By Prasad Panda, MLA
Last fall I took a trip to Northern Alberta, visiting communities and stakeholders that no other politicians in this province travel to meet. If the Northern Alberta Development Council develops a northern strategy, here are some policy areas on which our province can build upon to further develop northern Alberta.
Connections like a road from Fort McMurray to Peerless Lake and on to Peace River would directly connect communities and save hours of travel time.
Locals also want to ship goods by rail across the Peace and Smoky Rivers to Grande Prairie, over to Dawson Creek in British Columbia and on to the Port of Prince Rupert to save shipping time.
SuperNet consists of 13,000 kilometers in fibre and spans across 429 communities in Alberta; it’s my understanding that the last miles of the SuperNet are being completed. I’m also told that the SuperNet is too slow in northern communities for a First Nations software company to set up shop and too expensive, resulting in a registry office closing shop. SuperNet speed and expense need to be addressed in order to sustain the northern economy.
In Fairview, one of the student residences at Grande Prairie Regional College has been condemned. Not looking after the infrastructure is a surefire way to close down small rural colleges. This will affect the retention rate of northern communities, which is a crucial issue.
It has been stated that Athabasca University will have to close in a year if proper funding is not secured. Information Technology needs to be modernized and replaced, but also backed up, as per the report of the Auditor General. If an institution such as Athabasca University that provides distance learning to Albertans were to shut down, it would be a significant loss for northern Alberta.
Apart from educational endeavours, it appears as though the current Caribou management plan will restrict the timber harvest and potentially close the largest employer in High Level – the Tolko Mill. Such a closure would virtually reduce High Level to a tourism stop where trips from Yellowknife for Kentucky Fried Chicken will be one of the only economic drivers. It would be tragic if Tolko and other northern job creators were needlessly chased away in a misguided attempt to save some Caribou.
The caribou plan could affect 1,800,000 hectares of Mackenzie county and effectively make that area economically useless, no oil and gas, no logging.
Over in La Crete, there is a baby boom. La Crete now has the same population as High Level, but has no hospital. Residents have to drive one and a half hours to High Level for certain hospital services. That’s the equivalent of telling everyone in Red Deer to drive to the hospital in Edmonton.
Farmers in La Crete want more crown land sold so they can convert it to productive farm land. This farm land is so fertile and warmed by the long daylight hours it grows great high protein oats, wheat and omega-3 canola, yielding premium prices. Refusing to release land strangled Fort McMurray’s growth for years. We cannot repeat the same mistake.
I also visited Slave Lake and spoke with the Mayor. We are losing ground on implementing the lessons learned from the Slave Lake fire. We cannot let another northern Alberta community face such a disaster again.
If the NDP government seeks to implement policies that would positively impact northern development, in addition to these concerns above, reversing policies like the 100 megatonne cap on oilsands development and the risky, ideological carbon tax as well as ending their burdensome regulatory red tape would really help take advantage of the great potential for growth in Northern Alberta.
Prasad Panda is the Wildrose Shadow Economic Development and Trade Minister and MLA for Calgary-Foothills.