COVID restrictions, broadband access, and a bear dressed as a Mountie graced the screens of Sturgeon County viewers Thursday night as county council candidates gathered for an all-candidates debate.
The St. Albert and Morinville chambers of commerce co-hosted an online forum Oct. 14 for 11 of the 12 candidates seeking seats on Sturgeon County council. Present were Wayne Bokenfohr and Matthew McLennan of Division 3; Neal Comeau and Robin Fuhr of Division 4; Lee Danchuk, Walker Hnatiw, Harco Middelkamp, and Deanna Stang of Division 5; and Jason Berry and Ronald Shaw of Division 6. Division 5 candidate Jonathan Kilbourn was absent.
The forum was marred by frequent audio/visual glitches, including a loud siren that twice interrupted Hnatiw, but was perhaps improved by the whimsical portrait of a bear dressed in the RCMP’s red serge visible behind Danchuk.
Host and former St. Albert MLA Stephen Khan asked the candidates seven questions on county issues and gave them about a minute to respond to each one.
Water, broadband, collaboration
Most candidates were unable to give in-depth answers to the forum’s first question on the Alcomdale Local Development Corporation’s water system, as they were unfamiliar with its specifics.
While the co-op wants to sell this system to the county, Comeau said county officials first have to determine the system’s cost and condition. Bokenfohr said the county has to consider the age of the system and the potential liabilities that come with it.
Fuhr said there should be no issue here, given that the county has already run water and sewer services to many other communities.
“Even though this may be an older setup, we need to do something to help these people out because they’re members of our community and they’re taxpayers.”
Candidates agreed the county should do more to improve broadband access in Sturgeon, with Berry calling it “a necessity.” Comeau noted that the county’s $7.3-million broadband pilot project was scheduled to roll out soon.
Bokenfohr noted he had championed broadband improvements in Sturgeon and at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities for many years and said he is working with the latter group to create a nation-wide flat rate for broadband access.
“How do you reverse-engineer the future? That’s by getting rural broadband to all our residents.”
Stang said poor broadband could affect emergency calls in the county and vowed to champion broadband access if elected.
“I have a direct line of sight to a broadband tower, and I still don’t have service properly.”
McLennan said he wants to hear more about the broadband pilot before commenting on it but said he would prefer broadband access to be handled by the private sector.
On the question of COVID-19, Hnatiw said the county needs to do what it can to protect businesses during this time.
“We need to be careful not to overstep our bounds,” he said, and to give residents good health information.
Danchuk said he has lost friends to COVID-19 and is fully vaccinated against it.
“Whatever it takes to save some lives, I’m all for it.”
Fuhr was one of the few candidates to voice explicit support for mask mandates and vaccine passports, saying both measures help protect the community.
“We have to look after other people, not just ourselves.”
On the topic of regional collaboration, McLennan said the county needs to be constructive in its relations, noting it had great success with its recent uncontested annexation deal with St. Albert.
“The more we’re able to talk to each other and work together, the better it will be for us all.”
Reconciliation and a jackpot
Asked about reconciliation, Comeau and Bokenfohr noted they have Métis roots and frequent meetings with Alexander First Nation. Bokenfohr pitched a trail system along the Sturgeon River and Big Lake that honours this region’s Indigenous roots as one way to put reconciliation into action. Comeau noted how council now flies the Treaty 6 and Métis flags at the county office, and said he looks forward to more collaborations with Alexander, if re-elected.
When asked how she would spend a $1-million grant, Stang said she would put it toward improved fire and police protection.
“As a resident, I’ve had five houses burn down in a two-mile radius [of me],” she said, adding that another one burned down just two nights ago.
“We’re tired of losing more and more homes.”
Shaw said he would put the cash toward a trail system, adding it would be amazing if the county could host a system such as that of Edmonton’s river valley.
Comeau and Bokenfohr said they would put the cash toward policing to prevent theft and vandalism, with Bokenfohr suggesting it could fund a database through which RCMP could use doorbell-camera footage in their investigations.
Middelkamp said he would use the cash for a fire truck and a community party.
The St. Albert and Morinville chambers had yet to post recordings of the forum online as of this writing. County residents head to the polls Oct. 18. See www.sturgeoncounty.ca/Election for details.