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Location of immigration office in Vegreville steeped in Mulroney Era pork barrel politics, never made sense

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Don Mazankowski

News Ottawa is at long last going to move Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada's national case-processing centre from the scrubby boondocks of east-central Alberta to where it belongs -- a large Canadian city that actually attracts immigrants and where future staff needs can be filled -- appears not even to have been formally announced.

The city in question will be Edmonton, which will considerably simplify the move from Vegreville scheduled for 2018. After all, Alberta's capital is only 100 kilometres west of the town of 6,000 souls that is soon to be best known once again as home of Canada's largest Ukrainian egg.

Judging from media coverage of IRCC's bombshell, someone called a meeting of the centre's staff on Thursday to tell them about the move and the news spread from there like the proverbial Prairie fire.

The local MP, Lakeland Conservative Shannon Stubbs, raised the matter in apocalyptic tones during the House of Commons Question Period yesterday, calling the plan an "out of touch, deliberate attack."

Immigration Minister John McCallum responded: "It is a responsibility of the government to spend taxpayers' money wisely, to improve the efficiency of immigration, to reduce processing times and that is what this move will do."

For his part, Mayor Myron Hayduk told an Edmonton reporter he only heard about the coup bureaucratique from "an informal source" at the meeting -- a text message, I'd bet -- in time to run across town and crash the party. He said he was ready "to make a trip to Ottawa myself and jump up and down in front there."

The unexpected development hit the news just as most of the province's overworked media were in far-away Calgary writing fulsome, lengthy and colourful stories about the historically significant but not very impactful "state memorial service" of former premier Jim Prentice, who was killed in a plane crash on Oct. 13.

The development appeared to some to belie the Sunny Ways, Sunny Ways narrative about Justin Trudeau's prime ministership, especially in light of the Liberal Party of Canada's surely-not-unexpected loss of a byelection in another bedrock-conservative Alberta riding just last Monday.

The reality, though, is that regardless of the timing and strategy for releasing the news, it's certain the move was planned in Ottawa while Stephen Harper was prime minister of Canada.

Moving the centre to a major city obviously makes business sense, notwithstanding the undeniable impact the move is going to have on Vegreville's economy. And the loss of 230 jobs in a town of 6,000 where 100 houses are already for sale cannot be good news.

But the decision to locate the centre there never made any sense, and has its origins in the murky pork-barrel politics of prime minister Brian Mulroney's government a generation ago.

Federal Conservatives have always been influenced by the strange notion of their Alberta brethren that you can do economic and moral good by locating national service centres in one-horse hinterland towns. So we got immigration appeals in Vegreville, the Western Canada Lottery Corp. in Stettler, and the problem-plagued public service pay centre in Miramichi, N.B., to name but a few.

Well, in fairness to the Cons, that last boondoggle probably wouldn't be on the list if the Liberals themselves hadn't put their long-gun registry in backwoods New Brunswick first.

Regardless, the Vegreville fiasco could have been put right with much less pain long ago. And even if the federal Conservatives were never going to do he right thing, Liberal federal governments had plenty of opportunities to fix the problem, seeing as the place didn't even open until 1994, the year after Brian Mulroney had been sent packing by voters and Jean Chretien has been sworn in as his replacement.

Instead, it sat there, a national monument to pork-barrelling, for 22 long years.

The pork in this particular case came from Don Mazankowski, a successful local car dealer who was elected to Parliament in 1968 and represented the constituency for a quarter century.

In 1986, Mazankowski became Mulroney's deputy prime minister and right-hand man, and there's no secret he pushed hard for the centre in his rural redoubt.

After sensibly declining to run in the 1993 federal election, when he would have risked defeat by Preston Manning’s Reform Party, Mazankowski led an investigation into health care for Ralph Klein's government that, unsurprisingly, was enthusiastic about the potential of privatization and free markets on health care.

Less came of that, fortunately, than his efforts on behalf of Vegreville, though Mazankowski did get his name rather ironically on a public Edmonton heart treatment institute that opened in 2009 when Ed Stelmach -- MLA for Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville -- was premier of Alberta.

The timing of the lease on the centre's Vegreville building provided the official excuse for the move, but as an IRCC spokesperson told CBC Edmonton, the change makes sense because "the proximity to universities, the availability of public transit and housing options, and career growth opportunities within the federal government will make it easier to recruit and retain both qualified and bilingual employees and to meet our growing needs."

It's very hard to argue with the logic of this decision, though, of course, many of the usual suspects will.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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