Newcomers and rural voters call for more representation as Wood Buffalo goes to the polls

As the Wood Buffalo region heads into the last week of municipal election campaigning, newcomers to the area and rural voters outside Fort McMurray are making their voices heard.

Racism and a tough job market are top of mind for Tagay Muktar as he contemplates who he will vote for in Monday’s municipal election.

Muktar is a University of Western Ontario graduate with a degree in global development studies. He said he could only find work as a janitor when he first came to Fort McMurray in 2008.

Today, he works as a lab technician at an oilsands site — a job he said would often go to someone with connections to hiring managers.

“People should be given the opportunity through their qualifications, not through nepotism,” Muktar said.

At more than 66,000 square kilometres, the Wood Buffalo region’s 10 communities form Canada’s second-largest municipality.

From left to right, mayoral candidates Allan Grandison, Anthony Needham, Don Scott and Allan Vinni participate in a debate hosted by the Wood Buffalo Rural Coalition. (David Thurton/ CBC)

Monday’s municipal election will be historic because for the first time in more than a decade the region will elect a new mayor. Mayor Melissa Blake will be replaced by one of four mayoral candidates, while 23 candidates vie for eight council seats.

Muna Yussuf, who has lived in Fort McMurray on and off for a decade, said the candidate who can do the most to make the region more inclusive will have her vote.

Pic 3 Ron Quintal

Wood Buffalo Rural Coalition spokesperson Ron Quintal listens to candidates debate issues at a forum organized by the rural coalition. (David Thurton/ CBC)

Yussuf said the municipality and school boards could do more to offer more flexible English language learning courses.

Many people within the immigrant community work shifts and cannot consistently attend morning and evening English classes, she said.

If Wood Buffalo doesn’t do more to welcome newcomers, Yussuf said many in the region’s multicultural communities may move to bigger cities.

“In order for this to stay home for them we have to do better,” Yussuf said. “We have to provide more resources. We have to engage our community.”

‘Urban-driven council’ irks outside communities

For years, Ron Quintal has felt that when it came to the municipality of Wood Buffalo, Fort McMurray has been considered the centre of the universe while the other nine outlying communities in the municipality have been neglected.

“I don’t think in Fort McMurray you have a lot of people who understand rural concerns,” said Quintal, a spokesperson for the Wood Buffalo Rural Coalition. 

“A lot of people come here from other places to work in the oilsands and they don’t have the opportunity to educate themselves on the makeup of what is the rural communities.”

For the rural coalition, those issues concern the communities which still don’t have piped water, sewage treatment or adequate housing, he said.

“We have issues that are affecting us and we will not sit idly by anymore and allow an urban-driven council to dictate what’s in their best interest,” Quintal said.

Pic2 Wood Buffalo Debate

Residents attend a mayoral debate in Fort McMurray. (David Thurton/ CBC)

The rural coalition would like to see municipal candidates commit to the creation of an Indigenous municipal department and a separate budget for rural communities.

Darryl Woytkiw lives almost 50 kilometres outside Fort McMurray in the community of Anzac. He said high taxes for rural small businesses are an issue in the outlying communities.

He said rural small businesses pay the same tax rate as oilsands companies, which is almost five times higher than the rate urban businesses pay.

Woytkiw said that’s not fair.

“Taxes are a major issue in our rural hamlets,” he said. “That can’t work. They don’t have the population or revenue to pay that kind of tax ratio.”

Follow David Thurton, CBC’s Fort McMurray correspondent, on FacebookTwitter or contact him via email.

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