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New NDP leader Nenshi offers thoughts on issues of concern for Jasper

New Alberta NDP leader Naheed Nenshi shared some of his thoughts on the future of Alberta with the Fitzhugh.
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Former Alberta Premier Rachel Notley congratulates Naheed Nenshi for becoming the new Alberta NDP leader.

After his win as the new leader of the Alberta NDP last month, Naheed Nenshi has been busy with the 37 NDP MLAs, including holding his first caucus retreat at the Banff Centre.

During a brief interview with the Fitzhugh in the middle of his meetings, he offered a few words on how he and the Alberta NDP see how the province should approach various issues.

The conversation focused on wildfire preparedness. He began by noting his ample experience in emergency management accumulated during his 11 years as the mayor of Calgary.

“I always say that correlation does not infer causation, but we never had a state and local emergency in Calgary in our 136-year history, until I had to call four of them,” he said.

“Over the years, we developed the Calgary model. People talk about it in emergency management circles as the Calgary model of emergency management.”

There are three phases of that model: response, rebuilding and resilience.

In terms of the first, Nenshi said that readiness is the key.

“What do we do when an emergency happens? Are we ready? Are we adequately funded for response? Anyone who follows wildfires in Alberta knows that we have had really some changes in how we think about making sure that we are response-ready in terms of repelling teams, and in terms of fire response.”

Rebuilding is not just about returning people to their normal lives in Nenshi’s words but about making things better than they were before, and as quickly as possible.

The third phase is resilience, meaning building things up to ensure that the emergency doesn't happen again.

“That resilience one is really important,” he said. “When it comes to wildfire, it means really looking at the best practices globally on wildfire prevention. We can go on and on about how wildfire is the consequence of climate change, which it is, and the changes that we have to make in order to mitigate climate change. But those are long term answers. And so we also have to be thinking in the medium term what do we do about forest management? How do we ensure that we're minimizing the fuel for wildfires in a way that is environmentally sustainable?”

He admitted that he is not an expert in those areas, but “one of the things we really need to do is be able to listen to the experts,” including academics, people who live in wildfire-prone areas and Indigenous communities.

That also means bringing other government ministries into the conversation. Just as the UCP government has been touting its “whole of government approach” to how it assigns focuses and assesses funding, Nenshi confirms that no area of governance exists in a bubble, meaning everything is connected.

“I would go further than that. I would say you have to take a whole society approach. When we make decisions about forestry that are largely economic decisions, we also have to look at the impact of those decisions on fire management, on environment, and on community development,” he said.

“Because I come from an urban perspective, when I say land use, I really talk about how communities grow. I talk about where we put housing and industrial uses and so on. We've largely done that in the absence of an understanding of the wilderness around the cities and around communities. I one hundred per cent agree with the government: you have to take a whole of government approach. This is something that arches over Economic Development, over Municipal Affairs, over Environment, over Forestry and Agriculture. Also, I think you have to be able to not just break down the silos within government, but really look broadly as the province grows so much as we invite and attract so many people, how are we going to plan our future?

Nenshi said he found it fascinating how Premier Smith attempts to frame certain kinds of industrial development in terms of environmental reclamation or environmental disaster prevention.

“It's just so clear that she's reading talking points, but not really focused on what really matters,” he added.

As an example of this, he noted Premier Smith’s latest argument for coal mining in the eastern slopes of the Rockies, saying that it is just about reclamation of destroyed land. He called her comment “ridiculous.”

“These are the talking points that she lives with, instead of truly taking a broad view and saying, ‘What's it going to take to reclaim the land and protect the water and mitigate the risk of fire in the future?’ Similarly on forestry, certainly responsible forestry practices have an important role to play, both in economic development but also in wildfire management. But I am far from convinced that the forestry decisions that are being made in government are being made with all of that in mind.”

Nenshi was also able to touch on how he and his government would support tourism-based communities such as Jasper if he became the next premier.

He began by noting how he has spent a lot of time conferring with the city councils and city managers of resort-based municipalities, such as Jasper.

“We just have to acknowledge the fact that the tourism industry is a massive economic driver in our province, and that the way that we fund municipalities doesn't is not reflective of that,” he said, offering an apt if unusual way of looking at the issue: toilet flushes.

“Jasper and Banff have way, way more toilet flushes than they have residents, and yet our funding typically is on a per capita basis. Toilets is actually a good example. In Calgary, we just had a feeder main break, and it reminded us of the importance of stuff we often don't think about, which is the provision of clean water and wastewater. It's very expensive, but in a place like Jasper and Banff, if your infrastructure funding is based on the permanent residents that live there, then you will never, ever be able to get ahead of the true infrastructure needs of how big the pipes have to be in order to manage every toilet that’s flushed.

The other big issue is housing, and in order to service the huge tourist population and support the economy, Alberta must distance itself from the mechanisms of the past that warehouse workers in substandard, dangerous or inexpensive housing, he said.