helicopters with night vision spent the night dropping water on the wildfire. They will return tonight.

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Crews spent Friday working from the northwest corner and moving south. This was done to reinforce containment lines along the fire’s western edge.

The wildfire is burning eight kilometres northeast of Firebag, 16 kilometres from Imperial Oil’s Kearl site, and 50 kilometres from the Fort McKay First Nation and Metis Nation.

Firebag is an in situ facility that produces 215,000 barrels of oil per day. It is staffed mostly with a transient workforce and the company’s website says there are typically 400 people working at Firebag every day.

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The administrative building for the Fort McMurray Catholic School Division (FMCSD) in Fort McMurray Alta. on Saturday February 20, 2016. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

FMCSD will have fewer teachers in September, financial reserves nearly gone

The Fort McMurray Catholic School Division won’t have enough funding for 30.5 full-time teaching positions, according to the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

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In a statement to staff and shared with Fort McMurray Today, FMCSD superintendent Natasha MacArthur-Poole said the cuts have been “absorbed by our normal attrition rate.” This also means they will not be hiring as many new positions for the fall.

Provincial funding has failed to match FMCSD’s operating costs, she said. The division’s financial reserves were used to bridge this gap, which has hovered around $5 million annually for the past five years. Those reserves are about to run out.

The cuts come as Catholic and public school leaders warn portables, expansions or new schools are needed to meet projected growth. FMPSD was not mentioned in the ATA’s statement and a spokesperson for the division declined to comment.

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FMCSD is one of 24 school divisions across Alberta that will have fewer teachers next year after the ATA reviewed their public budgets. The ATA estimates 289.7 teaching positions are in danger of being cut.

Of the 24 school divisions, 18 are budgeting for increased enrolment. Most divisions projecting cuts are in northern Alberta. The Red Deer Catholic School Board is projecting the most cuts with an estimated 90.6 positions, or 15 per cent of their staff.

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Volunteer pilots with Hope Air’s 2023 Give Hope Wings. campaign. Supplied Image/Hope Air

Hope Air sees soaring demand for medical flights from Fort McMurray

An organization that helps fly people in rural Canada to their medical appointments says demand in the Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo region is growing.

Jon Collins, chief development officer of the non-profit group Hope Air, said the non-profit group arranged 20 free travel arrangements for patients who needed treatment outside Fort McMurray in 2022 and 50 trips in 2023. This year has seen 29 trips from Fort McMurray and 2024 is on track to exceed 2023’s numbers. This trend is being seen across rural Canada, he said.

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“Communities like Fort McMurray want to retain their residents. People know and love the communities that they live in and that they grew up in, and they don’t want to leave,” Collins said in an interview.

“We want them to be able to stay, not go into debt by missing work and constantly purchasing flights and accommodations. If the alternative is leaving town, we want to help them stay.”

The non-profit is a response to a common problem across Canada’s rural and northern communities: medical treatments may be free, but people can still spend thousands of dollars on food, hotels, travel and missed wages when they need to travel regularly to larger cities for treatment. Hope Air estimates 33 per cent of patients would cancel their appointments without their help.

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“There’s a lot of pressures on families in those situations,” said Doug McNair, a volunteer pilot with Hope Air.

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Giant natural gas fuelled steam generators at the Cenovus SAGD oilsands facility near Conklin, Alta., 120 kilometres south of Fort McMurray, Alta. on August 28, 2013. Ryan Jackson/Postmedia Network Photo by Ryan Jackson /Edmonton Journal

Alberta regulator projects 17 per cent growth in oilsands production by 2033

The Alberta Energy Regulator predicts production of raw bitumen will grow to four million barrels per day in 2033, up from the 3.4 million barrels per day that was produced last year.

Most of the growth is expected to come not from oilsands mines, but from in situ operations, which use steam to loosen up the oil deep below the surface of the earth.

The report paints a picture of a future in which the oilsands remains the No. 1 driver of Alberta’s energy sector, in spite of what the AER says are increased growth opportunities for alternative forms of energy like hydrogen, geothermal, helium and lithium.

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The federal government has proposed mandating a ceiling on oil and gas emissions in order to help slow climate change. The rules would require the industry to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 35 to 38 per cent from 2019 levels by 2030.

Alberta’s formal position is that an emissions cap would be akin to a production cap, restricting growth and investment in the province’s energy sector. But the AER believes the oilsands can grow while simultaneously reducing its emissions, if it deploys carbon capture and storage technology.

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An artistic rendering of the proposed River’s Edge Events Centre and Resort in Draper. Image supplied by River’s Edge Events Centre and Resort

Dozens at council meeting argue for, against Draper events centre

Council has approved unanimously a zoning amendment impacting the proponents of the River’s Edge Events Centre and Resort. If their application for the business is approved, it will operate in a preexisting building along the Clearwater River in Draper.

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Mayor Sandy Bowman said the motion had the largest list of registered delegates of this council term. He mentioned 36 people had registered to speak to council at the meeting. There were also 40 written submissions in favour of the amendment.

Fourteen speakers spoke in favour of the amendment, most of whom represented local businesses and non-profits. They argued the centre is in a beautiful location that will fill a local void in available and affordable events spaces.

Only one Draper resident spoke in favour of the amendment, but was concerned the business will cause an increase in traffic. Draper has no sidewalks, he pointed out.

But another 12 Draper residents argued passionately against the centre. They argued it would ruin the isolated and quiet nature of Draper, which attracted many residents of the community.

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There were concerns about impacts from construction and slope stability. Others alleged developers broke municipal permitting procedures and existing land-use bylaws, and had failed to properly consult the people of Draper.

Many residents opposed to the centre criticized Energy Minister Brian Jean, who is one of the developers of the site, and his family by name.

Kimberly Jean, who represented River’s Edge, denied they had violated any municipal bylaws or procedures, and said they had been consulting regularly with the public. Tessa Vesak, who spoke with Jean, pointed out the Alberta government has identified Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo as needing tourism development.

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Fort McMurray-based artist Amy Keller-Rempp near a work in progress in a photo posted to her Facebook page on May 19, 2024.

Fort McMurray artist featured at Calgary Stampede, YMM Digital Art Exhibit

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It’s common for people to be in awe when they see the northern lights for the first time, but when Amy Keller-Rempp saw them in Fort McMurray, she saw a herd of buffalo in the ribbons of coloured lights flowing across the sky.

Keller-Rempp saw the northern lights growing up in eastern Ontario but they were always been faint. She couldn’t sleep after seeing the first of many vivid auroras above Fort McMurray, and started painting what she saw in the night sky. Those paintings became the SkyDance series, her signature work.

This summer is the latest highlight in Keller-Rempp’s career, which began when she was a teenager. Next month the Fort McMurray-based artist will be featured at the Calgary Stampede’s Artists’ Studios, beating hundreds of other applicants.

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She was part of the Stampede’s Western Showcase in 2009 and 2010, but this time she will have her own artist booth at the world’s largest outdoor rodeo. People will be able to see her latest works in her Metal Art, Fur Painting and SkyDance series.

Closer to home and Keller-Rempp’s SkyDance series will be featured at the Fort McMurray International Airport as part of the YMM Digital Art Exhibit. She is the third of four digital art exhibits that will be featured this year.

Police seize weapons, stolen ground scanner from downtown home: Police say they have recovered weapons and property that was reported stolen after searching an Ells Crescent home on June 26.

During a search of the home, police seized a shotgun, different types of ammunition, restricted magazines, and “several weapons” that included a conducted energy weapon. A Surphaser laser ground scanner worth roughly $150,000 was also recovered. Police say a local business reported the device stolen in 2021.

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Darren Lewis, 41, of Fort McMurray has been charged with unauthorized possession of a firearm and a prohibited weapon, possessing a firearm while knowing possession would be unauthorized, and possessing property worth more than $5,000 that was obtained by crime.

Calgary Firefighters scramble to put out a fire at the Ol’ Beautiful brewery in Calgary on June 30. The future of the brewery’s taproom is unknown, as is the cause of the fire. No one was injured. Jim Wells/Postmedia
Calgary Firefighters scramble to put out a fire at the Ol’ Beautiful brewery in Calgary on June 30. The future of the brewery’s taproom is unknown, as is the cause of the fire. No one was injured. Jim Wells/Postmedia
  • Waterworld: As of Tuesday, Calgarians can resume normal indoor water use as the city is in the final stages of repairing the ruptured feeder line that plunged the city into a water crisis in early June. The state of emergency, fire ban and outdoor water restrictions remain in place for now.
  • The doctor is out: Hinton has declared a local health care crisis because of a shortage of health-care workers and local primary care services. The last week of June had no doctor in the health centre’s emergency department for five days. The health centre also struggled to provide obstetrical and emergency department services. In five years, local doctors have gone from 15 to eight, and many are not working full-time hours. Alberta Health Minister Adriana LaGrange and MLA Martin Long told the Jasper Fitzhugh they are recruiting more physicians.
  • Legal Aid fight: Family and criminal lawyers were among those Wednesday blasting the province for failing to renew Legal Aid Alberta’s governance agreement. Legal Aid Alberta will stop accepting new cases and cease operations on July 9 after its governance agreement with the province expired on June 30.
  • Selling point: Calgary revealed logos of its “Big Sky City” rebranding campaign. The primary logo is a large C formed by bead-like circles shaped like the sun. It comes in sky blue, western red and sunshine yellow. The campaign cost $5.8 million.
  • 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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