Weekly update: Hopes and worries for economy, Fort McMurray needs more teachers and schools

The news and events of Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo.

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Happy Friday, Fort McMurray!

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  • Keyano Huskies Volleyball: The Huskies have a matchup on the volleyball court against the Lakeland Rustlers at the Syncrude Sport & Wellness Centre. First serve is 6 p.m. Friday and 1 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $5 for everyone 18 to 65, and includes admission for both games. Free entry for anyone under 18 or over 65.
  • Fort McMurray Oil Barons: Upcoming home games at Centerfire Place: Drumheller Dragons on Jan. 26 and 27, Bonnyville Pontiacs on Jan. 30, Spruce Grove Saints on Feb. 9 and 10, Whitecourt Wolverines on Feb. 23 and 24, Bonnyville Pontiacs on Feb. 27. All games start at 7:30 p.m. Tickets and schedule online.
  • Fe Art Exhibition: Fe Art Gallery is exhibiting a tapestry of contemporary Indigenous African Art at the Grand Ballroom of Shell Place. Jan. 27 and 28. Tickets are free.
  • Roller derby try-it night: Anyone 7+ is invited to try roller derby with the Fort McMurray Roller Derby League. No experience needed. Feb. 1 from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. at MacDonald Island Park. Instructions on what to bring and what to expect are on Facebook.
  • Multicultural EXPO: The Multicultural Association of Wood Buffalo’s annual Multicultural EXPO is Feb. 3 at MacDonald Island Park. Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo has many different cultures, languages and faiths. EXPO features some of their food, performances, history and arts. Information and opportunities to participate are online.
  • DRIP feedback: The Downtown Revitalization Incentives Program is returning after bringing millions of dollars into Fort McMurray’s downtown. The RMWB wants to hear feedback until Feb. 5 from businesses, applicants and residents. More details in our story.
  • Aaron Pritchett’s Liquored Up Tour w/ guests Cory Marks and Matt Lang: Feb. 7 at Earls. Doors open at 7 p.m., show is from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tickets are online.
  • WinterPLAY: Fort McMurray’s annual winter festival returns with classics like Shootout on the Snye hockey tournament, wagon rides, dog sledding and fireworks. This year also includes Barbegazi, which includes sled demonstrations from Feb. 23 to 24, human curling, foam ball sling shot, fat bike races and snow skate demonstrations. All events are free and from Feb. 23 to March 3 at Snye Point Park. Information on events and for volunteers, vendors and registration is online.
  • Wood Buffalo Regional Library hosts plenty of events every week. These all-ages events can be found online.
  • MacDonald Island Park regularly updates its website with upcoming events and programs.
  • Volunteer opportunities: Wood Buffalo Volunteers helps interested volunteers register for volunteer opportunities with different groups across Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo.

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Get the news and events of Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo in your inbox every Friday morning by signing up for our newsletter. Obituaries can be viewed online.

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Downtown Fort McMurray, Tuesday April 2, 2019. Photo by David Bloom

Labour shortages worry local economic leaders, but hopeful for 2024

The leaders of Fort McMurray’s two main economic groups hope a proposed carbon capture and storage project will trigger another boom if its approved. But for now, they worry about the region’s ability to keep residents and attract workers.

Kevin Weidlich, president and CEO of Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo Economic Development and Tourism (FMWBEDT), and Dianna de Sousa, president of the Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce, said there are still cards local politicians can play to win people over to Fort McMurray.

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Affordable housing is an advantage, said de Sousa, but the municipality and council should offer incentives to promote economic growth and lure people to Fort McMurray. Council should also lobby other levels of government for help with these plans.

Weidlich hopes interest rates in 2024 will drop, setting up 2025 for a year of growth. He believes Fort McMurray can absorb up to 40,000 newcomers without building more infrastructure. Empty lots in places like Parsons Creek and Saline Creek are already serviced for the construction of homes.

Mayor Sandy Bowman has promised population and business incentives will be announced this year. Meanwhile, Energy and Minerals Minister Brian Jean has criticized oil companies for relying on transient workers and work camps.

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“We will, I believe, see another boom. We just need to do all the right things in terms of expertise in terms of what industries how we attract them to set up here for the longer term,” said de Sousa.

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Students walk to Ecole McTavish on Monday, May 31, 2021. Laura Beamish/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network SunMedia

School divisions struggling through staff shortages, crowded classrooms

Fort McMurray’s public and Catholic school leaders say they face a massive shortage of teachers and educational assistants, and both divisions say they either need a new school, expansions or portables to deal with surging enrolment.

Much of this swelling student growth is at the high school level, although every grade is reporting crowded classrooms. Annalee Nutter, superintendent of the Fort McMurray Public School Division (FMPSD), knows of at least one Grade 7 class with around 40 students.

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It was once easy to lure teachers from across Canada with lucrative salaries and benefits, but Nutter says other regions are now just as competitive for teachers and educational staff.

Natasha MacArthur-Poole, superintendent of Fort McMurray Catholic School Division (FMCSD), said the division was fully staffed at the start of the 2023-24 academic year. Maternity leave, sick leave and other personal circumstances have left FMCSD short-staffed and struggling to find replacements.

The Alberta government has promised to fund an expansion and modernization of Westwood Community High School, although Nutter is still waiting to hear details. MacArthur-Poole says there is no indication her request for portables, expansions or new schools will be fast-tracked.

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Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley announces she is stepping down from her position, in Edmonton on Tuesday January 16, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

‘Huge shoes to fill’: Notley to resign as Alberta NDP leader after changing political landscape

Rachel Notley is stepping down after almost a decade leading the Alberta New Democratic Party, leaving a changed political landscape and a party she says has never been stronger. Notley will remain leader while the party holds a leadership race. She will not lead the NDP into the next election.

“If there is any one accomplishment that I can leave behind, it’s that we are not a one-party province where Albertans have no real choice about how their province is to be run,” she said.

Notley, 59, said she has no plans to step down as a MLA and won’t pursue a role in federal politics. She did not rule out running again as the MLA for Edmonton-Strathcona.

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She became the face of the NDP as it grew from four MLAs in the legislature to a majority government in 2015, toppling a 44-year-long Progressive Conservative dynasty. Her NDP then suffered two straight election losses to the UCP, first in 2019 under Jason Kenney and then in a tightly-contested race last year to Danielle Smith.

Rules for a leadership race will be decided at an upcoming convention. Notley has not endorsed a successor. No leadership candidate has yet to step forward, although there are contenders.

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Jay Telegdi Department Director of Emergency Management, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, hands out clothing they purchased, to those in need at an encampment in the downtown area on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024 in Edmonton. Greg Southam-Postmedia

Hats and handwarmers: Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation group assists Edmonton’s homeless

People living on Edmonton’s street corners and sheltering in alleyways in shocking temperatures were an eye-opener for ACFN’s Coun. Hazel Mercredi this week.

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“If it were an animal, Animal Control would be there, the dog would have food and donations to feed that dog a month, but not the homeless on the street,” said Mercredi.

She was joined by Jay Telegdi, the First Nation’s deputy director of emergency management, the two headed for Edmonton and gave out supplies to people in encampments and shelters. Telegdi was incensed by accounts of the arrest of journalist Brandi Morin, who has done a lot of coverage up in Fort Chipewyan, including a series called Killer Water.

“When I saw her get arrested and the footage of that, I said we’ve got to do something,” Telegdi said.

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One side of a sun dog appears over power line towers near Sherwood Park. Postmedia file

How did Alberta wind up facing blackouts in the extreme cold? A Q&A with AESO

It was a jarring, unprecedented alert that arrived on Albertans’ mobile phones Saturday evening: a warning to conserve power, lest the electricity grid operator resort to rolling blackouts during a historic cold snap.

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Alberta hit peak demand Thursday and it looked like things were going to be fine. Suddenly 48 hours later, there’s warnings of potential brownouts and blackouts.

On Sunday morning, Postmedia spoke with Alberta Electric System Operator spokesperson Leif Sollid about the scare and the continued threat to the grid as cold temperatures persist and a grid alert was sent Sunday.

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A CO2-powered replica of a Glock handgun seized by Wood Buffalo RCMP on Jan. 11, 2024. Image supplied by Alberta Serious Incident Response Team

Man shot in leg by Mountie was armed with airsoft gun: A man who was shot by an RCMP police officer earlier this month was driving a stolen vehicle and had an airsoft handgun that looked close to a real weapon, Alberta’s police watchdog says.

The incident took place on Jan. 11 at around 9 a.m. near the Confederation Way and Highway 63 exit.

An officer noticed the vehicle was stuck in a snowy embankment off the side of Highway 63. The officer believed the vehicle was involved in a recent hit-and-run collision. Investigators had already concluded the collision involved a stolen vehicle.

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The officer walked towards the vehicle and ASIRT says “an altercation” with the driver started. ASIRT is investigating the nature of what happened next, but the incident ended with the officer shooting the man in the leg.

An ambulance took the driver of the vehicle to the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre for treatment. While searching the vehicle, police found a black airsoft gun meant to look like a Glock handgun.

Five charged in drug trafficking investigation: Five suspects are facing drug trafficking charges after a Fort McMurray ALERT investigation resulted in the seizure of nearly a quarter-million dollars in drugs and cash.

The investigation, titled Project Flip, led ALERT Fort McMurray’s organized crime team to seize 2.3 kg of cocaine, smaller quantities of methamphetamine, MDMA, ketamine, illicit Xanax, and almost $30,000 in cash.

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Search warrants were conducted in Fort McMurray and Kelowna, B.C., with a total of three homes being searched. All five are charged with conspiracy to traffic drugs and drug trafficking. Two people are also charged with possession of drugs for the purpose of trafficking.

Mountie cleared of wrongdoing in 2019 arrest of Fort McMurray doctor: Alberta’s police watchdog cleared a Fort McMurray officer in an arrest involving a driver claiming to be a doctor responding to an emergency.

The December 2019 incident saw the officer unintentionally injuring the driver’s elbow during an arrest. The driver later pleaded guilty to a driving offense in February 2021.

ASIRT’s report acknowledged the officer’s carelessness but found no criminal intent. Both parties were criticized for their behavior, acknowledging a lack of communication.

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The incident started when the doctor was called to help with an emergency procedure and attempted to drive around a checkpoint lineup.

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Ice carver Kelly Davies prepares ice blocks for sculptures ahead of the Deep Freeze: A Byzantine Winter Festival, in Edmonton on Jan. 18. Photo by David Bloom/Postmedia Network
  • Where’s the beef?: Alberta’s beef industry warns an ongoing multi-year drought could hurt plans to cut their carbon footprint. Drought means more land is needed to produce cattle feed. This shrinks the number of pastures acting as carbon sinks. Alberta is already preparing for a potentially serious drought later this year.
  • Flight risk: It was so cold last weekend that WestJet cancelled 464 flights. WestJet treats Calgary as its hub, which means cancellations rippled across WestJet’s network once Calgary was hit with one of Alberta’s coldest winters in recent memory.
  • Patio banter: Parks Canada recently asked Banff to reopen Banff Avenue to traffic after the town shut down a chunk of the street for pedestrians and patios. Banff’s council voted 5-2 to ignore Parks Canada. The town also wants to create a pedestrian-only zone for 2025 and 2026.
  • Crime wave: Edmonton police says a crime wave targeting the city’s South Asian community is part of a larger extortion scheme run by a “kingpin” in India. Police are investigating 27 incidents, that include five extortions, 15 arsons and seven firearms offences. This includes house fires and a drive-by shooting. Police estimate the crime wave has caused around $9 million in property damage.
  • Messy cleanup: The Alberta Energy Regulator says oil and gas companies spent more than $700 million cleaning up more than 8,000 orphan wells in 2022. But the as-yet unreclaimed wells amount to what the AER says is at least a $33-billion environmental liability — and it may well be a lot more than that.
  • 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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