Byelection candidates counter rosy evaluation of Fort McMurray rebuild

The rebuilding of homes after 2016 wildfire sparked some of the most intense debate during a Fort McMurray-Conklin candidates debate Wednesday with two candidates going after the rosy evaluation offered by their NDP competitor.

Five contenders vying to become the next MLA for Fort McMurray-Conklin faced off in a debate Wednesday

NDP candidate Jane Stroud (left) and UCP candidate Laila Goodridge participated in a Fort McMurray-Conklin byelection debate at Fort McMurray radio station Mix 103.7 on Wednesday. (MIchelle Bellefontaine/CBC )

The rebuilding of homes after 2016 wildfire sparked some of the most intense debate during a Fort McMurray-Conklin candidates' debate Wednesday, with two contenders going after the rosy evaluation offered by their NDP competitor. 

The five candidates running to replace Brian Jean as the area's MLA — Jane Stroud of the NDP, Laila Goodridge from the United Conservative Party, Sid Fayad of the Alberta Party, Robin Le Fevre of the Liberals and Brian Deheer from the Green Party — were asked to evaluate how the provincial government has handled the reconstruction.

Stroud, a councillor with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, said the province collaborated well with local government. She said about 1,900 building permits have been issued to rebuilt the 2,400 homes that were lost. 

"It's going to take time but we are moving forward," she said.

But Stroud's characterization didn't sit well with Fayad and Goodridge.

Fayad runs a business that makes granite countertops. He said the NDP did nothing to ensure local contractors were given first rights to rebuild homes, and that out-of-town contractors have taken advantage of residents.

"All they came to do is collect the insurance cheques," Fayad said. "It's an absolute failure, this rebuild."

Stroud stepped in after Goodridge recounted how Premier Rachel Notley accused Jean, the former Wildrose leader, of "fear-mongering" when he raised concerns in the legislature over cuts to water-bomber contracts.

Notley made the remarks the same day the fire became dangerous enough to force residents from their homes. 

Stroud said both Jean and former Wood Buffalo mayor Melissa Blake commended the province's actions. She said the regional council tried to extend insurance deadline for residents to no avail. An extension was granted after the province intervened earlier this year.

Goodridge worked as a disaster recovery specialist for Jean and Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo MLA Tany Yao. She said the government only took action when it was forced to, after the insurance claim deadline passed.

"To me, that was just playing politics," Goodridge said. "It wasn't looking out for the people in Fort McMurray."

She said people have told her they settled their claims early because they thought they had to.

Neither Le Fevre or Deheer live in Fort McMurray. Deheer, who is from Lac La Biche, acknowledged he wasn't in a position to comment on the issue. Le Fevre lives in Edmonton. He said response to these kinds of disasters should improve in the future.

The candidates tackled other local issues, including the need for the East Clearwater highway, which would provide a second route out of Fort McMurray. People fleeing the 2016 wildfire could only escape by taking Highway 63. 

The debate hosted by radio station Mix 103.7 was the first of the byelection. Another debate is scheduled for Friday.

Voters in Fort McMurray-Conklin and Innisfail-Sylvan Lake go to the polls on July 12.

The Innisfail-Sylvan Lake byelection was triggered by the resignation of UCP MLA Don MacIntyre.