LAKELAND – In December, United Conservative Party (UCP) membership holders from the Bonnyville-Cold Lake-St. Paul riding will use their voting power to decide the constituency’s UCP candidate for the next provincial election.
The nominees in the UCP race include the riding’s current UCP MLA David Hanson, along with former UCP MLA Scott Cyr, and former MD of Bonnyville Reeve Greg Sawchuk.
Roughly 1,400 residents from the constituency have a membership and will be eligible to participate in the upcoming vote, according to the Bonnyville-Cold Lake-St. Paul Constituency Association.
The number of eligible voters that will decide the area’s next UCP candidate is roughly 2.6 per cent of the riding's population based on data from a 2016 Canadian census. The federal census shows that 53,809 people reside within the riding.
The nomination vote will take place Dec. 10, 11, and 12. The locations and times for the polling stations remain unconfirmed but are expected to be released soon.
When it comes to the constituency’s greatest needs, the three nominees all agreed that health care and cost of living are the top two challenges faced by residents in St. Paul, Cold Lake and Bonnyville.
Each of the nominees recently spoke with Lakeland This Week about what they believe the top three provincial issues facing constituents are.
Hanson, the constituency’s current UCP representative and MLA, shared the area’s three biggest issues based on calls he has received from residents.
“Number one would be access to health care,” said Hanson, referring to many residents being unable to find family doctors in the region and the ongoing temporary emergency department closures at area hospitals.
He noted that while some progress has been made, such as redesignating the Cold Lake Healthcare Centre as a rural facility rather than an urban centre, more must be done to improve healthcare and keep medical professionals in the community.
“It comes down to being able to attract doctors to work the ER shifts to get locum coverage,” said Hanson.
Getting scholarships for rural students entering the healthcare professions and getting designated seats in post-secondary for rural students are other initiatives Hanson continues to advocate for.
The second biggest issue Hanson hears about is affordability. “I constantly push our ministers and the Premier to recognize that – they do, and I think we're having some success,” said Hanson.
When it comes to achieving affordability, Hanson said he is pushing for utility relief on the transmission and distribution charges related to power and gas bills, changes to auto insurance, as well as repealing the Mandatory Entry Level Training (MELT) program for school bus drivers.
The third challenge Hanson has committed to tackling if reelected as the UCP nominee are improvements to Highways 28 and 881.
Addressing the region’s two main highways were on a list of priorities he submitted to the government’s new ministers, Hanson said. “I've seen some of the plans for that, and it's just a matter of getting it pushed up the priority list.”
Rural healthcare topped former Reeve Sawchuk’s list of priorities needing to be addressed in the riding.
“We've seen a continual decline in rural healthcare under successive governments,” said Sawchuk. “We need more frontline workers, doctors, nurses and support staff. We need more regional diagnostic testing capabilities that will limit unnecessary, lengthy ambulance transfers to keep ambulances and their fleet in the area, which will improve emergency response times.”
Sawchuk noted that the Bonnyville-Cold Lake-St. Paul riding does not have an MRI machine at any healthcare facility, as a result it drains several systems in the region.
“Quite often, we only have one ambulance between Bonnyville and Cold Lake, and it sits in Ardmore ready to respond – That's not nearly enough,” he said.
Referencing emergency department closures and reductions to obstetric care, Sawchuk said, “I think we already have a two-tier health system – one that exists in urban communities and one that exists out in rural Alberta... It's really unacceptable in this day and age, and those services used to be available."
Sawchuk said the area’s second largest problem relates to the economy.
"It's time that we upped the ante and take Ottawa head on and ensure that the vast amount of wealth that we sit on, has the chance to be put to good use,” he said.
The former reeve would like to see the province encourage further investments in the region, such as the Pathways Alliance project.
“I believe that a strong economy with renewed investment and a productive workforce can provide for all of the healthcare, education, social program and improvements that are needed,” he said.
The third issue is really a combination of all the region’s ongoing challenges from highway maintenance, crime, classroom support and agricultural issues, noted Sawchuk. However, this boils down to one overarching issue, he said – “Listening first.”
“I think that engagement has been lost as we've seen a top-down control of the government and it's time to get back to listening and engaging with the individuals and the residents,” said Sawchuk.
Former UCP MLA Cyr said inflation is at the forefront of concerns that need to be addressed by the government.
"Inflationary pressures right now are hitting almost every family no matter what level of income, but specifically affecting our lowest income people in the area,” he said. "We need to start looking at how we reduce the levels of inflation in our region.”
Cyr added that the provincial fuel tax relief program is just one of many programs that can alleviate the burden of rising costs.
“Health care, health care, health care,” was Cyr’s response to the second largest issue facing area residents.
“We're seeing more and more of our local services that we get day to day here, are being moved to Edmonton,” he said. “We shouldn't have to drive to Edmonton every time we have something that we need to get done to our bodies.”
When it comes to improving health care, more decisions need to be made at a local level.
“Until we do this we will continue to be treated like an off branch of Edmonton. We're going to continue to see more and more vulnerable services being siphoned off to big cities.”
Education wraps up Cyr’s list of top three issues affecting the area’s residents.
All the education systems have been strained during COVID, including the mental health of students, which needs to be addressed first and foremost, he said.
“While online schooling was a band aid for teaching [during the pandemic] it was not a solution,” said the former MLA.
He said more action needs to be taken to catch students up to the levels they are expected to be at following two years of learning disruptions.
“This means extra work, this means extra time, this is not something that our teachers and principals can shoulder on their own.” Cyr sees this support needing to come directly from the provincial government.
*Order of nominees was arranged in alphabetical order by first name