Sherwood Park is the Charlie Brown of Alberta communities.
Sherwood Park is a hamlet with a population of more than 60,000 on Edmonton's eastern border. (Really! We’re not making this up!)
It’s a "hamlet" -- legally speaking -- because it's part of Strathcona County. People out there like it that way because its weird legal status keeps residential taxes low.
It's rich as stink -- appropriately enough, under the circumstances -- owing to the large number of gasoline refineries and similar enterprises within the county's borders. There's plenty of money for new municipal buildings, public libraries and the like.
But it's not rich enough to build its own modern hospital within its non-borders. Unlike a public library, hospitals cost big bucks and are a provincial responsibility.
No matter what, come a provincial election, the good people of Sherwood Park vote Conservative. Their MLA, Iris Evans, has been around since 1997. She has served in a variety of very important cabinet posts under premiers Ralph Klein and Ed Stelmach. Nowadays, she is inevitably described by the media as the "powerful" minister of international and intergovernmental affairs.
Now, every time there's a provincial election in the wind, the Alberta Conservative government of the day promises Sherwood Park a full-size, modern hospital suitable to serve the needs of the planet's largest hamlet.
And every time the election is over, like Lucy in the Peanuts comic strip, the government yanks the hospital away from Sherwood Park/Charlie Brown. In real life, as in the cartoons, Sherwood Park's voters keep coming back for another kick, and each time the ball is jerked away.
When this happens, folks in Sherwood Park bemoan the shabby way their loyalty is rewarded by the Conservatives.
Under Premier Ed Stelmach, this little game with Charlie Park, I mean Sherwood Brown, has been raised to the level of an art form. In the past few days, Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky (playing Lucy on behalf of Evans and the premier) has snatched the ball away from Charlie at the same time as he's put it back again.
Last week, Strathcona County Council (which really means Sherwood Park city council) learned they wouldn't be getting the 72-bed hospital they'd been promised before the last election after all. (The promise was made when Ralph Klein was premier. Ground was broken four years ago. Digging started about six months ago.)
Seeing as the hole had been dug, Alberta Health Services, the province's public health superboard (which is clearly unenthusiastic about this project), announced that Sherwood Park would instead have a 24/7 "urgent-care centre" to splint broken bones, salve minor infections, and stitch up deep cuts. Anything more serious and you're going downtown.
Why, this is nothing but a "glorified medi-clinic," a councillor whined to the Edmonton Journal. "This outcome is basically a slap in the face for the residents of Strathcona County," said another.
But wait … Sherwood Park will get a hospital, really, Zwozdesky insisted. "Promises will be kept." It's just that Sherwood Park will have to wait until after the next election… "An acute care hospital is coming to Sherwood Park." Really. Really-really!
All this prompted former Alberta Liberal Leader Kevin Taft, now his party's health critic, to step gingerly into the fray, sympathizing with the Sherwoodians but scratching his head at why they put up with it.
There is, actually, something they could do, he mused. To wit: Stop voting Conservative. "At the end of the day it's the people of Sherwood Park who have to look in the mirror and say, 'Is this really what I'm satisfied with?' And if it is, go ahead and vote Conservative again. But if it isn't, then muster your strength and throw the bums out."
Evans, apparently, had nothing to say. She was not quoted in the newspaper, although she has been prepared to comment in the past few days in defence of Speaker Ken Kowalski, who was being pilloried by the Wildrose Alliance, and she is about to embark on an Ontario tour to defend the reputation of the tar sands from the depredations of environmentalists.
Just at the moment, conveniently enough, she's on a tour of our Great Neighbour to the South to "update key U.S. legislators on how Alberta is moving forward in developing a secure, safe and reliable energy supply."
Taft was too polite to mention the small city of St. Albert on the opposite side of Edmonton. While St. Albert is a grown up city with a mayor and council, it has an almost identical population to Sherwood Park.
Owing to the fact it lacks Sherwood Park's industrial base, St. Albert has higher taxes and doesn’t have the money for fripperies like a new public library.
But unlike Sherwood Park, St. Albertans do have a habit of throwing the bums out now and again if the Conservatives don't behave themselves. The community's principal riding has had both Liberal and New Democrat MLAs within living memory.
Another thing St. Albert’s got that Sherwood Park lacks is a nice fully equipped modern hospital.
The continued existence of the Sturgeon Community Hospital in St. Albert suggests that keeping the government party on its toes can be a tonic. At the very least, it can be argued that doing so doesn't ruin a community’s chances of getting modern facilities it needs.
Voters in Sherwood Park might want to take note of this.
Don't bet on it happening though. Sherwood Park not voting for the Conservatives would be like … Charlie Brown not kicking that football. Ain’t gonna happen.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.
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