Features(Archives)

Nov
21
2012
Volume
-

Impact. A Collision Course on Highway 63 Between Government and a Community

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IT IS SAID THERE IS A TIPPING POINT, A MOMENT IN time when everything changes. For a community, that happened on April 27, 2012, when two pick-up trucks travelling on Highway 63 collided, killing seven people and leaving only two survivors. At the moment of that fatal impact, at the moment when those two vehicles met and altered the destinies of nine people, community and government collided in a way that would change the course of history, a region, and a highway. It was, perhaps, an inevitable collision – not the collision of the two vehicles, as that was avoidable, but rather the collision between government and community over the state of a highway that had long been a bone of contention. Long simmering anger boiled over, and frothed across an entire province. The impact that began with the horrific crash of two trucks rippled across the country, and deep into the roots of the community.

Proposals from the provincial government to twin Highway 63 had been made for some time. In 2006, then-Minister of Transportation Lyle Oberg committed $650 million to completing twinning, and proposed a potential six-year timeline. Minister Oberg, a medical physician by training, had gained first hand knowledge of the danger of Highway 63 when he was one of the first on scene at a collision on the 63 and provided medical aid to an injured motorist. For Lyle Oberg, the highway took on a personal face that day – just as it did for many others on April 27, when seven people lost their lives.

I recall that day quite clearly, as news of the horrific accident travelled quickly through the community. A collision, with several dead; adults, but children too. Each twist of the story brought worse news. A survivor, a young girl, rushed to the hospital, only to die of her injuries. And at the end of the day, seven people dead, and a community in mourning. I sat down that evening at my laptop, opened my blog page, and wrote an open letter to newly elected Premier Alison Redford, pouring out my pain and anger in words. I posted it, closed my laptop, and went to bed. When I woke up the next morning, I discovered dozens of emails, comments on the blog, and over 5,000 views. I guess that is when I knew that this accident on Highway 63 was different. Sentiment in the community had tipped from sorrow into something else – anger.

Suddenly Facebook pages and groups appeared, like the one begun by Ashley St. Croix, who also sat down with her laptop that spring night. Ashley is an effervescent blonde with a soft Newfoundland accent and a magnificent smile. She is the sort of person you love to talk to, but even she admits she isn’t the sort of person you’d necessarily expect to start a Facebook page that then starts an entire movement. Ashley St. Croix was one of the driving forces behind the Twin 63 Now Rally, a protest and memorial rally unlike anything before seen in the Wood Buffalo region. At the time, though, she had no idea that what she was doing was unusual.

“It began as a challenge from a friend. I said someone needs to do something and he looked at me and said how about you do something. At 11 that night I started the Facebook Page,” says St. Croix. “Initially it was very heated, shutting down the highway, and then it became about memorializing the dead.”

“I wanted it to be positive, to have a sense of community,” she continues. “It wasn’t something to be the leader of a group, it was an emotional thing. I kept thinking it should be a bigger person than me, someone more important doing this, but I was just an everyday person who stood up to say something.”

The Twin 63 Now Rally took place on May 5, 2012. Attendance was estimated at 2,000 people, and it wasn’t just residents of the region who came. The national media came, too. “I never expected 2,000 people,” St. Croix says emphatically. “That spoke to our politicians. That showed this meant a lot to everyone.”

When I ask St. Croix if she thought the clash between government and community over the highway was inevitable, she says, “I think it was just a matter of time. It’s been a sore topic in our community. It was just a matter of time until there was a trigger. There’s always a trigger.”

The accident on April 27, 2012, was a trigger for government, too. The provincial election had occurred just days before, on April 23, and two new MLAs had been elected for the Wood Buffalo region. Both rookie provincial politicians, and both city councilors until they ran in the provincial election, they had seen first hand the outcry from the community and had themselves lobbied the provincial government for action on the highway. Now, though, they were the government, and the issue of Highway 63 landed squarely in their laps – along with a great deal of anger directed at a provincial government seen as lacking in action and full of broken promises.

Mike Allen, newly elected MLA for the constituency of Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo, saw this issue become the first challenge he would face during his tenure in the provincial government when he was appointed as a special advisor and tasked with drafting a set of recommendations for action on the highway.

“If I look back over the years, there was an outcry every time there was an accident or a fatality on the highway,” recalls Allen. “At the time the announcement was made in 2006, I don’t think anybody had a true sense of what the challenges and possible barriers were going to be.”

“I was one of the proponents that was pushing the government. [The year] 2007 was when the Radke Report was released and Premier Ed Stelmach delivered the report and made commitments to addressing all the points in the report, all the recommendations. He came up with about $400 million at that time. A lot of it depends on the money. Where is the money? How are you going to pay for it?” he says.

In a region with tremendous population growth there was competition for that money, too, as residents began to struggle with heavier traffic volumes. “A lot of the dollars were being allocated to the urban service area, the bridges and the overpasses, because that’s what the residents are impacted by every day,” states Allen.

He continues, “Government shouldn’t operate like a business but it needs to operate with good business practice and if we look at the history of Alberta governance and fiscal management, back in the 90s is when Ralph Klein made the decision to start making significant cuts to get the spending under control and pay off Alberta’s debt. We are the only debt-free province in the country. If we decide to go back into debt to finish some of these critical projects like Highway 63, that’s a whole change of policy.”

“In common transportation standards, Highway 63 still doesn’t meet the guidelines for twinning. That’s where you get into the technical end and the experts that are making recommendations will quote that ‘we’ve done the traffic studies and it doesn’t merit twinning’. However, it is recognized that based on the growth we are seeing and the type of traffic that it needs to be twinned. No one is arguing that it doesn’t need to be twinned,” Allen adds. “I think the biggest problem in the past seven years was the lack of communication. What we as a government need to do is keep the lines of communication flowing and continue to implement new measures to make it a safer highway. In my view from what I’ve learned is that twinning will achieve a safer highway from the perspective that it will almost eliminate head on collisions. Accidents are going to occur, and I’m saddened recently by the number of accidents on the 881.”

The challenges continue, however. As Allen states, “We have 35 million cubic metres of grading to complete on that highway. The entire capacity of the Alberta road builders’ association is 35 million cubic metres per year. If we look at it right now, our total capital budget is $1.8 billion. If I take 25 or 30 per cent of that for our project, what do we have to defer and how do we justify that to other areas of the province in order to say we know we made this promise? The promise was made to fast track it and do it as fast as possible. Even in 2006, there was no timeline that was definitive and firm.”

Allen contends that there is commitment from the provincial government to twinning. “We have the commitment of caucus. We have the commitment of this government. And I’ll be honest. I was disappointed that I couldn’t include a timeline in my report. I wish I had another month or two months to complete it because there was a lot more work that could have been done on it.”

The lack of a timeline – and the sense of broken promises – is perhaps the most contentious point between government and community on this issue. One only needs to speak to Annie Lelievre, who lost her beloved son in an accident on Highway 63 in 2011, to understand the depth of that sentiment.

“Tell me it’s going to take eight years to complete?” Annie says, her eyes flashing with anger and pain. She is referring to the eight years mentioned in the recommendations Allen filed with the provincial government in his role as special advisor. “We’ve already waited 6 years. In just 6 years we have lost 69 people on the 63 – including my son.”

Annie Lelievre lost her son Jason on New Year’s Eve, 2011. She was headed to a New Year’s Eve party while Jason was headed to Edmonton to see a new girlfriend. He was 22- years old, still living at home, and working at the local ski hill. He was Annie’s little boy.

“As soon as I saw the RCMP officer and Victims Services walk around the corner I knew it wasn’t good. They told me Jason had passed away. I died right then and there. He was my baby. He still lived at home. He’d never left home. I kept waiting for him to come home,” she says, and the grief is almost unbearable to witness.

Her thoughts on the role of the Alberta government in the death of her son are very clear. “The Alberta government needed to keep the highway safe for my son. Where they spent the money is unbelievable; $220 million for the bridge in Thickwood? They could pave the highway over and over again. It’s time for the government to stand up. Twinning is the ultimate solution. The other measures should be implemented, but twin it now.”

After Jason’s death, Annie started a petition asking for action on the highway. It garnered signatures slowly, but after the accident on April 27, rapidly picked up steam – and signatures. Why a petition?

“My whole purpose of this – I don’t want anyone to go through what I have gone through,” Annie says, tears welling in her eyes.

And Annie has clearly been through a great deal. Flipping through her photos on Facebook I can clearly see a difference before and after Jason’s death. In the photos before, Annie had a smile that is bright and unrestrained, a smile that reached her eyes and lit them from within. After his death there are pictures of Annie smiling – but all that can be seen in her eyes is pain.

Annie wants to see action on the highway.

“What are they really doing, all these flashing signs? This is wasting money, all these passing lanes and stuff. We are wasting all this money. I say three years to completion at a maximum. They could clear in one year, gravel in one year, and pave the next year. Done. Three years.”

As for the government’s commitment to the highway? Annie doesn’t believe it exists.

“No, I don’t think they are committed,” she says. “We would have seen more, we wouldn’t have seen band aids. We wouldn’t have flashing signs. We would have gotten contractors. We would have gotten further. In 2006, they said six years. It should almost be done now, completed. We have 36 kilometres. Ridiculous.”

“Government has to step up before we lose more people. This has to be done before we see even worse. Nobody talks about the suffering of that little girl who was in the accident in April. Nobody talks about how she suffered before she died. What about that little girl? What about that little boy who died? What about my son?” Annie cries. It is a question to which there is no answer.

It is the answers that are elusive in the collision of community and government on Highway 63. While there are few answers, there are many questions, perhaps the biggest being, “what happens now?” Everyone wonders what happens next in a situation of such stark differences of opinion and interpretation of facts. The question on everyone’s mind is “what now?”

For Ashley St. Croix, it is figuring out what to do when a movement you created takes on a life of its own, when you see divisiveness and infighting in the very community you hoped to unite, a situation a quick visit to Facebook pages or groups on Highway 63 reveals. For St. Croix, it is deciding how best to honour those who have died while pushing for a safer highway to prevent more deaths.

For Mike Allen, it is continuing to advocate within government for a region experiencing rapid growth coupled with desperate needs – and trying to convince an angry, wary, disbelieving, and skeptical populace that this new government is not making promises, but commitments.

For the community, it is watching and waiting, knowing that in the past five years there has been a fatality on Highway 63 at an average of every 1.3 months. It is discussions about increased police presence, driver education, changing the culture of behaviour on the highway, and the need to twin as soon as possible.

For Annie Lelievre, it is taking her petition to legislature this fall, a petition with almost 12,000 signatures – a number close to the number of votes cast in this entire region in the last provincial election. For Annie, it is also about honouring the memory of her son Jason.

When I go to leave Annie’s house she tells me she was an only child, and that she always said she would have two children so they would have each other. She gestures to the kitchen where her daughter, Jason’s younger sister, has been cooking supper.

“She’s an only child now. She’s alone. And that’s not right,” she says, her eyes filled with tears, pain, grief, and a sense of having been betrayed. The collision between community and government might have occurred on Highway 63, but the true impact can only be seen in the eyes of someone like Annie Lelievre. The real impact is found there, and in the eyes of all those who have lost a loved one on Highway 63.

Update

On Friday, October 19, 2012 the Alberta government announced a fast-tracked timeline for the completion of twinning Highway 63. The timeline announcement indicated that twinning the section of highway from Grassland to Fort McMurray would be completed by the fall of 2016. This commitment from the government included an allocation of funds to finance the twinning project, and if met, has the potential to mend the rift that developed between the government and the community over the issue. Response from the community was generally positive, although scepticism will likely remain until the community sees the first vehicle drive on a fully twinned highway stretching from Grassland to Fort McMurray.

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THERESA WELLS

A freelance writer, blogger and professional communicator who is passionate about her child, her work, her pets, her community and the power of words, Theresa Wells believes perfection in life is achieved when she is surrounded by amazing people, fantastic stories, cold gin and really hot shoes.

Website: www.mcmurraymusings.com/

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