In Slave Lake town council’s Jan. 23 agenda package was a letter from the M.D. of Lesser Slave River, formally declining participation in the town’s Rural Renewal Stream program.
This was not good news for councillors, and several of them reacted accordingly.
“I think it’s shortsighted by M.D. council,” said Mayor Frankie Ward.
It comes down to budgeting priorities, M.D CAO Barry Kolenosky told The Leader last week. He also said the M.D. hasn’t been hearing enough from businesses on the matter to boost its priority.
M.D. council did hear from Smith (and Slave Lake) businessman Khadim Hussain last fall. He wishes to apply for foreign workers through the town’s Rural Renewal Stream, but was told in order to qualify, the M.D. must be on board first, with the $10,000 fee.
That fee is a reasonable figure, town council has decided, given the amount of staff time and effort involved in running the program.
Rural Renewal Stream is a provincial program intended to provide an easier, faster and less-expensive way of bringing foreign workers to rural communities in the province. It also offers a way for temporary foreign workers already in the province to pursue permanent status. The program requires municipal buy-in; a certain amount of effort is required to gain designation under the provincial auspices, and some municipalities have found it too onerous and have abandoned the effort. Big Lakes County, notably, is one of those.
The Town of Slave Lake was one of the first to get the RRS designation, which happened early last year. Since then, according to the town’s economic development officer Jason Swanson, numerous local businesses (34 as of last week) have taken advantage of it, as well as individuals – all for nominal fees.
It became apparent fairly quickly that employers outside of Slave Lake were also interested in the services, and that this demand was likely to grow. Seeing this, Swanson reported to his council about the potential additional workload and came up with a price for it. That’s where the $10,000 figure came from, which council approved sometime last year.
Since then, Swanson has made several presentations to other municipal councils, pitching the benefits of the RRS and offering the Town of Slave Lake’s services, for the fee mentioned. No takers so far, evidently, but from the comments offered at council’s Jan. 23, meeting, one or two are taking a hard look at it.
One reason M.D. council hasn’t been getting much of a lobby from companies in the M.D. could be because Tolko signed up for the town’s RRS services before council decided to charge the $10,000. This at least was the case as of Oct. 11, 2023, when Swanson talked to M.D. council about the RRS program. However, that has since changed.
“Based on direction received from senior leadership,” Swanson told The Leader in an email last week, “I am no longer issuing Letters of Endorsement to Tolko as of December 2023. I have not heard anything from the other mills.”
Comments by councillors at the Jan. 23 town council meeting gave the impression they think the M.D. decision could be bad for the local economy. They appeared more concerned about that than of missing the chance at $10,000 extra revenue.
Councillor Ali Mouallem, for example, seemed to think there could be dire consequences.
“If one of those mills feels they have to shut down,” he said, “it’s going to be because they can’t find labour.”
Councillor Shawn Gramlich was for helping the businesses with their recruitment challenges, regardless.
“We need those people to work at those mills,” he said. “Maybe we could provide a free service.”
Councillor Brice Ferguson wasn’t keen on the freebie idea.
“Can we charge the employers directly?” he asked.
There’s a nominal fee, $100, he was told.
Maybe we can raise that for outside employers, he said.
How much effort have we put in to get them (the M.D.) on board, asked councillor Adams.
They’ve been contacted multiple times, said Ward. They are well aware.
Is the M.D. considering running their own program, asked Adams.
I don’t think so, said CAO Jeff Simpson. And if they are, “they’re not going to do it for less than $10,000, I can tell you that.
“It’s the primary reason Big Lakes (County) got out of it,” he said. It was just too costly.
“I think we should be encouraging M.D. businesses to lobby the M.D,” said Mayor Ward.