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State of the Region Address

Mayor Melissa Blake presented her 2016 State of the Region Address at the Fort McMurray Construction Association Luncheon Thursday, Nov. 17, in the Quality Hotel & Conference Center. Watch the address in the video above or read the transcript below.

Mayor Melissa Blake

Mayor Blake

To the Board of Directors and members of the Fort McMurray Construction Association, distinguished guests and community members, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, friends ...

In what has been the most challenging year in our region’s history…I’m humbled and honoured to be here with you at the Quality Hotel and Conference Centre today for my final State of the Region address as your Mayor.

It’s great to see many familiar faces here alongside some new ones. Thank you for again giving me this opportunity.

Before I begin I’d like to thank and acknowledge my Council colleagues: Councillors Ault, Bussieres, Cardinal, Germain, McGrath, Meagher, Stroud, Tatum, Vinni and Voyageur. They are all committed to making a difference in our community and I thank them for their service.

When I paused to reflect on what I would share today I quickly felt and realized that a "state of the region" address in the traditional sense just doesn’t fit with what we’re going through as a community.

We are living the "state of the region" together every day ... from the continued impacts of a serious economic downturn to our collective recovery from the largest natural disaster in Canadian history.

At last year’s State of the Region address, I used the theme of "strong and resilient" to capture where we were as a community. Little did we know then just how much that strength and resiliency would shine through this year!

As we took our leave on May 3 — gathering our loved ones, fleeing through flames and forging into unknown arrival points — we watched the news, were glued to social media and we couldn’t imagine what would be left when that ferocious beast tore through our region.

The losses are tragic, but the saves are exceptional.

As to the saves, about 85 per cent of Fort McMurray survived: We have a community today because of a heroic amount of hard work done by tireless, talented, strong, resilient first responders and municipal staff, partners in industry, business and our social profit sector and volunteers who stuck together and refused to quit when we needed it most.

People like you. Strong and resilient. That’s Fort McMurray and that’s Wood Buffalo — last year, that day, still today … and always.

Thinking back on this year and looking ahead to 2017 and beyond, the expression "to everything, there is a season" comes to mind.

It is a time to gather together.

Our incredible community — safe, resilient, together and here for each other, home to the strongest people you’ll ever call neighbours, friends and colleagues, representing over 100 cultures and encompassing a geographic area larger than the Province of Nova Scotia — is doing just that.

Living, as we do every day, at the centre of one of the largest oil sands deposits in the world, energy has been at our heart since 1870.

The boom that ended in 2014 delivered explosive growth, and the truth is, such intense growth can be daunting.

Our infrastructure lagged, the cost of living went through the roof and municipal services were stretched. At times it was challenging and frustrating, but we stuck together and we got things done.

Fast forward to today. We’ve definitely seen things like this before, but this downturn proved to be different. It’s been a bit of a shock after a 15-year boom, but now we all acknowledge that oil is going to be, as we say, lower for longer.

It is very true that workers, families, businesses and industry are all hurting from the impact of these low oil prices. But now we have a chance to turn our tragedy into triumph.

As the rebuilding and recovery of the community continues, we will focus on core services and projects, resident and small business support programs and necessary infrastructure development across the region. These opportunities retain and create jobs right here in the community when we need it most.

It is a time to mend.

We recognize that we can use this pause to re-balance, re-think and then thoughtfully evolve the delivery of essential services and projects, especially in our rural areas. I can’t stress enough that our community is a true region, extending all the way to Alberta’s border with the Northwest Territories and involves foundational partnerships with all of our Indigenous peoples as we live on Treaty 8 land.

As we walk alongside our Indigenous peoples on a review, and then implementation, of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I look forward to better, more respectful and inclusive relationships with our Indigenous people. We have a lot to learn and they have a lot to contribute to a renewed way of looking at how we recover together.

It is a time to heal.

With the 2017 budget on the very near horizon, we are looking closer into what needs to be done to be more lean and efficient, especially given the current provincial review of the Municipal Government Act and the proposed Bill 21. This is not done because of any political ideology but because our families need and deserve this prudent approach right now. It’s smart and it’s the right thing to do.

We are busy moving ahead with solid, strategic infrastructure, such as the rural water and sewer project, the largest municipal capital project in our region’s history, so we are meeting basic needs and becoming better prepared as things pick up again.

In many ways, this is set to happen in 2017 as we continue to rebuild and ready ourselves for our most important year ever with extensive construction and the restoration of homes in our neighbourhoods.

At the same time, that’s why we are moving forward with a recommendation from the Wood Buffalo Recovery Committee to deliver secondary access roads and temporary construction roads.

We will continue to champion the idea of the East Clearwater Highway with our provincial and federal partners. Besides safe passage in emergencies, and a route for dangerous good, this road really does open up economic opportunity and efficiencies. We look forward to next steps in protecting our families and strengthening the local, provincial and national economy.

During our disaster, I distinctly remember the first questions I posed in good humour to the Premier and Prime Minister.

For our industry partners, we know it’s been a challenging couple of years with sustained lower oil prices, pipeline uncertainties and the introduction of carbon pricing – all at once, and now at a national level.

That said, we know how resilient and innovative the energy industry can be. Recent reports indicate that Suncor Energy, in a mere 18 months, has reduced its cost of production per barrel of oil from $37 a barrel to $22 a barrel.

I know that’s just one company and one example. There are many others. And we must remember and recognize that this change in how we do business did come with some sacrifice to our workers and the community ... but it was and is needed at a time when we’re all committed to building back better in our own ways.

As we head into 2017, let’s not forget that trillions of barrels of bitumen are still waiting to be unlocked and we continue to a world-leading community in terms of economic production. After all, the national GDP fell by 0.6 per cent in the second quarter when our community was effectively shut down.

The world needs energy. Now, we have time to get it right instead of fast.

It is a time to plant.

One thing we have focused on for quite some time is sustainability. Contrary to what has sometimes been portrayed in the national and international media, sustainability is our overarching aspiration as a community.

Sustainability has always been a part of who we are. Our newest facilities, like Fort McMurray International Airport and Shell Place, part of Canada’s largest recreation and community events hub at MacDonald Island Park, were built to impressive environmental standards in a way that will reduce operating expenses to the community.

We have steadily – even against the backdrop of recovery from the wildfire – continued to thrive as a community of choice for national-level sports and culture events. Even in our most difficult year and following the "Year of Sport" in 2015, we should be reminded:

The Fort McMurray Monarchs defeated the Toronto All Stars at Shell Place to win the national senior men’s football championship.

Fort McMurray Minor Baseball partnered with the Regional Recreation Corporation of Wood Buffalo to host the Baseball Canada Cup, and in 2018 they’ll host the Baseball Canada Under-18 championships.

Following the men’s basketball nationals in March, just last week Keyano College won the silver medal at the men’s soccer nationals at Shell Place. The Fort McMurray Giants played their inaugural season ... and don’t look now, but our beloved Fort McMurray Oil Barons are back in first place!

This list is not exhaustive – as we look forward to the return of the Syncrude Boreal Open and are honoured to be home to the 2018 Alberta Winter Games and the Communities in Bloom National Symposium in 2020. The future is still bright.

We are proudly centered on energy but this proves our path towards sustainability has delivered depth of purpose that showcases the real nature of our community in a way that demonstrates our true spirit, supports small business and the local economy, inspires our youth and puts your community facilities and venues to good use.

The wildfire and its impact was devastating. This week’s report by the Conference Board of Canada suggests the recovery from the wildfire will spur $5.3 billion in spending from the insurance industry and all orders of government. (And I thought growth was daunting!)

Perhaps the biggest benefit of the wildfire, though, was our national community, Canada, finally got to see the real Fort McMurray and Wood Buffalo — face to face.

As we rebuild and recovery takes full shape in 2017 and in the years ahead, it is these types of events and initiatives that will continue to shine the right spotlight on our incredible community now known for more than oil.

Speaking of sustainability, we are transforming the way we seek social and economically sustainable benefits for the region as the first municipality in Alberta to use a Social Procurement Framework and be certified by Buy Social Canada.

We are proud that this approach is supported by the Fort McMurray Construction Association and many other business, social profit and Indigenous partners across the region.

The Social Procurement Framework ensures that goods and services are still accessed through a competitive and open bidding process, while proactively seeking to achieve community benefits, by taking a much more strategic approach to procurement.

I can't speak of sustainability without mentioning our Zero Waste Initiative, which is about using waste that currently goes to our landfill and creating energy and zero waste products. Our very real vision for our community is to be a model for sustainable living in Canada’s north.

We already have containerized aquaponics to grow food in greenhouses and plans are in place to install a gasifier to process wood chips which will create heat and electricity. As we perfect the "Solid Waste Alternative Process" even household waste could be converted into energy to heat these greenhouses year round. On top of that, our public golf course, Miskanaw Golf Club, uses recycled water for all of if its irrigation so it doesn’t impact the Clearwater, Athabasca and Snye.

We envision a future where we process all of our waste that can’t be recycled. And as we re-invent and diversify, we are even looking at importing cooking oil to convert to biodiesel fuel for local vehicles.

We envision partnerships with businesses to convert waste products into environmentally-friendly products. A sustainable eco-park will house new businesses with sustainable business models.

And we are especially proud as we launch the Wood Buffalo Utilities Corporation – "the utility of the future." It’s a new and exciting initiative based on sustainability practices and collaboration with industry as well as partnerships with local and Indigenous businesses.

In partnership, and using what would be the first aerobic landfill in Canada, Wood Buffalo Utilities Corporation could potentially deliver the world’s largest landfill carbon offset project and potentially become Canada’s largest carbon offset project, ever.

It would bring to reality the idea of taking industrial wastewater from tailing ponds and actually transforming it into energy generation for both industry and residents.

This efficient energy source could make us the only municipality in North America to be carbon neutral.

And we didn’t need a tax to do it.

It is a time to build up.

This initiative is a win-win for both our region, the Province and indeed the entire country by supporting environmental initiatives and then having the revenue come back to you as taxpayers to help with municipal projects and increase much needed service levels.

More importantly, though, we need to build new homes and restore communities understanding that things will never be the same but we can build back better, together and with safety as a top priority.

2017 is a big year in recovery. And I know the people in this room will lead the way for us, like you have many times before.

I have always said (even at $140 oil) that our most valuable resource is you, our people. A people with strength and resilience, here for each other, together and committed to an even stronger community.

When the CBC chooses a winning Canadian story, they pick those that talk of perseverance and tenacity; those that speak of holding strong in the face of adversity; of not being afraid to start over. Based on that, we may stand at a crossroads ... but we will become a winning Canadian story once again.

Our community is built on the legacy of the Indigenous, First Nations and Métis peoples. And today we continue to be a diverse and multi-cultural community with hundreds of nationalities represented in our schools. We may be pouring new foundations every day but we’ve already got a great place to start.

Our family-friendly, can-do, hard-working community is open to new ideas and we always take time to listen. Our people know how to work together in times of celebration, but more importantly, in times of difficulty. We are relentless workers committed to our community and the industry that has been so good to us, our Province and our country. We are in for the long haul. This is home and we will rebuild it.

It is a time to love.

We have always been a generous community. You know the United Way of Canada has ranked us as the most giving community per capita in the country for almost a decade and this year it was again this spirit that defined us – not the price of oil or the wildfire. It was heartwarming to see Albertans and Canadians give back when we needed them most, too.

We need to keep going and give even more this year. Whether it’s to the United Way, the Wood Buffalo Food Bank, Santa’s Anonymous or another initiative, I urge you to think of our residents that need it most this Holiday Season.

It is a time to be born.

In these challenging times, our resilient community is again open to re-invention and new possibilities like never before. We are no strangers to hard work, and years of doing that hard work in remote, and sometimes, adverse conditions, has made us experts at thinking "outside the box." And most importantly, we are still here ... and we are strong.

So yes, to everything there is a season. And now is the season to give it our best shot. We owe it to our first responders, our families and our community. This is a time of possibility

And as I exit the stage, it is time for us to create the next chapter in our very own Canadian story.

A winning story that together only we can build.

Thank you.

Wildfire Rebuild  [Learn more]

Winter Maintenance Zones Relaxed starting Feb. 23 [Learn more]