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Growing wildfire prompts evacuation of High Level, Alta.

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HIGH LEVEL, Alta. — A northern Alberta town and a nearby First Nation are being evacuated due to the threat of an encroaching wildfire.

Thousands of people are being told to leave High Level, as well as the Bushe River Reserve, via Highway 58 east of the communities since highways south and west have already been closed due to the blaze.

The Chuckegg Creek fire has been burning for several days, but grew substantially from Sunday, when it covered about 25,000 hectares, to an estimated 69,000 hectares on Monday.

At the time the evacuations were ordered, the flames were only about three kilometres from High Level.

“The winds are pushing the smoke away from the Town of High Level. It looks very scary on the horizon, but in the Town of High Level the skies are blue and sunny and windy,” Mayor Crystal McAteer told a telephone news conference on Monday afternoon.

Reception centres for evacuees have been set up in High Prairie and Slave Lake, and officials are arranging transportation for residents who can’t get out on their own.

McAteer said the evacuation is being co-ordinated in zones. People should expect to be away for 72 hours.

She said about 4,000 people from High Level were affected by the order, and another 750 from Bushe River.

Earlier in the day, the town warned on its website that people should fill up their vehicles and collect important documents in case they were ordered to leave at short notice. Power has also been knocked out because of the fire, but was expected to be restored Monday evening.

Mandatory evacuation orders for residents south and southeast of the town, and south of Bushe River, were issued early Monday.

Provincial officials said the evacuation of High Level would take a maximum of eight hours, but since some people had already left, they said it could be completed sooner.

Alberta Health Services said it had evacuated 20 patients from the Northwest Health Centre in High Level and relocated them to other communities.

Scott Elliot, an incident commander with Alberta Wildfire, told the news conference that the wildfire was mostly headed away from High Level, but that city officials decided it was best for everyone to leave since the flames were so close.

“If there was a subtle shift in the wind direction, that would increase the likelihood of rapid fire spread towards the community,” Elliot said.

Crews are using sprinklers on structures on the edge of the town closest to the fire.

McAteer said people were complying with the evacuation order.

“People are of course afraid because they remember the wildfires of Fort McMurray, but we talked to a lot of the residents and reaffirmed that we were being proactive,” she said.

A 2016 wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., destroyed one-tenth of the city and some 88,000 people were forced from their homes.

Slave Lake, where a reception centre has been set up for residents of High Level, was also evacuated because of a wildfire in 2011 that destroyed parts of the community.

The Alberta government issued a fire ban and restricted off-highway vehicle use for numerous parts of the province late last week due to forecasts that called for little precipitation and strong winds.

Highway 16, a major thoroughfare between Edmonton and Prince George B.C., was forced to close in both direction Sunday when a wildfire crossed the roadway west of Edson, Alta., but was reopened early Monday.

—By Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton

The Canadian Press

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Lighthizer agrees to do whatever it takes to get new NAFTA passed

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OTTAWA — U.S. trade czar Robert Lighthizer says he will work with Democrats to do whatever it takes to ratify the new North American free trade deal.

Lighthizer made the pledge in testimony today before the U.S. Senate finance committee as part of the Trump administration’s push to get the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement ratified by a divided Congress.

Lighthizer’s appearance on Capitol Hill comes two days before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets President Donald Trump at the White House to give impetus towards ratifying the deal.

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the committee, says the new deal has “weak enforcement” provisions on raising labour standards in Mexico that he and his party want to fix.

Lighthizer says USMCA has stronger enforcement provisions than the old North American Free Trade Agreement, including improved labour rights in Mexico, but he’s open to making it stronger.

Lighthizer says he has had good discussions with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and suggests that getting a ratification bill introduced in the lower house of Congress — a necessary first step towards U.S. ratification of the pact — might be weeks away.

The Canadian Press

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Liberals’ balancing act between energy and the environment climaxes this week

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OTTAWA — The federal Liberal government is teetering on a tightrope this week as it attempts to prove it can balance economic development with environmental protection during the final sitting of Parliament before the fall election.

Bill C-69, legislation overhauling national assessments for major resource and transportation projects, began its final ride Monday in the Senate. The upper chamber has to decide if it can accept the bill despite the government rejecting more than half the proposed amendments made by senators last week.

The Senate will also be asked this week to reconsider the government’s oil tanker moratorium off the coast of northern British Columbia, after the government accepted a Senate amendment requiring a mandatory five-year-review, but rejected another amendment that would have required an assessment after just 180 days.

On Tuesday, cabinet will meet to decide whether to approve the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion for the second time, after the Federal Court of Appeal overturned the 2016 approval citing improper consultations with Indigenous communities and a lack of consideration for the impacts of additional oil tankers on marine life.

And all of this comes as the government Monday imposed a time limit on debate to push through its motion declaring climate change a national emergency requiring more cuts to carbon emissions than Canada has already committed to making.

That motion passed in the Commons late Monday with the support of Liberal, NDP, Bloc Quebecois and Green party MPs — part of a calculated pre-election effort to build political momentum behind the government’s environmental agenda.

The government came under attack from both left and right Monday, with Conservatives demanding the government reject C-69 and explain when construction will begin on Trans Mountain, at the same time as New Democrats were demanding the government reject the pipeline.

Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi appeared happy to be seen as coming up the middle by both trying to move Trans Mountain forward following the orders of the Federal Court of Appeal, while putting in place better protections for the environment and Indigenous rights under C-69.

“On the one hand we have Conservatives who do not get the environment,” he said. “On the other hand we have the New Democrats who do not get the economy. We are moving forward, building a strong economy, creating jobs for the middle class, and at the same time taking action on climate, ensuring that we are putting a price on pollution, ensuring that we are taking action by phasing out coal, and making sure that we meaningfully engage with Indigenous communities.”

Conservatives argue Bill C-69 will make Trans Mountain the last pipeline anyone proposes in Canada as it will scare away investors afraid to bother trying to build projects in the face of assessments they say are unfairly tipped against economic benefits and job creation.

The Liberals however argue C-69 is needed because the existing process created by the Conservatives in 2012, gutted environmental protections and is the reason the courts tore up the expansions approval in the first place.

A coalition of oil and gas industry groups, chambers of commerce and manufacturers associations are urging the Senate to kill the bill. Initially the Save Canadian Jobs coalition slogan was “Fix Bill C-69” but after the government rejected most of the fixes the Senate offered up, the coalition now says the Senate needs to “Stop Bill C-69.”

The Senate made more than 200 changes to the bill, and the government accepted 62 of them entirely, and 37 others in part. The rest were rejected, with Environment Minister Catherine McKenna saying many of them overstepped judicial discretion, limited public participation in the process and made it optional to take into account the impact on Indigenous rights or climate change.

Dennis Darby, the president of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, agreed Monday that the existing system “is broken.”

However Darby, and the other members of the coalition, said the new legislation will scare off investors from proposing any new projects in Canada and is even worse than what is there now. In particular, the coalition is worried the Impact Assessment Act will make for extremely lengthy reviews and assessments that don’t count job creation heavily enough.

“It’s too easy for the benefits (of projects) to be lost in the sea of negativity,” said Darby. “Local voices can be drowned out by professional activists from abroad.”

But Alberta Sen. Grant Mitchell, who is sponsoring C-69 in the upper chamber, is urging senators to see the bill as a major improvement to the existing system. Mitchell, the government’s liaison in the Senate, said 99 amendments is the highest number of changes the government has accepted from the upper house to a single piece of legislation since those records began being kept in the 1940s.

“It’s not going to be lost on senators that this is significant and that this bill has been enhanced because of the work of the Senate,” said Mitchell.  “It’s historic.”

He said the rhetoric that the legislation is going to mean no new major oil projects will ever be approved in Canada is hogwash because under the legislation every single timeline is shorter than what exists now. He said economic impacts are mentioned 179 times in C-69, where they aren’t mentioned at all in the existing bill.

“This is one heck of a bill and I’m voting for it,” he said, in an interview with The Canadian Press.

“I think this is the way we will get projects built.”

The Senate debate on C-69 began Monday and the vote is expected later this week.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press


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