OTTAWA – The federal Liberals are putting all hands on deck with a special cabinet committee to co-ordinate Fort McMurray aid and reconstruction efforts in advance of the prime minister’s visit to the fire-ravaged region on Friday.
Justin Trudeau has received an appeal from Alberta Premier Rachel Notley for enhanced employment insurance benefits for the Edmonton area as a consequence of last week’s mass evacuation of more than 80,000 people.
But that’s just one thread of a multi-government effort that’s expected to go on for months or years.
No timeline has been placed on when Fort McMurray’s residents can begin returning to the northern Alberta oilsands hub, which lost about 10 per cent of its 25,000 buildings to the fire that’s covered some 2,300 square kilometres and continues to burn.
Major oil producers, however, are already planning an imminent return to business and some economic forecasters now predict the fire will have a negligible impact on national Gross Domestic Product numbers for 2016.
That’s good news for both the federal and Alberta governments, whose finances are being hammered by the drop in revenues that comes with a fire-related loss of more than a million barrels of oil a day.
Nine different ministries are involved in the federal ad hoc committee, which will be chaired by Calgary MP Kent Hehr, who serves as veterans affairs minister and associate minister of defence.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said earlier this week that a dozen different departments and agencies of the federal government are already involved in the Fort McMurray response.
Ministers with responsibilities in public safety, natural resources, economic development, infrastructure, labour and employment insurance, status of women, health and defence have been named to the government steering group.
“We know there’s going to be an awful lot of work in the coming weeks and months to rebuild Fort McMurray and there will be many different departments and ministers involved,” Trudeau said Wednesday as he headed into the daily question period in the House of Commons.
“I think pulling it together so that we can focus our efforts, co-ordinate and do everything we possibly can to help the citizens of Fort McMurray get through this difficult time is responsible and appropriate.”
Edmonton-area MP Rona Ambrose, the interim Conservative leader, offered rare praise for the Liberal government move.
“For things to happen quickly, everyone has to come together around the table very fast and start to make decisions to move things forward, so that’s the right approach,” said Ambrose.
The Red Cross announced that it would distribute $50-million in donations directly to evacuees within the next 48 hours, while the Alberta government is setting up a debit card system for registered evacuees.
The federal Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements — a 46-year-old program that uses a formula to provide funds to provinces in the case of major natural disasters — will automatically kick in to cover uninsured losses. The parliamentary budget office warned in February that the program is chronically underfunded, with payouts expected to average more than $900 million annually over the next five years. while only $100 million a year is earmarked to go into the fund.
Ottawa is also fast-tracking employment insurance claims from displaced Fort McMurray workers, many of whom have dispersed across the country.
“We haven’t looked at the financial implications,” said Employment Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk. “EI is to be there when people need it, and the folks at Fort McMurray definitely need it, so we’re stepping up.”
The Alberta premier, in her daily update on the fire situation on Wednesday, made a direct and pointed appeal for Trudeau to extend enhanced EI provisions to the Edmonton region, noting last week’s April employment report shows that the city now qualifies — a situation made worse by the influx of unemployed fire evacuees.
“We are well past the point of justifying the need for the Edmonton area to be included under the new rules for EI,” said Notley.
The longer term reconstruction of Fort McMurray will require deeper pockets and multiple levels of government.
Hehr, the committee chair, told The Canadian Press the committee’s job is to “look after the rebuilding of Fort Mac … in both the short and the long term.”
He said the people of the community are owed that, but it’s also important to the economic health of the country.