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Alberta UCP wraps up voting Thursday, prepares to announce new premier


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By Dean Bennett in Edmonton

Alberta’s governing United Conservative Party is scheduled pick the province’s new premier Thursday, and political observers say its next step should be getting back on the same page as the rest of the province.

“The campaign was striking for the lack of focus on the issues that are primary for Albertans,” said political scientist Lori Williams.

“It was about controversies over Ottawa and how to deal with Ottawa.

“Clearly that is a primary concern amongst a significant proportion of UCP voters, but it’s not like they don’t (also) care about affordability and the health-care system.”

Almost 124,000 eligible voters have been casting ballots by mail and can vote in person at five locations throughout the province on Thursday.

The candidates are ranked by preferential ballot and the results are to be announced Thursday night in Calgary.

It’s the culmination of a summer-long campaign, which saw candidates feud mainly over the best way to fight with the federal government.

But Calgary-based pollster Janet Brown said surveys have suggested Albertans were far more preoccupied with the rising cost of living.

“Although these issues were important with the average Albertan, it’s not the average Albertan participating in the leadership race,” said Brown.

The campaign began in mid-June, a month after party leader Premier Jason Kenney received a tepid 51 per cent support in a leadership review and announced he would quit.

Seven candidates signed up. Four are former members of Kenney’s cabinet: Travis Toews, Rebecca Schulz, Rajan Sawhney and Leela Aheer. The fifth, Todd Loewen, was kicked out of the UCP caucus in 2021 after criticizing Kenney.

There are also Brian Jean and Danielle Smith — former leaders of the Wildrose Party, which merged with Kenney’s Progressive Conservatives to form the UCP.

Kenney lost the party’s confidence, particularly its rural base, facing criticism he failed to back up his bombastic rhetoric around fighting Ottawa on grievances ranging from equalization payments to rules on energy development.

Kenney suggested he was being taken down by an angry faction of the party’s base over COVID-19 public health measures it deemed affronts to personal freedom.

Smith left politics under a cloud in 2015 after nearly collapsing the Wildrose in a mass floor crossing to the governing PCs.

Brown said Smith was quick to jump on the anger of disaffected UCP members and, in doing so, dominated coverage, framed the debate for the race and may end up winning it all.

“She understood that this campaign was about the memberships you could sell,” said Brown. “She identified who the most impassioned voters were, and she went after them.”

Brown said that could win Smith the leadership.

“But will that come back to haunt her when the next election rolls around (in May)?”

Smith garnered the most ink, and most controversy, by proposing an Alberta sovereignty act to allow the province to ignore federal laws and court orders deemed not in its interests, while still remaining within the confines of the Constitution.

Smith has not explained how that would work and legal experts say that’s because it can’t. They have said the bill as pitched would be illegal, unconstitutional and a back door manoeuvre toward separation.

Kenney has called the plan “cockamamie” and a precursor to legal and economic chaos. Five of the candidates have condemned the plan and questioned whether Smith could get it passed.

Smith has also promised radical moves on the health front, promising to refuse COVID-19 health restrictions and make changes to the provincial Human Rights Act to prevent discrimination based on vaccination status.

She has also promised to fire the governing board of Alberta Health Services, the province’s arm’s-length front-line health-care provider, for botching the pandemic response and leaving hospitals on the brink of collapse.

Other candidates in the race pitched “get tough” ideas against Ottawa, including fighting to reopen the Constitution and putting tariffs and levies on competing jurisdictions deemed not to be fighting fair.

Williams, with Mount Royal University in Calgary, said Smith’s plans were so radical they could not be ignored.

“That forced everybody to start talking about something that really wasn’t a primary concern to most Albertans. And it just kept going back to that precisely because it was such an unclear and concerning set of proposals,” said Williams.

Williams said the challenge would be for Smith, or any winner, to unite a caucus and party still clearly divided.

“I don’t think it matters who wins on Thursday night. There are factions that aren’t going to accept one or the other candidate as leader.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 5, 2022.

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Alberta’s province wide state of emergency ends as wildfire situation improves

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Saskatchewan landowners fight against illegal drainage washing out land, roads

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WAWOTA, Sask. — Lane Mountney spreads a map over his kitchen table at his farmhouse in southeast Saskatchewan, pointing to yellow and orange arrows slithering across the document. 

Many of the arrows represent existing channels and ditches, moving across fields and out of wetlands to drain water. The arrows eventually make their way to a creek, causing what he describes as a deluge of problems downstream. 

“All these years, guys have gotten away with draining water and the next guy figures he can get away withit,” Mountney said in an interview at his farm near Wawota, Sask., about 200 kilometres southeast of Regina. 

“If this keeps going like it has, I don’t know what Saskatchewan’s going to look like in 10 years.”

Mountney’s map depicts what’s called the Wawken Drainage Project, a plan developed by the local watershed group that has since been taken over by the Water Security Agency, which is responsible for overseeing drainage in Saskatchewan. 

The project is nearly 14 square kilometres and contains 880 wetlands of various sizes representing a total of 2.4 square kilometres of water. 

A project document indicates that 88 per cent of these wetlands have been drained, partially drained or farmed. About 12 per cent remain intact.

Most of this water is supposed to flow into a creek that runs through a parcel of Mountney’s land. 

The plan developers believe the creek can handle the flows, but Mountney is not convinced. 

Last year, he and his wife, Sandra Mountney, dealt with flooding ontheir horses’ pasture. They decided not to use their well water at the time because it was yellow. 

“They were very excited to tell us that nobody inside the project area is going to lose acres, but they haven’t even looked at who’s going to lose acres miles down the line.” Sandra Mountney said. 

Brent Fry, who farms grain and livestock, said it’s common for his land to flood for three days when people upstream get 50 millimetres of rain. 

He said it has caused roads and access points to erode.

“There are about four farms out there and all they’re doing is draining whether they’ve got permission or not,” Fry said. “I don’t even know what to do because the government’s not doing anything — they’re siding with the big guys.”

Farmers have drained water in Saskatchewan for generations and many have done so illegally by digging ditches without permits.  

Most producers drain because it allows them to grow more crops, helping them pay for land that has become increasingly expensive. However, it has caused yearly flooding for people downstream. Roads also wash out and habitat gets lost.

At the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities convention in February, reeves passed a resolution asking the Water Security Agency to require those who are illegally draining to remediate their unapproved works. 

Saskatchewan legislation requires upstream landowners to receive permission from those downstream when they want to drain, but many say that’s not happening. 

Sandra Mountney said the Water Security Agency hasn’t been taking concerns seriously.

“It’s hard to know who’s really protecting our waterways,” she said.

The Wawken project began about three years ago but hasn’t been completed. It’s among many drainage projects underway.

Daniel Phalen, a watershed planner, worked on the project as technician before he left for another job. 

He said landowners had been draining water with no permits before the plan. His job was to determine how many wetlands were drained and what works had already been done. 

Phalen said the plan was to put in structures that would slow down the drainage to reduce problems downstream. 

It’s unclear what work had been done on the Wawken project to mitigate flows since Phalen left. The Water Security Agency did not respond to a request for comment.

Phalen said projects can get held up if affected landowners don’t come to an agreement. Expropriation is allowed but it’s rare, he said.  

Another nearby drainage plan, known as the Martin project, has stalled because of landowner concerns.

Researchers have estimated Saskatchewan has lost half of its total wetlands over time for crop production. 

Phalen, who also worked on the Martin plan, said it was concerning to see the number of wetlands sucked out. 

“The Water Security Agency doesn’t have the manpower to do much about it,” Phalen said. “There’s such low enforcement already that if they had any policies in place, people would just drain anyways. It’s kind of a scary problem to be in.”

Sandra Mountney said she’s worried about losing wetlands because they help recharge groundwater supplies and filter contaminants — particularly important when it’s dry. 

The Water Security Agency has released a drainage management framework that aims to prevent flooding and ensure Saskatchewan retains a “sufficient” number of wetlands. 

Leah Clark, the Interim Executive Director of Agriculture Water Management, told attendees at a Saskatchewan Farm Stewardship Association meeting earlier this year that 43 per cent of wetlands are retained within approved projects. She added the province has “thriving” wildlife populations.

However, she said under the policy, landowners would be able to select which wetlands to retain.

“It will achieve a working landscape for landowners to continue to use their land for farming and ranching. This approach will allow for new development while retaining current drainage,” she said. 

Phalen said Saskatchewan could look to Manitoba for solutions to retain wetlands. 

Manitoba has historically drained most of its wetlands in the agricultural regions, he said, but the province has since developed a policy where landowners are paid for retaining them. 

“You know, $100 an acre is not a ton of money, but it’s another incentive to help producers,” he said. “It’s such a complex problem where you got this huge financial incentive to drain.”

Lane Mountney said regulations just need to be enforced. 

“It’s almost too late,” he said. “They should have been out there checking stuff before we got this point.” 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 4, 2023.

Jeremy Simes, The Canadian Press

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