WESTLOCK - In an end-of-year interview, Athabasca-Barrhead-Westlock MLA Glenn van Dijken didn’t mince words calling 2021 a “trying year” due to COVID-19.
And while the world continues to deal with the fast-spreading Omicron variant in the lead-up to the second anniversary of the pandemic, van Dijken holds out hope we’ll get back to normal in 2022 as COVID-19 has created fracture lines across the constituency that will need to be repaired.
“We spent a whole year essentially dealing with COVID response and helping to work with constituents. One thing I did learn over the past year is that for as many constituents that I have, I probably had the same amount of opinions on what should have been the proper response. It was a very trying year for everyone, whether that was within the business community or even within families as we were all doing our best trying to manage our way through,” said van Dijken.
“Was (the government response) perfect? No, it wasn’t a perfect response by the government, or even by all of us. But what I hope to see going forward is us coming together as a community to heal some of the divisions that have happened. First, we have to get to a point where we can see a light at the end of the tunnel.
“We’re not done with it yet, but I think we’ve learned a lot in the last year and a half and I think we can all grow from that and start the healing process.”
van Dijken said with the economic challenges surrounding the pandemic, the government more than ever needs to improve its ability to stay “competitive long term.” He talked about recent irrigation legislation and a partnership with the federal government to “grow the irrigation network within Alberta and improve what’s existing.”
“That’s a big part of growth into the future on the agricultural production side and to be able to increase value-add business down the road. We also did some legislation on mineral resource development which is essentially to ensure responsible development,” he continued, saying the UCP has committed to making the province business friendly.
“We needed a framework on how to move forward. To me, those are long-term, visionary types of legislation as even when you’re in the middle of a storm, you still have to continue to find ways to grow your economy.
“The province has definitely moved into a stronger financial position based on commodity pricing. But it is also moving into a much stronger financial position based on hope for the future and growth. Investment has come back to Alberta and it looks strong for 2022.”
Meanwhile, the United Conservative Party is slated to hold a leadership review on premier Jason Kenney at the beginning of April, a process van Dijken declined to comment on. The next provincial election won’t be held until spring 2023.
“I believe my job as an MLA is to serve the constituents. The party stuff is the party stuff,” he said.
For as many successes there were locally, there were an equal number of challenges — infrastructure, healthcare and education are always top of mind for constituents. While van Dijken pointed to a variety of much-needed infrastructure projects, ranging from asphalt overlays on highways 776 and 651, to the $10 million cost-shared 108th Street rehabilitation and west industrial storm water projects in Westlock, he knows there’s still work to be done on the local doctor and nursing shortages. Hospitals throughout the region during 2021 have witnessed temporary operating and emergency room closures due to staff shortages.
“Trying to find health care works in rural Alberta is a serious challenge going forward. We’re being stretched not only on the doctor side, but also on the nursing side. My work continues to be with the health minister to try and find solutions,” he said.
And as for the continued talk surrounding formation of a provincial police force, van Dijken says it remains just that, talk. A 100-page report by PriceWaterhouseCooper released at the end of October outlines a transition price tag of around $366 million alongside a six-year implementation period.
“It continues to be a discussion and not only a discussion at our level, but at the federal level as well. I believe that discussion is important,” he said.
With an eye towards the coming year, van Dijken all-but guaranteed the replacement of the Athabasca Bridge. Built in 1952, the rusty, 900-foot, wood-decked bridge has been tabbed for replacement for decades.
“That’s an exciting project that’s been a long time in the making. I know the people there are kind of holding their breath, but construction should begin in the spring of 2022. And hopefully we should be able to resurface Highway 55 from Athabasca right to Highway 63,” he said.
van Dijken is also working on a private member’s bill he’d like to introduce during the spring sitting of the Legislature. Essentially it follows the lead of the Farm Securities Act in Saskatchewan, which bans institutional investors from owning farmland.
“We currently have limitations on foreign ownership of farmland and recreational land and since I’ve been the MLA going on for seven years now, I’ve had a number of individuals come to the office with concerns with institutionalized investment in farmland,” said van Dijken, who welcomed comments from residents on the issue. “It revolves around the local farm community being able to participate in farm ownership, as well as food security for our nation.
“Saskatchewan made the decision and I think it was the right decision to limit the ability for pension plans and large trust funds from owning farmland. It’s a work in progress and it may not come to the floor, but I feel it’s important to bring it into the public sphere and get the discussion started.”