The wealth of the sands

On the Other Hand

Life is fragile, again highlighted by what has and continues to unfold in Fort McMurray.  In an instance our lives can change forever.

There are at least 90,000 people who faced tragedy on Tuesday last.  Their lives will never be the same after driving through walls of towering flames and losing homes, businesses, jobs, memories and treasures.  Living as nomads, sleeping on cots, in strange hotel rooms or couch surfing. Needing strangers, family and friends to provide the basic necessities of life.  And most distressing, their lives will not be normalized for some time to come.

I have always had a problem with successive Conservative governments enjoying the wealth of the Sands, but doing far too little to support the people and infrastructure of Fort McMurray and Wood Buffalo MD.  Ninety thousand people living at the end of a road, one way in and one way out, always seemed like a tragedy waiting to happen.

The south has enjoyed the lion’s share of the Sands wealth especially through low taxes, no provincial sales tax, high salaries and huge investments in southern infrastructure. Yet after 35+ years of extensive oil sand development, we have yet to provide those residents with a safe four-lane highway from Fort McMurray to Edmonton.  Truth be told, schools, hospitals and living spaces for seniors were all painfully slow in arriving to meet the needs of Alberta’s economic engine.

It seems North American life style needs tragedy to challenge us out of our complacency and self-absorption.  It is now time that we stop fretting about the provincial debt or our taxes and step up to the plate, not for the short-term which is easy and emotional, but for the long term.

With three successive major weather events in the last five years (Slave Lake, Southern Alberta/Calgary floods and now Fort McMurray), our Treasury is bare and we need a new source of revenue.  It would be incumbent on the government to start charging a progressive “Act of God” surcharge on our taxes to cover the cost of uncontrollable major weather events.  The surcharge should come and go depending on whether there are Act of God costs to pay or in the case of McMurray, the twinning of Highway 63 to finish.

The silver lining in tragedy for wealthy countries is that a lot of citizens remember and experience empathy for others.  We have seen donations pour in, but as the survivors of Slave Lake will tell you, the re-building of lives and communities takes decades and lots of public money.

We’re in a bust.  As per usual the Alberta government and many of its citizens didn’t plan for a bust, thought the boom would go on forever.  Well it hasn’t and now we have what will be the most expensive-ever cleanup from a natural disaster in Alberta history.  With oil prices in the tank and much of our production off line because of the fire, working Albertans are solely on the hook for this one.

And, that’s not such a bad thing. Next time it could be you or me facing the life alternating event and we, too, will look for government’s financial support.

We the people are the government and we might just have to start acting like that instead of a citizenry drunk on oil.

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