Weekly update: Suncor safety, outsourcing at the RMWB and Alberta's budget

The news and events of Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo.

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It’s the weekend, Fort McMurray!

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  • WinterPLAY: Fort McMurray’s annual winter festival ends this weekend. All events are free and run until March 3 at Snye Point Park. Information on events.
  • Snowed In Comedy Tour: Featuring comedians Damonde Tschritter, Erica Sigurdson, Dan Quinn and Paul Myrehaug. Keyano Theatre on March 2 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets.
  • Blizzard by FLIP Fabrique: An extraordinary theatrical performance for all ages blending acrobatics, circus arts and visual storytelling. Keyano Theatre on March 4 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets.
  • Chris Funk: The Wonderist: Chris Funk brings his magical talents to Fort McMurray with his all-ages show, Redefining Wonder. Funk has brought his show to Las Vegas casinos and has been featured on America’s Got Talent, Hell’s Kitchen, Penn & Teller: Fool Us, Masters of Illusion and Syfy’s Wizard Wars. Keyano Theatre on March 5 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets.
  • ATC Career Fair: All are invited to the Athabasca Tribal Council’s career fair featuring more than 70 employers and 10 vendors. There are also panels and a luncheon. Keynote speaker is Mo Brings Plenty, an Oglala Lakota actor who plays Mo on Yellowstone. March 5-6 at the Syncrude Sport & Wellness Centre. Schedule and information.
  • Father Beauregard Spring Market: The school’s upcoming spring market on March 9 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Information on vendors and the event.
  • FMCSD trustee byelection: The Fort McMurray Catholic School division will hold a byelection for a spot on the board of trustees on April 8. Candidates have until March 11 to register. Information on voting and becoming a candidate.
  • The Irish Descendants: This four-piece band hailing from St. John’s celebrates the musical heritage of their Irish ancestors and honour the musical traditions of Newfoundland and Labrador. March 14 at Keyano Theatre at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are running out.
  • YMM Hareport Eggstravaganza: A family friendly day of spring-themed games featuring the Easter Bunny and friends. Funds support United Way Fort McMurray and Wood Buffalo. March 16 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Fort McMurray International Airport. A sensory-friendly time slot is available from noon to 1 p.m. Tickets.
  • Randy’s Cheeseburger Picnic: A man’s gotta eat and Randy Bo-bandy himself from Trailer Park Boys is live at The Den on March 30. Doors open at 7 p.m. Obviously, 18+. Tickets.
  • Heart of Wood Buffalo Awards: The annual awards honour the achievements of leaders, philanthropists, volunteers and organizations in the community. Nominations are open until March 15 at 11:59 p.m. FuseSocial has information about the awards and categories.
  • Royal Wood & Jeffery Straker on The Piano Men Tour: Jeffery Straker and his rootsy storytelling and captivating melodies joins Royal Wood’s unique sound and heartfelt compositions. Keyano Theatre on March 26 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets.
  • 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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A municipal garbage truck picks up garbage in Waterways on Friday, October 9, 2020. Laura Beamish/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

RMWB considers outsourcing, merging and restructuring hundreds of jobs

Outsourcing, merging and restructuring dozens of municipal positions is being considered by the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

The RMWB plans to restructure its Pulse Line hours, consolidate customer service agent roles, and merge the environmental and facility services departments. It plans to outsource custodial services, certain functions in solid waste, parks, and fleet services, and transfer maintenance duties of the Fort Chipewyan Airport to the Fort McMurray Airport Authority. Other positions may either become redundant or be outsourced for efficiency.

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The union representing these positions says the proposed changes will impact more than 450 workers at the RMWB. A Thursday statement from the RMWB said the proposals reflect a “commitment to fiscal responsibility and providing efficient and sustainable public services.”

“The privatization of municipal services often gets reversed and almost always ends up being a disaster for the local taxpayer and the local residents who rely on those services,” said CUPE Alberta spokesperson Lou Arab in an interview.

Safety reminders hang over a heavy hauler maintenance shop at Suncor Energy’s base plant, located north of Fort McMurray, Alta., on Wednesday September 27, 2017. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network Photo by Vince Mcdermott /Vince Mcdermott/Today Staff

Suncor reverses workplace injury trend, reports 2023 was company’s safest year ever

Oilsands giant Suncor Energy Inc., which has been heavily criticized in recent years for an abnormally high number of workplace deaths at its sites, reported that 2023 was its best year ever in terms of worker safety.

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The news marks a major turnaround for the Calgary-based energy company, which between 2014 and 2022 had at least 12 workplace deaths at its sites, more than the rest of its oilsands peers combined.

“We had no life-altering or life-threatening injuries for the first time since 2015,” said CEO Rich Kruger in a conference call with analysts. “We had a nearly 50 per cent reduction in lost-time incidents year-over-year and we had our best-ever recordable incident rate in the downstream and our second-best-ever in the upstream.”

Kruger has implemented a number of changes at Suncor during his approximately one year on the job, including cutting roughly 1,500 people to eliminate unnecessary or “unaffordable” work.

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Suncor has also restructured its site teams, introduced a new performance evaluation system for employees and managers, and worked to improve asset reliability.

One area Suncor will focus on in 2024 is cutting costs in the oilsands to keep pace with some of its more cost-efficient peers. The company is investing in autonomous mining trucks and expects to double its autonomous fleet to 91 vehicles this year.

By the end of the year, all of the ore at Suncor’s Base Mine will be moved autonomously, Kruger said, adding the switch to driverless technology is expected to save the company about $1 million per truck per year.

Ukrainian children sing the anthems of Canada and Ukraine at the community hall of the Meadow Creek Village housing complex to mark the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

Ukrainian evacuees in Fort McMurray gather to mark war anniversary

Dozens of Ukrainian newcomers gathered at the community hall for the Meadow Creek Village housing complex on Feb. 24, the second anniversary of the invasion. They sang songs, watched cultural performances and prayed. Most importantly, they were together to comfort each other on another tragic anniversary.

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About 270 Ukrainians have settled in Fort McMurray since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Alberta has welcomed more than 51,000 Ukrainian evacuees into 206 communities. A locally-run citizen’s committee called Fort McMurray stands with Ukraine helps newcomers with their resumes and job interviews, find housing and English-language lessons, and help with any other needs.

Sergii Melnikov, who helped organize the ceremony, believes more Ukrainians from other parts of Alberta will move to Fort McMurray because the region is part of the Rural Renewal Stream. The program helps recruit foreign nationals to live, work and settle in rural communities.

Alberta Energy Minister Brian Jean said Alberta will help Ukraine rebuild the country’s energy infrastructure. A memorandum of understanding is expected to be signed soon between Jean and his Ukrainian counterpart.

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At the ceremony, people nodded in agreement as Conservative MP for Fort McMurray-Cold Lake Laila Goodridge called for countries like Canada to stop Russian oil and gas exports into Europe, which she said is funding Russia’s war.

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Jatinder “Jay” Notay, Keyano CEO and president, at a ceremony at the college’s Syncrude Sports and Wellness Centre on Friday, February 18, 2022. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network jpg, FM

Keyano CEO predicts few impacts from international student cap

Keyano College does not believe the institution will suffer as the federal government introduces caps on foreign students in Canada, said Jay Notay, president and CEO of Keyano College.

But he argues the federal government had not consulted with provinces or institutions when developing a cap. Notay also says Keyano does not want international students to be more than half of students, and is seeing domestic growth.

“Keyano is in a good place right now with the mix of students we have,” said Notay. “I don’t anticipate significant issues with the framework that’s been implemented, but there’s a lot of questions that we still need answered.”

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Federal Immigration Minister Marc Miller announced in early February that Canada will cut student visas during the next two years by 35 per cent. Ontario will see a 50 per cent cut. Masters and PhD students are exempt. Miller has vowed to shut down private “fly-by-night” colleges churning out diplomas and offering a low quality education.

The cuts come as politicians, labour groups and non-profits warn of unaffordable housing and rent, a strained health care and social profit system, and living costs in major Canadian cities.

These housing pressures were common during the last oilsands boom, but Notay says those days are over. Local vacancies hover around 13 per cent, he said, whereas some institutions are in cities with vacancies as low as three per cent.

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“One of the reason this is happening is because post-secondary institutions of a lack of public investment in the post-secondary sector,” said Notay. “At Keyano, it was just one of many ways in our business plan on how we can be less reliant on government funding.”

Randy Balsom, a Fort McMurray resident, is the first patient to have a knee replacement at the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre (NLRHC), which he received on Jan. 22, 2024. Photo supplied by AHS

Fort McMurray residents can now get new knees close to home

Just one day after making medical history at Northern Lights Regional Health Centre in January, Randy Balsom was back home and happy.

The 61-year-old local is the first patient to receive a knee replacement here as part of the site’s new hip-and-knee replacement (arthroplasty) surgical program. Previously, many area residents had to travel to Edmonton for the procedure.

Prior to Balsom’s knee surgery, about 50 hip surgeries had been completed at Northern Lights since the arthroplasty program began in July 2023. Currently, hospital surgical teams anticipate performing up to 32 surgeries every month.

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“The care I received was top-notch and it was all a smooth experience,” said Balsom. “The surgery took about an hour. I was walking around with some help — even up a few steps — a short time after my surgery. I was impressed with the entire experience.”

Members of Fort McMurray Wrestling pose for a photo after practice at Westwood Community High School on Feb. 22, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

Fort McMurray wrestlers pin down medals at provincials in inaugural year

The inaugural season for the Fort McMurray Wrestling Team has exceeded the expectations of its coach and founder, Ryland Coventry.

At the recent Alberta Winter Games in Grande Prairie, Fort McMurray athletes took home four gold medals and four silver medals. The team for Zone 7, which includes athletes from Fort McMurray and the Cold Lake region, finished fourth. Fort McMurray is also sending two wrestlers to the upcoming Arctic Winter Games in Alaska.

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“They didn’t know what a real match looked like. No one’s ever competed in the sport. No one’s actually even seen the sport,” said Coventry. “This was their first eye-opening experience for it. This was their first tournament.”

It was last year’s Arctic Winter Games in Fort McMurray that inspired Coventry to bring wrestling to local youth. The games featured wrestling and Team Alberta North athletes had strong showings, but none of the wrestlers were from Fort McMurray.

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Premier Danielle Smith and Finance Minister Nate Horner chat as they arrive in the Alberta Legislature Chamber to deliver the 2024 provincial budget, in Edmonton Thursday Feb. 29. Photo by David Bloom

Alberta Budget 2024

Alberta’s 2024 budget is projecting a slender surplus of $367 million built on the back of borrowing and comes amid cooling oil prices and rising expenses.

It is the smallest budget surplus since the governing UCP first started projecting balanced budgets in 2022, and relies on additional borrowing of just under $2.4 billion in 2024-25.

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The surplus for 2023-24 is projected to be $5.2 billion. Of that, $3.2 billion will go into repaying debt and $2 billion will boost the Heritage Savings Trust Fund to more than $25 billion.

Revenue is expected to drop by $2.1 billion to $73.5 billion. This is driven by fluctuating global oil prices. Other highlights include:

Disaster preparedness: There is a $2-billion contingency for disaster relief programs, and hundreds of millions towards wildfire response programs and water management.

Wildfire response will get extra funding for resources such as night operations, volunteer support, community wildfire programs and extra air tanker support. The budget also has $55 million for new firefighting equipment and facilities.

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Alberta spent $2.9 billion on disaster and emergency assistance in 2022-23. Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo has prepared for an early wildfire season after spending more than $4.1 million last year.

Alberta is Calling, again: To fight a growing labour shortage, people moving to Alberta to work in eligible occupations can get a $5,000 credit starting in April. They must live and work here for 12 months and file Alberta taxes this year.

Alberta also plans to add more than 3,000 new seats in apprenticeship programs over the next year. The hope is to keep young workers from leaving Alberta.

Restructuring AHS: Health is getting $26.2 billion and includes $70 million to restructure health care. Primary care is set to receive $475 million, acute care $4.4 billion and mental health and addiction $1.13 billion.

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Alberta plans to spend $126 million on rural physician expansion, $1 billion on continuing care and $3.6 billion on health capital projects. Doctor compensation is expected to cost more than $6.6 billion.

Staffing schools: Alberta Education hopes to add thousands of school-related jobs and support students with special needs at K-12 schools. Alberta’s schools face massive growth amidst staff shortages, including in Fort McMurray. The Alberta Teachers’ Association says at least 5,000 teachers need to be hired instead of the planned 3,100.

Up in smoke: Alberta’s smokers will cough up a tax of 30 cents per cigarette and 35 cents per gram of smokeless tobacco. Meanwhile electric car owners will be forced to pay an annual $200 electric vehicle tax starting as early as January 2025. Hybrid vehicles are exempt.

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A few hundred people attended the candlelight vigil for Kassandra Gartner at Fort Saskatchewan city hall on Feb. 29. Gartner was killed in southeast Edmonton by a U-Haul truck fleeing police. Gartner was executive director of the Fort Saskatchewan Food Bank and has been described as a “the heart and soul of our mission and the driving force for service to our community.” Photo by Shaughn Butts/Postmedia Network

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