FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. -- Federal NDP Leader Tom Mulcair's visit to the Alberta oilsands may be a big deal on the political scene, but it appears to be just another day in Fort McMurray.

No one stopped Mulcair or tried to talk to him as he walked to city hall Thursday morning to meet with Mayor Melissa Blake.

Mulcair didn't say anything either -- he indicated he'd do all his talking at a news conference in Edmonton later in the day.


Fort McMurray is used to visitors wanting to see the oilsands firsthand -- everyone from high-powered politicians from all over the world to Hollywood film directors such as James Cameron.

Mulcair's day started early with a tour of Suncor's project, a look at some tailings ponds and a helicopter ride over the region.

The NDP leader has faced heated criticism from western premiers, including Alberta's Alison Redford, for his comments that the booming oilsands have artificially boosted the dollar and hurt manufacturing in Central Canada as a result.

Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason said Wednesday he hoped Mulcair's first visit to the oilsands wouldn't be his last.

"I'm hoping this is just the first of a number of visits from Mr. Mulcair,'' said Mason.

"I'm hoping he'll come back to Alberta again, meet with more Albertans, more business leaders, more union leaders and the environmental community.''

Mulcair was accompanied on the tour by Alberta NDP MP Linda Duncan, federal environment critic Megan Leslie and energy critic Peter Julian. He was to meet with Alberta deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk at the legislature. Redford was out of the country.

He won support Wednesday for his views from a study produced by the Alberta-based Pembina Institute. It concluded that Canada is suffering from "oilsands fever' -- the benefits of which are unevenly shared across the country and could lead to economic turmoil down the road.

But another report, by the Ottawa-based Macdonald-Laurier Institute, countered that the cross-country benefits of the West's energy resources far outweigh any ill-effects caused by the higher loonie.

As for Mulcair, he has since modified his comments, saying he's not against development of natural resources, but wants it to be done in an environmentally friendly way.

Mason agrees. His provincial party has campaigned on sustainable growth, along with a larger share of oil royalties for taxpayers.

"We agree in general in terms of the lack of environmental stewardship by both levels of government over the oilsands,'' said Mason.

"There's no question that increased oil exports are pushing up the dollar and I don't think there's any question that that hurts manufacturing,'' he added.

"But what the answer to that is, how we can help Ontario and Quebec's manufacturing sector, is something not based on limiting Alberta's opportunities.

"It's got to be a solution helping to make those industries more competitive.''

Mason said regardless of one's viewpoint, the discussion needs to happen.

"I hope (Mulcair's visit) changes the debate that's been going on. I hope that it makes it a little more civil. I hope that it makes it a little more rational and less emotional and depoliticizes it a bit.

"It's an important conversation for this country to have.''


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  • It Began In The Netherlands

    In 1977, <em>The Economist</em> coined the term "Dutch Disease" to describe the phenomenon of economies whose industrial bases suffer when large deposits of energy, such as oil or natural gas, are found. The magazine named it "Dutch Disease" because of the rapid deindustrialization seen in the Netherlands in the years after a major offshore natural gas find in 1959.

  • Skyrocketing Currency

    One of the effects of becoming an energy-exporting country is that speculators will start treating that country's currency as a "petro-dollar." The value of the currency rises (and sometimes falls) with the cost of the country's energy exports, which often means it becomes too high in value for exporters in other sectors. Those exporters then see their sales decline, and manufacturing suffers as a result.

  • Direct Deindustrialization

    As the energy export sector grows, it attracts workers from other sectors, including manufacturing, leaving fewer skilled people to fill jobs in those areas. This is known as "direct deindustrialization."

  • The Spending Effect

    As money flows to the energy exporters from energy consumers around the world, it increases the amount of spending cash people have. That additional cash increases the demand for non-manufacturing labour -- things such as beauty salons, travel, entertainment -- which in turn sends people into those jobs, and away from manufacturing. This is known as "indirect deindustrialization," or "the spending effect."

  • No Agreement

    Economists are in disagreement about whether Dutch Disease is real, whether it's an important phenomenon, and whether it actually happened in any given economy. Fifty years after the Netherlands' big natural gas find, there is no consensus on whether the country experienced the disease named after it, with many economists arguing excessive social spending was behind manufacturing's decline.

  • The Canadian Debate

    In Canada, Dutch Disease has become a highly polarized political issue. When NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty recently referred to what they see as the problem of manufacturing suffering under the weight of a booming oil industry, it prompted accusation of divisiveness from leaders of Western provinces. Economists don't agree either. While a recent study from the Pembina institute argues the phenomenon is real and having a negative impact, others argue the strength of Canada's oil sector is creating internal demand that's offsetting the loss of manufacturing exports. Yet others say Dutch Disease is only a part of the problem, and that other factors -- like offshoring of jobs to developing countries and increases in productivity -- are also to blame for manufacturing's decline.