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Experiencing the oil sands first hand

Ten Liberal Parliamentarians from Atlantic Canada toured one of northern Alberta’s largest oil sands mining operations Friday morning.

So what is the official purpose of their guided trip through Syncrude’s Mildred Lake facility? Supposedly to learn more about what life is like for the several thousand Atlantic Canadians who commute across the country to work there.

“So many of their constituents are finding jobs out there that they really just wanted to see what the area is like,” said Kate Purchase, an Ottawa-based spokesperson for interim Liberal leader Bob Rae, who did his oil sands tour in July.

“Before [Bob Rae] went out there, he wasn’t really able to visualize the scale of development and see how the town works and the services that are provided by the government there. We didn’t really have any concept of that before he went out.”

It is true that with the Easternmost part of Canada expected to have the country’s highest levels of unemployment for at least the next few years, according to Statistics Canada, Maritimers are increasingly going west for work. In September 2011, a survey of 2,000 outgoing passengers from the northern New Brunswick Bathurst Airport found more than one in four travelers (28 percent) was going to Fort McMurray, the unofficial oil sands capital city.

David Campbell, an economic development consultant based in Moncton, released an estimate on his blog two months ago saying “...conservatively, somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 people live in New Brunswick and commute to Alberta for employment -- with the vast majority of them working in the oil sands.”

That, of course, does not include all the Nova Scotians, Newfoundlanders and P.E.I. folk  who are also flocking to the oil patch.

Fact-finding missions to find out what sort of working conditions exist for the Canadians they have been elected to serve is one thing. Although another likely purpose behind the trip is political.

The idea of building a National Energy Strategy (one that will hopefully draw less ire than the National Energy Plan of the 1980s) has been gaining substantial momentum over the last few months. So has the idea of labeling the oil sands a “national strategic asset” in order to limit the amount of non-Canadian ownership that would be allowed there.

Thomas Mulcair, leader of the federal NDP and the Official Opposition, took a quick helicopter tour of a few mines (worth noting: mines only account for about one in five of oil sands extraction projects) in the region in late May. He called the experience “awe-inspiring,” but his first-hand look did little to silence his criticism of the region.

In September, he compared the oil sands to the Sydney tar ponds. Those are pools of toxic waste left behind by coke ovens at the Cape Breton steel plants.

Geoff Regan, a Liberal MP representing Halifax West, responded that Mulcair “has been irresponsible to create division among Canadians by attacking Alberta and trying to divide people in the rest of Canada and turn them against Alberta.”

It seems a given that to achieve a functional national energy plan, there must first be some kind of national agreement on what is actually happening in the oil sands themselves. Regan was part of the tour delegation that spent Friday morning taking in the Mildred lake site sights.

Here is what he had to tell me about the experience:

"It was very interesting. We had a tour this morning and the scale is just enormous and for those of us that hadn’t been here before it was a real eye-opening experience. Rodger Cuzner (MP – Cape Breton-Canso) worked in Fort McMurray in the late 1970s -- we all knew of course, we’ve known for a while about the number of Atlantic Canadians working out here

We have a lot of folks who are coming out here already -- one of the national challenges we face is making sure we have the people to fill these jobs across the country whether it is here in the oil sands or ship building in the Halifax area

Two main reasons [why we came here] – as you know for us in the Atlantic Caucus to come here is because we have a lot of people from Atlantic Canada who are working here -- oil and gas in Alberta is an important contribution not only to the Alberta economy but to the national economy,

The other thing is it is an important economic engine on a national basis – sure we think there has to be sustainable development and environmental concerns must be considered, but we don’t agree with an attitude of Mr. Mulcair who talks about Dutch Disease and how the oil sands is killing manufacturing. The biggest problem for manufacturing is low cost of labour in places like Asia – I don’t think that is because of the oil sands

Those of us who hadn’t been here before, it is one thing to hear about the scale of these projects and it is another to see it for yourself, like when you stand beside one of the tires, for example

I’m impressed, I must say, with the amount of dollars that are going into R&D in the oil sands to reduce environmental footprint and we think we should move forward aggressively on that, but unlike Mr. Mulcair we don’t think the oil sands is the boogieman.

(on creating a National Energy Strategy) This is an example where it is unfortunate that our PM is not very keen on sitting down with out provincial premiers – that is the kind of discussion you have to have – if you can’t get them to sit down together you can’t move forward.

You won’t hear me proposing it but that fact that it is being proposed by the Alberta premier is significant. It is important that whatever you do there you do it through consultation and the government of Canada should not be unilateral (responding to comparison of National Energy Program disaster of early 1980s).

Having heard about how many Atlantic Canada – what really struck me was how many people I’ve seen from Atlantic Canada who are here – I’ve even bumped into a few folks from my home province of Nova Scotia and been chatting with them so in some ways you feel like you haven’t left home.

To me that really hammers home the importance of these projects economically to the whole country."

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