July 24, 2012 / Fort McMurray Today
Depending on who you spoke to on Sunday morning, downtown Fort McMurray either lost its soul or cleaned up its act. After a final night of lap dances, drunken revelry and loud music, the Oil Sands Hotel closed its doors for the last time. It was last call, for good.
Home to Diggers Variety Club, the Oil Can Tavern and Teasers Strip Club, Fort McMurray’s local dive served drinks through the Great Depression and an oil bust before reaping the benefits of lucrative paycheques, fuelled by the world’s insatiable thirst for oil.
Standing at the corner of Franklin Avenue and Main Street, the joint was the longest-standing bar in Fort McMurray.
“Oh, it’s a sad, sad day today for everyone,” said building owner Butch Fox. “The regulars, they’re all asking me, ‘Where are we gonna go? We like it here. What are we gonna do now?’”
Many of those regulars come from a long line of customers going back generations, he added.
Unfortunately for Fort McMurray’s reputation, the joint – a two-story mass of brick as black as the oil beneath the town – provided too much of a good time. In its final days, the building became synonymous with the town’s seedy reputation as a place rife with cheap sex, easy drugs and alcohol-soaked brawls.
It became a regular stop for journalists – from Al Jazeera to GQ to Vice – hoping to glimpse the “boomtown” image of an arctic mining town in the country’s last true wilderness. Journalists from all corners of the globe would grab a table and await a fight, a passing racial slur, drug use or drunken debauchery.
To the chagrin of protective residents, some journalists were lucky to witness all four.
“I won’t really miss this place. It’s an eyesore, totally sketchy,” said Nicole Thomson, who was at the Oil Can Tavern on Saturday night. She swears friends peer-pressured her into attending the bar’s final sendoff.
“It was gross for the town’s image, kinda trashy,” she said. “There was always a fight when I came here and I think it attracted the trashier kinds of people living in this town.”
The future of the property is uncertain, but a rumour circulating among patrons and staff is that the municipality bought the building to destroy one of Fort McMurray’s remaining holdouts of sleaze. After Mayor Melissa Blake announced she was giving the downtown core a 10-year, multibillion-dollar makeover, it’s not a difficult theory to believe.
Blake sees Fort McMurray’s future as a relentlessly family-friendly experience, complete with a civic centre, an arena, an art gallery, waterfront hiking trails and a public gathering place called Franklin Square.
In February, the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre reported a monthly average of 118 babies born at the hospital in 2011. That’s more than double the rate in 2000.
Soon, Fox says downtown Fort McMurray won’t have any room for a venue promising, as one advertisement puts it, a place “where the girls never stop.”
“Fort Mac is definitely becoming a different beast,” said Eamon Leach, who was at Teasers with friends. “Maybe in a few years, this place will be even more kid friendly and family friendly.”
Municipal spokesperson Matthew Harrison told the Today that it is against policy to comment on privately owned property. When Fox was asked why he was shutting down a successful bar and strip club in a growing boomtown, he wouldn’t comment.
“All I am allowed to say is that the building has been sold for redevelopment,” said Fox. “That’s all I’m going to say on the issue.”
From a business perspective, Nick Sanders, president of the Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce, had mixed feelings about the closing.
“We’re sorry to see any kind of business move or disappear from this town,” he said. “But sometimes, things need to change.”
While municipal council gets excited about the future of downtown Fort McMurray, Fox and hundreds of other patrons had their minds fixated towards the past on Saturday night.
“Not a lot of places in Canada can say they had generations of customers drinking in their establishment,” he said. “It’s going to be hard to replace history.”
June 4, 2012 / Fort McMurray Today
A First Nations community downstream from the oil sands have sent deformed fish that band members caught in Lake Athabasca to Calgary this week for genetic testing.
The fish, a sucker and a northern pike, were caught in two separate locations in Lake Athabasca Wednesday afternoon. The pike appears to have several red lesions covering its belly and a single red lesion running the length of its back. The sucker was found floating near-death on the surface, missing many of its scales.
“It’s not natural for fish to be like that, here or anywhere,” said Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam, who caught the fish. “None of our elders, our long-time residents have seen these markings and they don’t exist in our traditional knowledge.”
The samples were delivered to the Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre on Monday, where biologists will perform genetic and chemical tests on the fish to determine the cause of the deformities.
This is not the first time a fish with deformities has been found in Lake Athabasca. Armed with ice-filled tubs of several other mysterious fish, the band hosted a presentation for the world’s media and scientific community at the University of Alberta in 2010.
Caught over a two year period, the samples all had tumours, snubbed faces, shortened tails, lesions and signs of cancer. The pictures went viral, attracting the global wrath of environmentalists and human rights groups.
“There is something seriously wrong with this land,” said Raymond Ladouceur, a fisherman from Fort Chipewyan. His family has relied on the lake for generations. As Canada struggles to meet the global demand for oil, he’s noticed drastic changes in local wildlife that have only accelerated in recent years.
It started with bird migration. Birds like geese and swans used to regularly fly over the tiny hamlet of 1,200 people prior to the winter months. Now, elders believe they are starting to avoid the region.
There are stories circulating between trappers of smaller rabbit and muskrat populations, of whitefish turning red and moose getting skinnier. Some residents say the meat is starting to taste unusual.
“The cancer, the fish, industry is hurting us. The other fishermen are getting frustrated. The elders cannot explain the changes,” he said. “In time, this lake will die.”
In Edmonton, the mood is not so dire. Dave Ealey with Alberta Environment analyzed the pictures the band released Friday. He says there are a number of different factors, both natural and manmade, that can cause physical or genetic anomalies in fish.
“We don’t have an analysis of those specific fish, but the circumstances shown by the fish are not something that would have to occur by human activity,” he said. “Some of the scarring and marks on the fish are similar to things we’ve seen from bird strikes on fish. We’ve also seen some impacts from fish that have escaped nets and have some damage.”
Ealey also mused that the markings could be a result from oxygen deprivation in aquatic ecosystems. When an abundance of plant material rots, the process consumes a large amount of oxygen and leaves very little nutrients for the remaining fish.
According to the Royal Society of Canada for Sciences and Humanities, there are also occasions when hydrocarbons from surface bitumen deposits naturally seep into the Athabasca River, seriously harming wildlife and ecosystems.
Fish have a sensitive immune system, said Ealey, and any disturbance to a fragile ecosystem can lower their ability to adapt to changes.
“A lake as big as Lake Athabasca, it’s not something you would expect,” said Ealey. “But, it doesn’t mean those fish were in that lake all the time. It might not even be the lake that they came from.”
In Fort Chipewyan, Adam, a former commercial fisherman who has lived in the region his entire life, doubts the explanation from the province and industry.
So do the elders, other local fishermen and a small Métis community in the region.
“The province says they have come up with this world class monitoring system, but it’s completely foreign to our knowledge of the land,” he said. “Our knowledge of the land is traditional, historic. This is not from a net or natural causes.”
The discovery of the fish comes at a time when the federal government has pledged to increase its monitoring sites by more than 50% over the next three years, extending the reach of the current system into Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories. The plan will also track hazardous chemicals and gases ignored by old regulations.
Also done this week was a study by two Environment Canada scientists, which was published in the Journal of Environmental Monitoring. The researchers – using data that went as far back as 1978 – concluded that mercury levels have decreased in several fish species in Lake Athabasca and the Athabasca River, countering a 2009 University of Victoria study arguing the exact opposite.
May 26, 2012 / Fort McMurray Today
China’s influence in Canada’s oil sands might be the most Canadian sovereignty issue the federal government won’t talk about, says Green Party of Canada leader Elizabeth May.
In an interview with the Today, May said Canadians should be worried that the country’s energy sector has gladly accepted billions of dollars in investments from Chinese state-owned companies, and ask whether or not their presence in Alberta’s oil sands affects Canada’s foreign policy.
“It’s naive to think there’s no difference between Sinopec or PetroChina and Imperial Oil or Exxon,” said May. “I’m not the only one in the House of Commons who is concerned. I can tell you there are also a number of Conservative Members of Parliament who are concerned.”
The Green Party leader also says security advisors to the Canadian government have shown concern about China’s growing economic prowess in Canada, but the issue has been ignored by the Tory government.
“I understand why it would be ignored,” she said. “The relationship is worth a lot of money.”
China’s economy is outpacing the country’s energy grid, creating fuel shortages for the oil thirsty superpower. In Alberta, the oil industry has grown desperate for loyal customers outside the United States. The result? Canada has spent the last decade wooing China with Alberta’s vast oil reserves, and China likes what it sees.
In the last two years, Chinese state-owned companies have splurged on a $15 billion shopping spree in the oil sands, including the takeover of Opti Canada, Daylight Energy Ltd., and the Mackay River oil sands project, according to the Canadian Council of Chief Executives.
In the largest deal to date, Sinopec Corp., the seventh largest corporation in the world by revenue which racked a total revenue of US$387.95-Billion last year, paid $4.7-billion for ConocoPhillips 9% stake in Syncrude Canada in 2010.
May says the 9% stake gives Sinopec a significantly large voice in the way Syncrude conducts its business.
One month after President Barack Obama denied TransCanada’s application to build the Keystone XL pipeline in January, Prime Minister Stephen Harper flew to Beijing to sign an economic agreement with China.
The deal will protect Canadians investing in China and Chinese investors in Canada from “discriminatory and arbitrary practices.” The agreement is in the process of being legally reviewed and ratified by both governments.
“We know how Canadians, particularly Albertans, feel about the nationalizing of Alberta energy resources in the interest of the national government of Canada,” she said. “This is the nationalizing of Alberta energy resources by foreign countries.”
Polls show the majority of Canadians share her concern. Last spring, the Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada found 76% of Canadians opposed Chinese state-owned companies gaining control of Canadian firms, while 44% found the rise of Chinese economic power as a threat to Canadian interests.
China is well aware of these sentiments. During an early May visit to Calgary, Junsai Zhang, China’s ambassador to Canada, directly addressed the issue of fear over China’s role in the oil sands. His message? If Canada isn’t happy doing business with China, China can take their business elsewhere.
“A state-owned enterprise means, in particular to foreign policy, that you have a very different relationship. When you sit down with China, you might want to say, ‘We don’t think that the suppression of Tibetan monks, the suppression of the Catholic Church or Christians in China, or the Falun Dafa, meet our values,’” she said. “But you also deal with a government with significant investments in our energy sector. Does that affect our foreign policy? I don’t see a benefit to Canada.”
While human rights and sovereignty are issues to be debated at the federal level, Travis Davies, a spokesperson for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, argues that Canadians will always benefit from the oil sands, regardless of a firm’s country of origin.
“When foreign firms come to the oil sands, they play by our rules in our backyard and are watched,” he said. “This industry is going to invest $55-billion in the economy in 2012 and create 900,000 jobs in Canada over the next 25 years. How is that not helping Canada?”
April 24, 2012 / Fort McMurray Today
After 26 years in politics, Guy Boutilier is leaving the limelight.
When a predicted swing vote favouring the upstart Wildrose Party failed to bloom on Monday night, the former municipal councillor, mayor and Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo MLA was defeated by Mike Allen of the Progressive Conservative Party by a narrow margin of 371 votes.
“We should not be sad tonight,” a cheerful Boutilier told a tearful crowd of campaign volunteers and supporters at the Golden Years Society.
“This is democracy. Democracy is something that doesn’t always work out the way we like,” he said. “But I do know one thing for sure – I have always accepted the voice of Fort McMurray and its voters. It’s been an honour and a privilege.”
After Allen was declared the victor, Boutilier congratulated his opponent and told supporters that, for now, he will be leaving politics.
“I always accept the voices of Fort McMurray and they have decided they wanted change and I accept that. I know Mike will do a good job at representing Fort McMurray in the Alberta legislature,” said Boutilier, who spent the evening at home with his family.
“My wife and I are excited to be entering private life,” he said “I said many years ago when I ran for office, that it’s time to move ahead. That’s what I want Fort McMurray to do.”
During his political career, Boutilier held several positions in the Cabinet of Alberta. Prior to entering provincial politics, he served as an alderman for Fort McMurray city council before becoming the city’s youngest mayor in 1992. He left municipal politics in 1997 when he won a seat in the legislature.
In 2009, a public feud between the outspoken MLA and former premier Ed Stelmach resulted in Boutilier’s ejection from the Tory caucus.
Boutilier was upset with delays in the construction of a long-term care facility in the region. On one occasion, he told reporters that without the facility, seniors were being kept in rooms similar to “holding cells.”
He blamed the incident as the reason for his dismissal, although his former party claims Boutilier was ejected for seeking preferential treatment for his riding.
He represented the region as an independent for one year before joining the ranks of the Wildrose.
While the expected shift towards Wildrose green blossomed throughout Alberta’s southern half, most of northern Alberta chose to remain Tory blue.
For weeks, polls and surveys indicated that the libertarians and social conservatives of the Wildrose Party would topple Premier Alison Redford. Instead, they formed the opposition with a paltry 17 seats, while the Tories continued their four decade rule with 61 spots in the legislature.
On the other side of town, a visibly furious Doug Faulkner – Wildrose candidate for Fort McMurray-Conklin and another former mayor – told reporters he was shocked when he learned that family lawyer Don Scott of the PC party defeated Faulkner by 470 votes.
However, Faulkner said the lowest point of the evening was the area’s voter turnout. The Fort McMurray area has traditionally seen the lowest voter participation in Canada and by midnight, Elections Alberta found that less than a third of eligible voters in both ridings had cast a ballot.
“I am shocked, just shocked. Out of the thousands of people eligible to vote, only a fraction of them came out and did,” he said. “The turnout is appalling, I must say. There’s more to life than money and I’m afraid that Fort McMurray seems to be caught up with making money. Unfortunately, it showed tonight. No wonder we never get anything.”
Still, Faulkner expressed pride in his motley campaign – a small band of volunteers working out of his private motor home and a campaign office on Centennial Drive – and the overall voter turnout at the provincial level.
“I’m proud of the race I ran, you know. I really went at it,” he said. “I’m pleased Danielle Smith, our party leader, won her seat and that the Wildrose is now the official opposition. That’s something.”
Although Boutilier says he has no plans to fully retire, Faulkner says he owns property in Arizona and is ready to take a break.
“I’ll maybe be doing retirement for now. I won’t be running again,” he said. “That campaign, that was some horse race.”
‘No light at end of tunnel,” CAW leader fears
The last few years have been tough for Windsor’s unionized labour movement, and Canadian Auto Workers president Ken Lewenza fears it’s only going to get worse.
“I can honestly tell you that when I’m talking to people on the ground, they don’t see any improvement. They don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel,” the Windsor native and former CAW Local 444 president said during Monday’s Labour Day celebrations.
The Windsor and District Labour Council held its annual parade, dominated by members of the CAW, which is celebrating its 26th anniversary. The union boasts a membership of 200,000, one of the largest in the country.
Despite the strong turnout, concerns over an uncertain future dominated the minds of the country’s top union bosses at Monday’s rally.
In the last three years, the labour movement in Windsor and Detroit have witnessed rising unemployment, privatization of city services and a string of factory closures, including the closing of Windsor’s General Motors transmission plant in 2010.
All this, plus a recession that, many workers at the parade say, hit the region long before the rest of the world, only adds new challenges to mending a divided city.
“There’s no question, it’s been a hard few years in this city,” said OPSEU Local 137 president Florry Foster, who represents the college support staff currently on strike at St. Clair College. “But with unions working hard for their communities, I think the positive relationships are there.”
As the manufacturing sector continues to erode in Ontario’s heartland, labour leaders at the parade argued that Windsor’s unemployment rate, already one of the highest in Canada, will continue to edge upwards.
During speeches at the parade’s conclusion, the tone was sharply negative towards the federal and provincial government. Almost every speaker, including NDP MP Joe Comartin (Windsor-Tecumseh), argued that Canadian industrial centres cannot afford cuts public services, while the federal government gives handouts to large corporations.
“We keep talking about offering tax cuts to get companies to invest in Canada and they do the exact opposite,” said CUPE Ontario vice-president Andrea Madden.
“All corporate tax cuts did was line the pockets of people who were already rich, while life becomes harder for the poor and working middle class.”
In the face of another possible recession, Lewenza admitted that parts of the country have seen some progress in job creation. However, he said many of those jobs are either part-time or temporary, and fail to improve the lives of Canada’s unemployed and impoverished.
“The labour movement is being challenged now more than ever before. It’s a continuous fight for workers,” said Lewenza.
“By looking at the United States, it’s going to get a lot tougher for us. So much of Canada’s economic confidence is tied to the economic confidence of the United States, and the problems there are going to come back and hit us.”
She had been living beside school
Parents and the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board have won their fight to have a convicted sex offender moved from a home adjacent to an elementary school.
A government source, who wished to remain anonymous, informed The Star on Monday morning that Sarah Dahle, 25, was no longer living in the Windsor-Essex region.
The source did not say when the move happened, or to where she has been moved.
The Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services placed Dahle, a convicted sex offender, in a home adjacent to the schoolyard of St. Louis elementary school in May.
Parents, school board officials and community representatives expressed great relief when told Monday of the woman’s departure.
“I just can’t believe it. I mean, we did it,” said one parent who would only identify herself as Melissa.
“It’s the day before the first day of school and it’s been very nerveracking, there was lots of anxiety from the parents.”
Ontario Provincial Police issued a warning in May that there was a “public safety issue” in Leamington, after Dahle was released from prison and moved to the Seniors Alternative Care Home on Talbot Street East.
Police said she was a “high risk” to reoffend.
The exact nature of her crimes, which occurred in 2009, can’t be revealed to protect the identity of the young victim. However, police say she has criminal convictions for sexual exploitation, as well as making and publishing child pornography.
During sentencing, Dahle received a lifetime ban from public parks, daycare centres, school grounds, playgrounds, community centres and swimming areas where people under the age of 16 are present.
The backyard of the home where Dahle was placed borders the schoolyard.
“Putting a woman in need of this rehabilitation, for those types of crimes, right next to a schoolyard? It’s boggling,” said Catholic board director Paul Picard. “It’s been frustrating. We had little luck contacting the parole board and heard nothing from them.
“But it’s one thing to put her in the neighbourhood, but right next to the school, with her yard next to the schoolyard…. I’m just relieved that this has been resolved.”
Several parents and community members were planning to protest outside the group home this morning, the first day of school.
“This whole ordeal was not fair to anyone. Not to the school, parents, children or Sarah,” said Catholic board trustee Mary DiMenna, who represents the Leamington area.
“We’re not opposed to her seeking rehabilitation somewhere and, who knows, I’d like to see her become a functioning member of society,” she said. “But it’s been an injustice to us, the school and her. She’s had her face plastered all over the TV and newspapers, online. It’s going to be difficult for her to find a safe place anywhere. But it’s not going to be near a school.”
Dahle was sentenced to 3½ years in prison but was paroled before serving her full sentence. Regardless of where she is placed, she must report to a probation officer and make regular visits to local police.
The government source said it will be up to the police department in the community where she’s been moved to decide if her presence should be announced to the area. An officer with the OPP said factors taken into account when deciding to make such an announcement include the severity of the crime and the possibility of a local “lynch mob,” something Dahle and the home’s owner accused parents of forming earlier this summer.
“I don’t think we were lynching when we were protesting,” said Melissa. “The parole board obviously made a huge mistake when they placed her there, and we were natu-rally concerned for the safety of our children. We weren’t going to stop picketing until action was taken.”
Picard said the school board hopes the ordeal will serve as a lesson in communication and planning for government officials.
“This was just a huge error, a disaster from the start,” he said.
“We were not consulted by the government before and had a hard time getting responses. Many of us found out she was in our neighbourhood when the media announced the warning from the police.
“Hopefully, there will be lessons learned from this.”
Faces fine and jail time for using unloaded weapon
Nov. 25, 2010 / National Post
A New Brunswick man who confronted three teenage trespassers with an unloaded shotgun has been charged with possessing a weapon for a purpose dangerous to public peace, sparking a fresh debate over how authorities treat citizens who take action for their own protection.
“A lot of people at work and around the area think it’s outrageous that I’m being charged,” said Lawrence Manzer, who served 18 years in the Canadian Forces as a radio technician. “Even complete strangers have been phoning to voice their support and express their outrage.”
Mr. Manzer’s case went to court on Monday, but the charges date back to March 28, during a wave of vandalism and thefts in the Burton, N.B., area.
He had awoken around 2:30 a.m., when his neighbour, Brian Fox, phoned to warn him three prowlers were in his backyard, and he was going to confront them. Both men had had their homes and cars damaged by vandals.
“When I got that call, I just thought, ‘Great. They’re at it again,’ ” Mr. Manzer said.
Wearing only a pair of pants in -13C weather, Mr. Manzer told his wife to call the police and grabbed his unloaded shotgun. “I stepped out front onto my steps with my firearm for my own protection. There was a lot of yelling and it was pretty dark,” he said. “I couldn’t make a lot of things out, so I yelled ‘Be quiet. The police are on their way.’ “
He soon saw Mr. Fox had already been able to get the intruders to sit down. “When I saw that everything was all right, I went back inside and locked up my firearm,” Mr. Manzer said.
The RCMP soon arrived, and the teenagers were charged with underage drinking. But then a week later, police came to Mr. Manzer’s home and arrested him. “I don’t know why they had to do that on Good Friday,” he said. “I like to think that I’m an honest and hard working citizen who respects the rule of law.”
Mr. Fox, who served with Mr. Manzer as a helicopter pilot, said his neighbour was acting in self-defence.
“They could have been armed with something. He came out with a shotgun out of concern for myself,” Mr. Fox said. “If someone’s out there at 3 a.m., prowling around the neighbourhood and in your backyard, you have a right to be concerned. They’re not supposed to be there and they’re probably up to no good.”
But Sergeant Pierre Gervais of the RCMP in New Brunswick argued yesterday taking matters into your own hands is irresponsible.
“If you’re not in immediate danger, or if you can safely disengage from a situation, then please, call the police. I would say that something like 99.9% of cases like this can be resolved without incident,” he said. “But, I would say, that if there is immediate danger, it’s a different type of situation. Then you do what you need to do.”
If found guilty, Mr. Manzer faces $5,000 in fines and/or six months in jail.
“The facts are as they stand. I’m an honest man and if they take me to court and find me guilty or find me innocent, I want it to be known that I did what I did in an honest matter,” Mr. Manzer said.
The case is due back in court on Dec. 6.