05/31/2012 01:12 EDT

Mulcair Oil Sands Controversy: Few Notice NDP Leader In Oilsands City


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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