A federal by-election looms large in Fort McMurray, an election that reportedly is causing some consternation within our federal government as they realize that their hold on this constituency may not be quite as secure as they had assumed. Years of lacklustre representation and an MP who seemed more devoted to creating crossword puzzles about the colour of his hair seemed to indicate a lack of interest in our region on the part of the federal government, ironic given that they tout us as the "economic engine" of the nation. While the lip service given to this region has been vast the actual investment in the region has been woefully lacking (and if you challenge this I would ask when was the last time you heard the federal government was making a significant investment in this region - I rest my case). Nowhere has this been more troubling, perhaps, than with Willow Square.
The Willow Square issue and the aging in place facility planned for that location has long been a contentious issue, with each level of government carrying some level of blame and responsibility. In the final analysis, though, absolutely nothing can be done on Willow Square until the land is turned over for development, and the delay for the development of the aging in place facility must rest with those who control the land - the federal government, through the CMHC.
The federal government has apparently offered three options. One, presented by our departed MP (who thoughtfully left us high and dry and without federal representation) indicated the government would lease the land to the province - at commercial market rates, with a 50-year lease, paid in full up front. Now, this was presented as a "generous deal" by our MP, although how this could be imagined to be a generous deal is beyond even my simple mathematical abilities. The second option is that the federal government will sell it for full market value, and given the market value on land in the RMWB this is also not exactly a generous offer (and likely to impact the development on the property if a significant amount of funds need to be spent on simply acquiring the land). The third option is that they will sell it to the province for a discounted rate provided the province accept some conditions, not only on this property but on several others in the province, making it part of a "package deal". And they seem unwilling to sever this property off to negotiate on it separately, in whatever wisdom they hold on the matter. And to all this I say "enough" - because if the Conservative party in Canada wishes to see another Conservative MP in this region I would suggest they start making some concessions, displaying some leadership, and showing us the money before we decide to head in another direction entirely in this by-election.
I still firmly believe that we need to develop two facilities in our community, one in Parsons Creek and the one at Willow Square, just as I have always contended we should do. I also firmly believe that both can and should be accomplished, but I have also come to the end of my rope with a federal government that talks a good game about the importance of the oil sands and our region but that doesn't follow the talk with any action. Once we have the Willow Square property in our control we can sort out the details about it and the Parsons Creek facility and all the rest - but the point is moot until the property is available to develop.
I am sorely tired of our region and community being the economic backbone of this nation but being treated like a distant appendage. I am tired of the talk about our importance and our value and then being treated as if our needs and concerns do not matter. I am tired of a federal government that fails to not only meet our needs but even acknowledge them, as this matter has been going on not for weeks or months but for YEARS and they felt they needed to do nothing because their electoral hold on the region was solid - but not anymore. I truly believe that this region, after years of federal neglect, is up for grabs and that a powerful and dynamic candidate from another party could pose a serious threat to the Conservative hold. If the Conservatives want us to believe in their commitment to this region and see another Conservative MP elected I would suggest it would behoove them to act on this issue now and find some way to transfer the Willow Square property to our community in a manner that is fair, equitable, and acknowledging of the significant impact our industry has on this nation. I think this would be a very opportune time, in fact, for them to bend a little and make some concessions to give the people what they want, and not promise it as a carrot in the by-election. I would suggest they do it now, before the by-election is held, in a show of good faith that is sorely needed in a place that has felt the sting of federal neglect in recent years.
Today I call on the Canadian government to act on this issue, and to ensure that Willow Square is an issue that is resolved not in ten years, or five years, or even one year. They have it in their power to resolve it before the by-election is called - and this voter and observer is watching carefully to see what they chose to do, and to see what their true level of commitment to this region is.
Enough with the talk about how important this region is. It's time to show us the money - and hand over Willow Square.