Western premiers to stress disaster relief

Trade and economic development are on the agenda when premiers from Western Canada and the North meet in Yellowknife, but perhaps a more pressing topic will be how best to deal with natural disasters in Canadians' own backyards.

Conference in Yellowknife also has trade, economic development on agenda

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, left, speaks with Northwest Territories Premier Floyd Roland, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger and B.C. Premier Christy Clark in the territorial legislature in Yellowknife on Monday. (James MacKenzie/Canadian Press)

Trade and economic development are on the agenda when premiers from Western Canada and the North meet in Yellowknife starting Monday, but perhaps a more pressing topic will be how best to deal with natural disasters in Canadians' own backyards.

Premier Floyd Roland of the Northwest Territories, host of this year’s three-day Western Premiers' Conference, said the premiers want to put more pressure on the federal government to get funding quickly to regions hit by disasters such as floods and forest fires.

"How does the funding flow to jurisdictions, the timeliness of that, what is defined as a disaster" are among areas that need to be discussed, Roland said.

Driving home the importance of addressing disaster preparedness and the after-effects is the fact Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall has delayed his trip to the conference to tour flooded southeast areas of his province.

Wall visited Estevan, Radville, Weyburn and Yellow Grass on Monday, after up to 75 millimetres of rain caused significant swelling of the Souris River and flash floods.

Between Friday and Saturday, firefighters used a boat to rescue about 30 people from a mobile home park on the outskirts of Weyburn. The water was more than a metre deep and up to the floors of many of the trailers.

Both Wall and Premier Greg Selinger of Manitoba, where there has also been significant flooding and damages to areas this spring, also want to discuss strategies for pressing Ottawa for a national disaster strategy.

Provinces, territories discuss their needs

Roland said health care and climate change will be among other areas up for discussion.

He emphasized that the annual conference also serves as an important vehicle for the territories to explain their needs to the provinces, so they’re on board for projects such as the Mackenzie gas project and the Mackenzie Valley Highway.

As for the provinces, Selinger, for one is emphasizing the serious challenges facing the agricultural economy on the Prairies, such as the amount of unseeded land.

The Canadian Wheat Board said last week that between 2.4 million and 3.2 million hectares of farmland will go unseeded in the West, mostly in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, which could result in a loss of $1.5 billion to $2.5 billion from the prairie economy.

For Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, who will be attending his last conference before stepping down this fall, his top agenda item will be how to tap into new economic markets and trade.

"Our future prosperity will be determined by our ability to tap into rapidly growing Asian economies," Stelmach said in a release. "If we're going to sell our products in countries like China or India, we need to be able to get those products to market. It's critical that we in the West work together to ensure the infrastructure we need — the pipelines, the ports, the railways — is in place and up to date."

'Knocking on the door'

Other premiers will also be thinking outside the Canadian box, notably, discussing how to more effectively tap into international markets.

"Our mineral sector is going to continue to grow, and we’re just gong to have to be ready to step up and be more involved when [interested communities come] knocking on the door," said Roland.

He said he plans to bring up the proposed expansion of the Taltson hydroelectric facility expansion with his Alberta and Saskatchewan counterparts because southern markets hooking into the power grid could make the project viable. The facility is owned and operated by the Northwest Territories Power Corporation, and located in the southeast portion of the Northwest Territories, about 56 kilometres northeast of the border with Alberta.

"When we talk about green energy, hydro is one of those key ones for us and we need to have the U.S. recognize that hydro should be counted as a clean energy concept."

Also attending the conference will be British Columbia’s Christy Clark, Yukon’s Darrell Pasloski and Nunavut's Eva Aariak.

The premiers are scheduled to head to Fort Simpson on Tuesday for Aboriginal Day celebrations.

Roland noted that the trip is a good opportunity to show the other leaders the challenges of travelling in the North.

With files from The Canadian Press