The pace of new oil-sands development should be slowed so governments can focus on an infrastructure shortage in Fort McMurray, the region's ex-MP says.
Brian Jean, 50, resigned this month as the Conservative member of Parliament for Fort McMurray-Athabasca, and says now the most pressing issues facing his community are largely out of federal hands.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Jean says the booming region needs expanded highways and additional hospital care and seniors' services – projects that should take priority over new industrial development.
"I'd like it slowed down," Mr. Jean said, asked about the pace of development after his last day as an MP on Friday. "[Because of] quality of life. You've got two-hour waits in the morning to go 30 kilometres. Build a new highway. How about a bigger hospital? I feel sometimes like we're racing to the end. [The oil] is not going anywhere. The oil sands is there. Let's manage it properly. But again, managing the oil sands and the production of the oil sands is not a federal government issue, it's a provincial government issue."
A lifelong Fort McMurray resident, entrepreneur and lawyer who was first elected in 2004, Mr. Jean is now hinting he'd consider running in municipal or provincial politics. "I do have opportunities that are out there. Some are in the private sector. Some are, bluntly, in the political sphere, and there are some options for me in the non-profit sector as well," he said.
He points to federal commitments for infrastructure projects in the region. Those include a 2006 pledge of $150-million to twin Highway 63, the perilous route connecting Fort McMurray with Southern Alberta. Eight years later, the provincially led project is still in progress.
"As a results of the tremendous growth, we need a lot of things back home, and those things are not in the federal government's jurisdiction," he said, later adding: "It's time for the provincial government to move forward as aggressively as possible, take advantage of the federal programs and get things built. That's where I am today."
The federal government has still not released long-promised emissions regulations on the oil and gas sector, a key area of jurisdiction that could cap carbon output in an industry rooted in Fort McMurray. Mr. Jean says the process is complicated and includes the province, but applauds existing air and water monitoring programs in the region, a system currently being overhauled. He calls himself "pro-responsible-resource-development" and notes he objected to an application by Nexen to draw water from the Clearwater River for an oil-sands facility.
He said Canada's environmental record exceeds those of other oil-producing nations, echoing an argument made by many oil-sands advocates. "If [the oil sands were] in any other country in the world, other than Canada, it would be exploited to the worst possible effect, or have that possibility. For instance, if the oil sands were in Africa, do you think they would care about the water and the quality of life of people who live and work in the oil sands? They wouldn't care. We do it better than anyone else, and that's exactly what I think our government has done," he said.
Mr. Jean served as a parliamentary secretary, though never in cabinet. A fellow former Alberta backbencher, Brent Rathgeber, resigned from caucus last year and has since spoken out against the level of control the Prime Minister's Office has over backbench MPs. Mr. Jean doesn't share the concern.
"Backbencher or not, you're a team, and sometimes the backbenchers go up to the front and sometimes the front guys go to the back. That's just the way it works. It's all about being in a team and winning as a team... I may not have agreed with every single decision made by our caucus, but I participated in those decisions as much as anybody did," he said.
He also said the Senate spending scandal did "not even slightly" influence his decision to leave, and remains a firm supporter of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. "He's one of the greatest Canadians of all time, in my opinion. I've seen him work from the inside," he said.
Mr. Jean said the travel demands of being an MP were the biggest drawbacks of the job, one he otherwise said was the biggest honour of his life. Now, he's turning his focus from Ottawa to his home, a city that changed as it boomed.
"My brothers and I used to run our dog sleds over the single-lane paved main street with our rifles slung over our shoulders on our way out to the trap line, or just to go out to the bush for a bit," he recalls. "And now I don't see many dogsleds going down the main street of Fort McMurray anymore."