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Fort McMurray mayor dares Kenney to fire him in fight over deteriorating ambulance service

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Alberta Health Services ambulance. Image credit: Mitchell Smith/Flickr

In case you missed it, while Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was trying to pretend the embarrassing rebellion of two COVID-skeptical MLAs in southern Alberta wasn't happening, another political rebellion against his policies was coming to a boil in the heart of the oilsands.

On Tuesday, defiant members of the council of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo -- the somewhat confusing official name for Fort McMurray and environs -- were refusing to hand off 911 calls to the regional emergency medical services dispatch centre to the provincial mothership.

Last fall, mayors all over the province were infuriated when Health Minister Tyler Shandro stomped in, ended the negotiations municipalities had thought were still under way, and said there would now be a centralized provincial EMS dispatching system to save a paltry $6 million.

Actually, the centralized dispatch operates from three centres, Calgary, Edmonton and Grande Prairie. But if you dial 911 and don't live in one of those places, and sometimes even if you do, you may be in for an interesting time explaining where to send the ambulance if you don't happen to know the street address. I speak from personal experience.

While most of the mayors complained bitterly, it was the councillors in Fort Mac -- former Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean's old provincial and federal riding -- that actually ran the Jolly Roger up the flagpole and started refusing to transfer calls to AHS, which technically took over three weeks ago.

Nope, said Mayor Don Scott, "there are circumstances when acts of defiance and resistance are absolutely necessary." This, he insisted, is one of them.

Council unanimously supported Mayor Scott's motion to "provide notice to Alberta Health Services that the RMWB 911 Emergency Communications Centre will no longer transfer the 911 caller to AHS Provincial Dispatch Centre."

According to Fire Chief Jody Butz, calls with "degradation of service" -- which presumably means ambulances either being sent to the wrong place or arriving late -- now amount to more than 20 per cent.

Mayor Scott dared the province to fire him and see what happens. "I challenge the provincial government to remove me as the mayor. I believe in this cause enough that I stand by it completely."

He described a meeting with Shandro yesterday as nothing more than "a PR stunt" on the minister's part, not "an actual effort to have meaningful dialogue."

Even the local UCP MLA weighed in with a view more sympathetic to the mayor and council than his premier. Maybe he doesn't approve of the mayor's tactics, Tany Yao said, but "I do support our municipality's notion that Fort McMurray desires a higher quality of services by AHS. The answers I received on this issue from AHS weren't satisfactory to me."

Readers will recall that Yao was last heard from during his Christmas break in Mexico responding to Kenney's order he wear a face mask and return to base immediately by saying that, yeah, yeah, he'd be back when his holiday was over.

He was punished by having his committee work taken away from him, giving him less work for the same pay.

As for the premier, he insists the centralized system that everybody hates is a great idea that was thought up by many big brains on "multiple expert panels."

"We're absolutely committed to this change," he said yesterday according to the CBC, which must have slipped a reporter through the net at a news conference on another topic. "We think it's the best thing in terms of service as well as efficiency."

Back in the fall, angry mayors said the promised modest savings are illusory -- claiming AHS may save a bit but municipal taxpayers will have to pay more.

So is the premier brave enough to fire the mayor and council in Fort McMurray and pave the way for Jean's return to politics?

Obviously the province hopes there's another way to skin that particular cat.

Lawyers for Alberta Health Services and the provincial health ministry -- which confuses everyone by calling itself Alberta Health -- will be before an Alberta Court of Queen's Bench judge today seeking an injunction to make the northern rebels simmer down and start transferring calls again.

Whatever the court says, for some reason I don't think that'll be the end of this story.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image credit: Mitchell Smith/Flickr

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