Weekly update: Council gives itself a promotion, airport marks tough decade, no RMWB layoffs

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 Okotoks Dawgs on June 20-23, 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.
  • West Coast Amusements: Canada’s biggest travelling carnival returns to Fort McMurray until June 17. Tickets.
  • Free Heavy Item Pickup: Anyone with large household items and appliances can get the RMWB to haul it away. Registration closes June 18. Once registered, a pickup date will be assigned between June 25 and July 11. Space is limited so don’t wait! There’s also Big Bin events until June 29 to get rid of household items such as large furniture, appliances, renovation materials and electronic waste. Registration and dates.
  • Fort McMurray Fringe Festival: Local theatre company Theatre, Just Because is launching the first Fort McMurray Fringe Festival at Heritage Village on Aug. 31. Submissions are open until June 14. Information on submissions and the festival.
  • Fort City Car Show: Fort City Church hosts its annual Father’s Day car show. Two, four and six-wheeled rides are welcome. Trophies and prizes will be awarded to the different vehicles. All proceeds from the BBQ go to Youth With A Mission. Entry is free for people, but vehicle owners can register online.
  • Western Canada Ribfest Tour: This free event will be a 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.
  • 2024 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.
  • Canada Day: The RMWB has a full schedule for Canada Day events in Fort McMurray, including the parade, fireworks, concerts and family-friendly events. Schedule.
  • 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.
  • 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 speaks in this file photo at an opening press conference at MacDonald Island Park for the Arctic Winter Games on January 29, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

Anger, regrets and second thoughts after council votes itself a promotion

Councillor Kendrick Cardinal does not care people are angry with him after he convinced councillors to skip public feedback and promote themselves to full-time councillors.

In a Thursday interview, Cardinal said this was for the good of the RMWB. He said another motion he has for the June 25 meeting will “stir the pot a little bit and hold people accountable,” but refused to give more details.

“Council’s getting too boring,” said Cardinal. “People have every right to get angry and I have every right to do what I’m doing to make people more involved.”

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Raises are coming, Cardinal said during Tuesday’s meeting, but no details about when or how much have been decided.

Councillor Keith McGrath, who was the loudest supporter of a full-time council, argues a part-time council relies too much on administrative staff, which he described on Wednesday as “inmates running the asylum” who “tell too many goddamn lies.”

Councillors Shafiq Dogar and Funky Banjoko admitted council should not have ignored public feedback and understood why people were so angry. Councillors Ken Ball and Loretta Waquan had no comment.

Mayor Sandy Bowman and Councillor Allan Grandison, both of whom opposed Cardinal’s sudden motions, criticized how the rest of council handled the matter. Councillor Jane Stroud also opposed the idea.

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“I don’t believe it’s my job to vote myself a raise or a full-time position,” said Grandison.

Meanwhile, a petition demanding an investigation from the province has been signed by hundreds of people. Fort McMurray resident Diana Noble started the petition because she was angry the public had not been given an opportunity to speak on the issue.

“We need to go back to a day where we weren’t getting national headlines over the ridiculousness of our council operations,” she said.

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Protesters sit at a council meeting protesting plans to cut hundreds of municipal jobs on March 12, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

No layoffs for current full-time unionized RMWB staff in agreement

No unionized full-time employees will be laid off by the RMWB, according to a joint statement with the municipality and Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 1505.

The deal ends plans to outsource, merge and restructure jobs by cutting 459 RMWB jobs, although the RMWB still faces revenue problems.

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Some vacant positions will be cut through attrition. New positions will be added on “an as-needed basis going forward.” A municipal spokesperson said in an email “a number” of exempt positions have been cut, some roles are being reassigned, and changes are coming to the management and leadership structure.

“We do look at this as a success although there are some negative impacts to this,” said Craig Milley, CUPE 1505 president, in an interview. “We know we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us to make this successful, but we’re optimistic we’re going to be able to and save jobs within the RMWB.”

The RMWB’s finances peaked when council passed a $1-billion budget for 2013, while the 2024 budget is $611.4 million.

A major blow came in 2016 when the Alberta government told the RMWB to lower the difference between property taxes paid by oilsands operators and the lowest residential taxes to a 5-to-1 ratio. The RMWB’s rate is at 6.21-to-1 and dropping.

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Past and current mayors and councillors have also said the RMWB is hurting financially from economic uncertainty with global oil prices, the 2016 Horse River Wildfire and an increasing reliance on transient workers in the oilsands.

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Gates at the Fort McMurray International Airport on June 9, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

Fort McMurray Airport Authority celebrates terminal’s anniversary after tough decade

The Fort McMurray Airport Authority celebrated the tenth birthday of its main terminal with a family-friendly affair.

The June 9 barbecue was a far cry from the massive spectacle that greeted its opening in 2014, showing how the economic priorities and hopes of the region have changed in the last decade.

Cuyler Green, vice president of operations and infrastructure for the Fort McMurray Airport Authority (FMAA), said the airport is working on improving passenger traffic, adding routes and boosting revenue.

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“Kelowna is one of our target markets as is Vancouver, as is increased frequency to Toronto, increased frequency to Edmonton and increased frequency to Calgary. We’re talking with different airlines to get a sun destination,” he said.

The $258-million, 150,000-square foot terminal opened with an airshow. In the evening, astronaut Chris Hadfield hosted an invite-only black-tie gala. There were plans for direct routes to Chicago, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City and Mexico.

Today the airport faces $148 million in long-term debt. The international airport has no international destinations. Pre-COVID traffic has not returned.

The Alberta government has approved $119,200 to help FMAA develop a strategic business case to attract more passengers. This plan will look at new or additional routes out of Fort McMurray.

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Alberta Energy Minister Brian Jean has criticized oilsands companies for expanding its commuter workforce and bypassing Fort McMurray’s airport in favour of private aerodromes. Premier Danielle Smith said she wants incentives to add traffic and routes to regional airports in communities like Fort McMurray.

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The Rotary House Seniors Lodge in downtown Fort McMurray on Wednesday, June 24, 2020. Laura Beamish/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

CUPE, Wood Buffalo Housing at odds over raises for Rotary House staff

The union representing Rotary House Lodge staff has accused the leadership of Wood Buffalo Housing (WBH) of quitting bargaining talks after denying requests for salary increases.

WBH’s president and CEO denies walking away from negotiations and insists staff are already fairly compensated.

A statement from the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 1505 says staff want a four per cent raise during the next two years. WBH countered with no raises and a three-year deal.

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CUPE 1505’s leadership says WBH wants concessions that include a 79 per cent cut in paid sick leave. A rally is being planned outside Rotary House for June 20 at 12:30 p.m.

WBH CEO and president Patricia Scantlebury-MacInnis said in a Thursday evening interview staff are paid 20 to 30 per cent higher than staff at similar Alberta facilities. She also said WBH is not in a financial position to approve salary increases right now.

Rotary House is an independent living home for seniors in Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo. The downtown facility has 39 units and is staffed 24/7. Meals, light housekeeping and recreation are provided.

The home is not a long-term care centre and does not have permanent medical staff. Alberta Health Services (AHS) offers home care to residents.

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A man pours a concrete foundation at a construction site for a house in the Wood Buffalo neighbourhood. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

Local May job gains in construction, education offset by retail, oilsands losses: Statcan

Large gains in construction and education were offset by job losses in retail and the oilsands, according to data for May released by Statistics Canada. Unemployment in the census region covering Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo dropped slightly.

May unemployment for the Wood Buffalo-Cold Lake census region was 5.7 per cent, down slightly from 5.8 per cent in April. Employment rose to 68.6 per cent in May from April’s 68.4 per cent.

Employment in May 2023 was 71.3 per cent and unemployment was 4.5 per cent. Unemployment in the last 12 months peaked in August at six per cent.

The participation rate—which measures how much of the population is working or actively looking for work—rose slightly to 72.8 per cent in May. The rate was 72.5 per cent in April and 74.7 per cent in May 2023.

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The labour force added 400 positions in May from April, and grew by 200 positions from May 2023. The region gained 100 full-time jobs and 500 part-time jobs from April, and lost 1,600 full-time jobs and gained 800 jobs from May 2023. The total breakdown of job losses and gains by industry is in the article.

Police dog helps find two robbery suspects in downtown: Two Fort McMurray residents have been charged with robbery after a police dog was used to follow them home.

Police say the incident at the downtown Shoppers Drug Mart began when an employee approached a man and woman believed to be shoplifting. The employee was threatened with a knife. The suspects ran away from the store and the employee was not injured. Officers arrived at the store and took surveillance footage of the suspects.

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A police dog was able to pick up the scent of the suspects and followed them back to a nearby home on Birch Road. Staff Sergeant Sabrina Clayton of Wood Buffalo RCMP says two people matching the description of the suspects were found at the home and charged with robbery.

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Workers and machinery lift a section of new water pipeline into place on 16 Avenue N.W. in Calgary on June 12. Two workers were taken to hospital after being injured on the job site of Calgary’s ruptured water feeder main on Wednesday night. Neither worker was critically injured. The accident delayed work on the repair until Thursday afternoon. Photo by Brent Calver/Postmedia
  • Party’s over: Ex-UCP MLA and cabinet minister Leela Aheer has been denied the chance to run for the Conservative Party in the Calgary Signal Hill riding. Aheer did not give an explanation as to why the party rejected her application.
  • Overdose crisis: Mental Health and Addiction Minister Dan Williams was in Ottawa defending Alberta’s drug recovery model. The program has been accused of being ideologically biased and a failure. Williams said he is “not ideological” on the issue and called terms like harm reduction and safe supply “marketing terms meant to convince Canadians of something that they intuitively know doesn’t work.” Last year recorded the highest fatal overdoses in Alberta and Fort McMurray.
  • Blast from the past:  Ex-premier Alison Redford has been appointed to the Invest Alberta Corporation board, a Crown corporation promoting Alberta as an investment destination. Premier Danielle Smith hailed the experience of her former political adversary in a statement. The appointments of Redford, a former Conservative MP and ex-UCP staffer to the board prompted the Opposition NDP to call the appointments an example of “Toryland cronyism.”
  • War room surrenders: The Canadian Energy Centre (CEC), which is also known as the energy ‘war room,’ will move into Intergovernmental Relations. The Opposition NDP argues this is a sign the program was an expensive failure. The province cut 90 per cent of its $30 million annual budget in 2020, but last year’s annual report showed a $22-million media campaign in Europe, the U.K., Canada and the U.S.
  • Phillips quits MLA seat: NDP MLA Shannon Phillips will leave her Lethbridge-West seat on July 1. Phillips said she wants to leave public life and spend more time with her family, especially after two disgraced Lethbridge cops illegally spied on her. Quitting opens a seat for NDP leadership front-runner Naheed Nenshi. Phillips, who is supporting MLA Kathleen Ganley, said this was “not really” a factor in resigning.
  • Drink up: The City of Edmonton is expanding its water bottle filling program to help people during extreme heat. The program launched in 2021 with five water stations and has now expanded to 27 stations. They complement 24 water fountains at LRT and transit stations.
  • Alberta’s still calling: Premier Danielle Smith wants more support from Ottawa for supporting newcomers to Canada who are settling in Alberta. About 20 per cent of newcomers settle in Alberta. Smith says the federal government should do more to help those people and the province lower the costs of settling in a new home. B.C. premier David Eby also made a similar plea on Monday, and pointed to a federal deal that gave Quebec $750 million to support a surge in temporary immigrants.
  • 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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