Highwood MLA reflects on busy 2013

By: John Barlow

  |  Posted: Thursday, Jan 09, 2014 10:53 am

Highwood MLA Danielle Smith fields questions at the Western Wheel office, reflecting on highlights of 2013 including the June flood, cabinet shuffle and Okotoksí water situation, as well as her expectations for 2014.
Highwood MLA Danielle Smith fields questions at the Western Wheel office, reflecting on highlights of 2013 including the June flood, cabinet shuffle and Okotoksí water situation, as well as her expectations for 2014.
Jordan Verlage/OWW

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Highwood MLA Danielle Smith, the leader of the Wildrose Party, sat down with Western Wheel Editor John Barlow just before Christmas to look back on what was a tumultuous 2013, which included a major disaster, cabinet shuffle and various other challenges.

WW: What were the highlights of this past year?

DS: I probably would have answered the question differently before June 20, but I think June 20 really overshadowed everything else. The amazing thing to see is how fast things have moved towards recovery for so many people. It is pretty remarkable the recovery of infrastructure, the re-opening of businesses, homes back to normal has moved as fast as it has, but the nature of a political office is you always hear the hardest case stories, so I think there are more positive stories and people moving on today we still hear stories of displaced seniors, temporary foreign workers who were renters still displaced, low income families still in their homes not knowing what their next steps are, and also some challenges people are facing on their bills. By in large it really is quite exciting... positive signs of progress.

WW: Aside from politics, what kind of an emotional toll has the flood taken on you and your family?

DS: It is one of those things where you donít realize how hard its hitting you until you remove yourself from the situation. I was there from flood day. I was rescued on a manure spreader at 7 p.m. ó and some people would say that is fitting a politician get rescued on a manure spreader ó it was very scary... You saw people running from their homes carrying their children and their pets needing to be rescued. I think having gone through that, for many weeks after I would have flood dreams. I continue to look back and revisit and you cannot help your emotional response when you see how devastated people were after the flood. Very sad watching people go through their photographs and hoping and wishing they could keep some of their precious items which were so horribly destroyed.

I think it is going to take a little bit of time before people feel back to normal.

It is good for me to have that perspective because if I am going to be premier one day these disasters happen; they happen every year. This will give me an idea about what people need out of politicians, what they need out of government, what they need from emergency response. There was so much that went right, but some things need to be changed particularly from the provincial response and hopefully we will be able to press for some of those changes over the next couple of years.

WW: How did you separate your roles as the MLA and as a resident?

DS: It would have been harder, no question, if I was personally impacted. I maybe live on the only hill in High River. . . we didnít have any damage and didnít lose our electricity. It allowed me to spend all my time to focus on what was going on with the residents. I was able to be a sounding board for residents and their frustrations. I was worried the town fabric was going to be ripped in two; it is going to be not only dealing with the physical aspect, but also not being able to stitch that community feeling back together again and I am delighted to see that is not the case. I see a real appetite for people to want to help each other.

WW: What role should the Province take in building a water pipeline from Calgary to Okotoks?

DS: I have not had a formal ask from (Okotoks) council or looked in to it so I am interested in listening in on that conversation when I meet with (Okotoks council) in January. I donít know what the history has been on other major pipeline projects, how much they funded. Clearly when you get regional projects this is an area where we do need provincial involvement because it is a pipeline that goes through the (MD of Foothills), it will impact Okotoks and it potentially impact other municipalities as well because I understand there was some discussion of a regional water solution that did not include a pipeline from Calgary so impacts Turner Valley, Black Diamond and High River. Clearly, if Calgaryís pipeline is going to impact multiple municipalities there probably is an argument for shared funding municipally.

WW: What are your expectations for 2014?

DS: I would hope by the end of 2014 is every resident who was impacted by flooding will have received their disaster recovery payment and will be feeling like they have turned a corner. Same with the business community, those businesses displaced, would love to see them back in and in operation. So, I am really hopefully we will see a huge amount of progress next year. I understand Okotoks also has plans to develop an industrial business park with the idea of more along the lines of IT. I will keep an eye on how that progresses. There will be annexation issues, which I will have to monitor; sometimes annexation can mean tension between municipalities, so I will be interested to see how that unfolds now that Okotoks has made the decision it wants growth.

At the provincial level, we will continue to watch whatís happening on a number of fronts. We are concerned about the finances, obviously. I think people were surprised by how much we focused on the heart issues, and how well government is doing in delivering programs. We have heard heartbreaking stories of the under reporting of deaths of children in care; I still donít think we have gotten to the bottom of that problem. We are beginning to hear stories parallel of that, of seniors in care being neglected and even dying without proper investigations.

The other area is on the post-secondary front, I think the government realized they went too far in the cuts and they have tried to restore some of the funding. We will be watching in the new year to see if they learned their lesson about where to prioritize when they are making cost efficiencies because it seems they are making the decisions too late and cutting in the wrong places.

WW: How would you rate the recent cabinet shuffle?

DS: I was disappointed there wasnít a change in Finance, which means we are going to continue to struggle with deficits. They have already picked a fight with AUPE, but this Finance minister is intent on unilaterally changing pensions, which broadens that fight to 54 unions. We needed to have a fresh set of eyes on health care and it is unfortunate that (portfolio) didnít change. We are happy to see a change in the seniors ministry because that is an area we need to see significant change.

I was glad to see a change in the ministry of Municipal Affairs as well. I think having Ken Hughes there is potentially good for a couple of reasons. He knows this region because he grew up in the area and he also knows Calgary well because he represents it. There is lots to be done in terms of flood recovery program and I feel more confident in somebody who is actually living it. Plus, he also has the federal experience and a lot of our funding for the disaster recovery program is federal.


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