PM in Alberta: Extra EI extended to Edmonton
Josh Dehaas, CTVNews.ca
Published Friday, May 13, 2016 4:20AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, May 13, 2016 11:49PM EDT
After touring Fort McMurray on Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that his government is expanding extended Employment Insurance benefits to those in Edmonton, southern Saskatchewan and the southern interior of B.C.
Trudeau had faced a backlash in March after some regions hit hard by falling oil prices had not been included in the one-time measure, which will provide EI claimants living specific regions with between five and 20 extra weeks of benefits, starting in July and retroactive to last January.
Among those angered by the decision were laid-off oilsands workers whose permanent addresses are in Edmonton, even though they had commuted to work in the Fort McMurray area.
Trudeau said the decision was made based on “new data,” and not as a result of the wildfire. “Obviously the fire is something that is tragic and if indeed offering more support to Edmonton and the areas around it will help people who have left Fort McMurray, then that’s a good thing,” he said.
“But we are a government focused on evidence-based policy,” he added. “The fact is, the job numbers demonstrated (three additional regions) now qualify for that.”
Trudeau made the announcement in Edmonton, after touring Fort McMurray and meeting with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.
Notley also spoke at the press conference, where she thanked the government for the extended EI.
The prime minister’s day began with a helicopter tour over the fire-ravaged region.
“The first thing you notice is the smoke, the haze, the smell in the air,” he told reporters.
“Then, as you fly over, initially you notice the blackened forest that surrounds Fort McMurray,” he added. “Every section of the forest around it is scarred with black stripes or entire swathes of burned out trees.”
“Then you notice a downtown core that, other than being oddly deserted and immobile, is largely untouched,” he said. “Then you notice neighbourhoods that stand with discarded children’s toys in the front yard that were vacated quickly but peacefully and (are) perfectly fine.”
“Then you go a little further and you see devastation,” he a went on. “Streets, blocks, houses, gone. Burned out with nothing but an empty hole where the foundations were.”
The prime minister described seeing a “little plastic child’s scooter” looking “forlorn” among the rubble in a burned-down neighbourhood.
“Unlike so many images we see around the world,” he said, “whatever little boy or girl was using that (plastic scooter) just before the evacuation, they’re safe, they’re alive.”
Trudeau thanks ‘heroes’
Earlier in the day, Trudeau met with first responders on the ground and thanked them for their bravery.
“I was not able to get here until now, so I was following all the updates and watching the images on TV,” said the prime minister.
“I don’t think Canadians yet understand what happened here,” he went on. “They don’t yet understand that it wasn’t a fluke of rain or wind or luck that happened,” he added, referring to the fact that firefighters saved about 85 per cent of the town.
Trudeau vowed that “all of Canada” is going to be involved in the next phases of cleanup and rebuilding.
“For many years, Fort McMurray contributed huge amounts to Canada’s well-being, to the growth of our economy,” he said. “Now this community needs help and I can guarantee you Canada will be here.”
Trudeau’s tour guide was Darby Allen, who oversaw last week’s firefighting response. The two met earlier Friday in Edmonton.
“I heard there were situations and peculiarities in this fire that give us pause for reflection on how we move forward,” Trudeau said to Allen.
Trudeau also said that he is “very interested” in what can be done to “minimize" the impacts of another disaster – “because it will come.”
When pressed to elaborate at the press conference later in the day, Trudeau said he had learned that Aspen trees usually provide some forest fire protection, but they ended up burning this year.
He also said his government is putting aside $20 billion over 10 years for green infrastructure, which will include “disaster mitigation strategies” and “making sure we’re keeping our northern communities safe from forest fires.”
Trudeau did not say how much money the federal government will contribute to rebuilding Fort McMurray, but promised that “there will be significant federal monies invested,” and that “the federal government will have Albertans’ backs.”
‘We just want to go home’
Fort McMurray resident Jason Blair told CTV News Channel that he was “a little indifferent” to the fact that the prime minister visited. “I’d rather be there,” he said.
Although Blair believes his home is still standing, he said he and his neighbours “just want to go home.”
“We understand that we can’t. We understand that they can’t tell us when,” he said. “But you’re out of your routine, you’re not in your home, you just want to be in your own surroundings.”
Donations hit $86 million
Canadians across the country have contributed more than $86 million to the Canadian Red Cross’ Fort McMurray recovery appeal since last Tuesday. Among them is Tim Hortons co-founder Ron Joyce, whose family gave $2 million.
Donations are being matched by the provincial and federal governments.
The Red Cross announced earlier this week that it would immediately pass on $600 to each adult evacuee and $300 per child. As of Friday, more than $30 million has been electronically transferred to affected Albertans.
That’s in addition to $1,250 per adult and $500 per dependent that is being provided on debit cards by the province, at an estimated cost of $100 million.
U.S. Ambassador Bruce Heyman issued a statement Friday, stating that the United States “stands ready to assist” and announcing that the U.S. Agency for International Development will donate US$50,000.
The blaze, which officials say destroyed approximately 2,400 structures and damaged another 530, forced an evacuation of at least 80,000 people.
Crews are continuing to put out hotspots and fire flareups within the city. Teams of inspectors are also on the ground taking stock of the damage.