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Camp ban controversy draws big crowd to Council

Tensions were high and crowds were at capacity for the Jan. 23 Council meeting, where debate and discussion centered around Mayor Don Scott's motion to freeze all new and renewed camp accommodations. Photo Supplied by Melanie Walsh. REPORTER.

Two days of debate, presentations, and concerns from public interests and private industry were heard during last night’s extended Council meeting.

Mayor Don Scott reviewed the motion, which is a ban on new and renewed camp accommodations within 120 kilometres of Fort McMurray’s urban service area, saying in his opening speech “the future of the region is at stake.”

“I believe the benefits of the motion are that we will have a more sustainable region, we will improved local employment opportunities, [and] more residents including families will make our region home.”

Mayor Scott added a ban would lead to things like a broadened tax base, positive impact on the real estate market, and force industry to reach agreements with the Municipality.

As scheduled delegates came forward to speak, a number that ballooned from 11 to 27 since the release of the agenda, each had their reasons for why such a ban should not take place.

MEG Energy just acquired a new CEO and survived a hostile takeover bid by Husky Energy. MEG representative Rory O’Connor echoed the concern of many representatives when he explained why a ban would not only drive work away from the region but would put additional workers health and safety at risk, due to road travel to and from the Crystal Lake site.

“By my calculations, on a 12-hour day, it would not be hard to have three hours each way in commuting time.”

There was, however, a pattern with most if not all the delegates who shared with Council their views and answered questions: The percentage of workers that were local were in the minority, and past job fairs or hiring calls into the region didn’t produce adequate results, which only frustrated and supported the Mayor’s argument.

“Industry is using camps as such a tool when this region is suffering. That’s what I’m concerned about, and I think a lot of us should be concerned about that. That should be a priority of everybody in this Council, and everybody in this region, quite frankly.”

Given their concerns and ideas, inactivity has a considerable financial impact. UDI Wood Buffalo President Gilles Huizinga spoke once before to Council about the dangers of FIFO to the region’s housing market last May. Huizinga returned with numbers to support Mayor Scott’s argument for a moratorium.

“The equity loss in the real estate values of residential single family [homes] is $5.6 billion in lost revenue, and the $1.2 billion dollar in dollar transfers of income that we don’t get annually by 37 per cent of 17,000 people that live in camps that aren’t living here.”

Suncor director Tracey Wolsey argued all of their camps are required for things like turnaround and emergencies. Wolsey also said that while partnership and collaboration are necessary, it’s the downturn that prompted Mayor Scott to propose the ban.

“I think that was the root cause of really what drove us here today. There are other contributing factors, [and] that may be one of them, but I do think if the economic situation was different, we may not be having this conversation.”

Suncor contributed millions to the development and infrastructure of the RMWB. When Councillor Krista Balsom asked if Suncor would scale back if the motion was approved, Wolsey said “No.”

Representatives from similar companies such as Adele Thompson of CNRL, Michelle Power of Imperial Oil, Ron Quintal of the Fort Mckay Métis Community, and even Martin Giles of Northstar Ford believe the discussion is good, and more work is needed. However, a ban combined with penalizing all companies, regardless of how much they support the region and encourage living locally, and the economic uncertainty of what comes next is counter-productive, or in Giles’ words the motion “needs some tweaking”.

“I think the motion is missing ‘what do I get as a carrot if I actually line up with you?’ You have a couple of oilsands providers that have done their stuff, they hire local, they probably break close to your percentage: Give them a carrot, man!”

Council will meet to discuss with the administration, and vote on the motion on Jan. 28, 2019 at 3 p.m.

Council voted to postpone discussion on the bylaws for cannabis retail store rezoning to the next Council meeting on Feb. 12, 2019.