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PM takes a trip to Fort McMurray (2 articles)

PM hears frank concerns from locals in closed-door meeting

Fort McMurray Today staff
Tuesday November 06, 2007

There were no promises or money from Prime Minister Stephen Harper during his brief visit to Wood Buffalo Monday, and only vague answers about any tangible results of the visit from area MP Brian Jean.
But that didn’t stop some of those business leaders who participated in a roundtable discussion with the PM from calling it a success, especially when it came to raising awareness of issues faced by the region.
“Absolutely a tremendous success,” said Jim Foote, Keyano College president. Foote was one of about 15 people invited to the private discussion Monday afternoon at the Sawridge Inn. Other guests included Syncrude Canada president Tom Katinas, Suncor Energy executive vice president Kirk Bailey, H. Wilson Industries owner John Wilson, Wood Buffalo Mayor Melissa Blake, Howie Ewashko, manager of Northland Forest Products, and local businesswoman and the mother of the local MP, Frances Jean.
“Anytime you can bring the prime minister into your community -- just think of the number of communities in Canada -- and sit down and have a conversation with him, that’s a tremendous opportunity,” continued Foote who was also joined by Dale Unruh, Keyano College Foundation chairman.
Foote was pleased the PM chose Fort McMurray as a destination, but he noted the reason for Harper’s visit was that the oilsands industry is a major driver of the Alberta and Canadian economies. “This is where things are happening and that’s the kind of focus it gets. What I found quite impressive is he didn’t need to do this for political reasons; it’s a genuine interest in the industry that is driving the Alberta and Canadian economies.”
The only public comments made by Harper during a 30-second photo opportunity was to thank those in attendance for giving him some of their time to allow for an “opportunity to discuss some local issues and maybe some bigger issues.”
The PM’s day in Wood Buffalo included a helicopter flyover of the oilsands with a brief visit to Syncrude Canada, where he had a ride-along in a 797 heavy hauler.
Dimitri Sodas, Harper’s press secretary, told Today the informal meeting was nothing unusual for the prime minister because, “he likes to hear from the people. You can have a thousands staffers in Ottawa preparing briefing notes but there’s a certain reality that escapes the bubble in Ottawa. So listening to people who deal with their issues on a daily basis, very often they give the prime minister a full picture of the issues. Very often they also give good advice to the prime minister and ultimately he is in a position to be able to act on some of these things.”

Sodas added “Getting it from local community leaders and local business is usually straight from the horses mouth.”
Governments used to be concerned about job creation but are now more concerned about having skilled people. That’s where post-secondary facilities like Keyano come into the picture, said Foote.
“Education is a provincial responsibility, so I talked to him about some of the things the federal government could do to help out,” recalled Foote. “They’re involved in research but they could also undertake some novel tax policies that would encourage firms and people to expand their training.” That includes the likes of apprenticeships and co-op programs, Foote said.
Foote claimed Harper understood those concerns and recognized them as a “generational thing; that’s something we’re going to see for some time now, not only in Fort McMurray but in Canada.
“Something I liked was he very much focused on the need for people trained in the trades and technology as areas where the training is very focused and people get into the job market quickly. I had a sense the prime minister felt that area requires more attention. He acknowledged that education is a provincial responsibility and a number of us emphasized the need that we can certainly have more success by having all levels of government work closely together.”
Blake, who sat on Harper’s immediate left, noted the meeting was never intended for commitments. “I think it was a search for understanding, getting a chance to see the region and then responding to each of the items that the roundtable members had brought forward. I think he did a very good job of giving the perspective from the federal government back on each of those.”
Asked if Harper got the messages about problems and infrastructure challenges the region faces, Blake replied, “certainly, without question.” She added those messages were delivered around the table.
“They were fairly consistent and again the order of magnitude here is something different. We recognize that there are growth pressures, labour pressures and every other kind of pressure that we face and other communities as well.”
She said no punches were pulled in the meeting. “It was honest discussion.”
Blake noted there was an acknowledgment from many at the discussion there needs to be a better working partnership between all levels of government. She added Wood Buffalo is “so extraordinarily unique there is no one right answer.”
Harper didn’t meet with media so he could travel to Castlegar, B.C., before nightfall. That left MP Brian Jean to respond to questions from the media but he was unable to provide concrete answers.
When Jean was asked about any plans of action or funding to offset challenges faced by Wood Buffalo with its explosive growth and infrastructure pressures, he said Harper was listening and he will do whatever he can from a federal perspective to help improve the area’s quality of life.
Jean added, “I think what most of the people in this area want ... people want to be heard and (Harper) heard them today and he’s carrying that back to Ottawa with him. He’s a brilliant man and he will make the best moves that are possible to make in the circumstances.”
Pressed for more details about issues he was pushing for in caucus for this area, he only said “I’d like to see better quality of life for the residents here.”


PM takes a trip to Fort McMurray
Published: Tuesday, November 06, 2007

FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. - Stephen Harper became the first prime minister to visit Fort McMurray, Alta., since 1996, by spending a half-day on Monday in the town, about 450 kilometres north of Edmonton.

Harper took an aerial tour of the oilsands and spent an hour at the Syncrude Canada site. He then held a closed meeting with local business leaders and politicians, including Wood Buffalo Mayor Melissa Blake, Athabasca MP Brian Jean and Syncrude president Tom Katinas.

"A number of Syncrude employees were thrilled and honoured to have a person of that national stature visiting them," Syncrude spokesman Alain Moore said.

Harper boarded a three-storey heavy hauler and did a quick tour of the site before going to the control centre.

Harper and Syncrude officials discussed the contributions of the oilsands to Canada, but Moore said he was not aware of any discussion of the province's new royalty scheme.

After his visit to Fort McMurray, Harper is to fly to Castlegar, B.C., to meet with Tory party members.

Edmonton Journal

© CanWest News Service 2007

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