Brian Jean, the leader of Alberta’s Wildrose Party, was in the middle of Question Period when he got the news: the city he represents, and the city he calls home, was on fire. CityNews Parliament Hill bureau chief Cormac Mac Sweeney spoke to Alberta’s opposition leader about the devastation he’s witnessed on the ground in Fort McMurray, what comes next, and what it was like to see the cratered remains of his home—which the fire had burned to the ground. Listen to the interview below—excerpted from our politics podcast, Maclean’s On The Hill—and read an extended transcript of the conversation below.
Q: I can’t imagine how you must feel right now. You’re in Fort McMurray at the Emergency Operations Centre. Tell me your story. How did you hear about what happened?
A: Well, I was keeping up to date with the situation on an hourly basis before the flames changed direction, just to make sure. I know what forest fires are like. I’ve lived here for 50 years in the north, in northern Alberta, and we do have forest fire threats from time to time. And my – I have a large family here, and my nephew, who lives about a block away, called me and said the flames were at the edge of the valley, which is where my house starts. It starts right on the bush, pretty much, a block away. And he said my house would be gone by the time I got there, and I’d already started driving because I’d heard that there were some threats in different areas, and so I got in my – I left Question Period. I finished my ninth question. I left, I got in my vehicle with Tany Yao, the other Wildrose MLA, and we went to Canadian Tire and spent about $2500 on camping supplies and food and water and stuff like that, and then we went up to Fort McMurray, getting here – probably by the time we went through all the emergency vehicles, it was quite the – quite the drive up. You would have to have nerves of steel because, for the most part, there was two or three lanes coming towards us. And of course, you know, we would have to drive on the shoulder a lot of times because the traffic was pretty much one way. There was a bit of an exodus. But it was done very well and, you know, everything seemed to go quite well. It’s one of those situations that you don’t realize what you’re in until you’re in.
But clearly we’re not out of trouble yet, but we may get through this and through this well. We keep praying because the winds here in northern Alberta keep changing, and they could turn, and things could change. But so far, enough of our infrastructure has survived to make reconstruction, in my opinion, relatively easy. I have driven around the city today and for the last three days. And as of today, good news is that so far all the major infrastructure, the large projects, are good. Whether it’s the airport or the hospital or McDonald Island, all of the major buildings are in good shape. And as of right now, many of the biggest neighbourhoods sustained only minor damages. That would be like Timberlea and those areas. Very little damage compared to how many houses are not damaged. The smallest neighbourhoods, such as my own house, they took the biggest and the hardest hit and most of the damage.
As of right now, I don’t know of any single apartment complex that was burned, so all of the high-density housing is still intact, and most of downtown is still intact. In fact, all of it is pretty much intact as far as the business community and the industrial park and the commercial stuff is pretty much all intact. And we will see over the next coming weeks the heroism and levelheadedness of everyone that led to this absolutely amazing miracle of not one single person being hurt or significantly or indeed any fatality as a result – direct result of the fire. And we did have one incident going south, about three hours away from Fort McMurray, involved in a traffic fatality. But you know, truly it’s no shortage of a miracle, the great work of the emergency services personnel in Fort McMurray and right across Alberta.
Q: And we’ll talk about rebuilding in a moment, but I’m – as you went back into Fort McMurray and you toured the neighbourhood where you live, and you saw the destruction, how did it – how did it make you feel? What emotions were you going through?
A: You know, I have to tell you I had my son die last year. He was 24, and he was my best friend. And him dying was – it had such a negative impact on my life that this truly, you know, in comparison, is minuscule. So from my perspective, I don’t think I’m going to be impacted quite as much as a lot of people are. You know, of course my home was destroyed, and 50 years of my memories are destroyed along with it, but I still have those memories in my mind. I don’t have the pictures, I don’t have my hunting gear or my – you know, I had 20 rifles that are gone, some of them that were old rifles that I wanted to keep. My house was burned right down to the ground, lost my two quads. You couldn’t even tell they were there. My jet boat is – it does not exist. All the metal burned right down to the ground in – within the building. My truck was parked out front, two of them, and both of them were destroyed. I mean, you know, those things can be replaced, though. It’s tough, but it’s not just – you know, it’s a lot of memories and a lot of important details. But I’m just – I thank God every day that nobody was hurt.
Q: What was it like heading back there? I mean, for people to see the pictures on television or in the newspaper, it’s one thing to see that, but to be there and experience it, walking through that area, what is it like?
A: Oh, it’s – I mean, there was no question it’s dramatic from the position of how much it’s going to impact people. I mean, people will be seriously impacted as a result of this. And that’s why I think it’s so important that our government acts quickly to get them back in as fast as possible so they can begin carrying on with their lives. There will be an impact. People will have to rebuild. But we have great insurance, and we have great federal and provincial programs that will help us through this. And I think as long as all levels of government work together to take the politics out of the – you know, the situation, but work hard to rebuild, and rebuild better than we were before, I think there’s some opportunities there. Because we will have to restructure some of the communities, and there’s some opportunities here to really pay off well for us. I think long term we’re going to have a better, more beautiful community than we’ve ever had. And I’ve, as I say, lived here 50 years, since – you know, when I got here there was only 1500 people, and now there’s well over a hundred thousand, and the community is beautiful, gorgeous, one of the most beautiful places in the world, in my opinion, to live, work and play, for sure, and it’s brought so many opportunity, but I think we can build it better than it was.
Q: You mentioned the levels of government working together to respond to this. You know, right away we saw fire fighters coming from not only all over Alberta but throughout the country, going up to the Fort McMurray area to try and help battle these wildfires. And you know, the federal government has offered military air support, you know, supplies to go to the evacuation centres, the province obviously stick handling the emergency response right away. What do you think of the response from those two levels of government so far?
A: You know, all I can tell you is I’m – for the last two days, myself and Tany Yao, the MLA for Wood Buffalo, the Fort McMurray MLA, we’ve been travelling around Fort McMurray and area inside the perimeter and outside the perimeter and making sure we thank all of the emergency services personnel, including of course RCMP, police, and sheriffs, and the fire fighters, etcetera, making sure they understand how important it is what they’re doing and how much we do appreciate it. And I can only tell you that I think, you know, I can’t comment on the organizational structure or what’s taken place on a – from a macro perspective, because I haven’t focused on that. But what I can tell you on the ground is that, you know, there’s nobody better in the world than our professional emergency services people, whether it’s to fight fires or to control crowds or to evacuate areas and to be professional, and – you know, there’s nobody better than Alberta emergency services people.
So I’m very, very proud of what they’ve done, and you know, I’ve been providing them with whatever I can, whether it be protein bars or water or snacks, just – or a good laugh to try to pick up their spirits, because some of these individuals have lost their houses as well. And you know, while you’re fighting a fire in one place and you find out your house is burning, I can’t even imagine what that would mean to me. Because you know, frankly, as a fire fighter, I would expect that I would have a pretty good idea to put a fire out if I really wanted to focus on it. And you know, I can’t even imagine how mu—tough it must be on those people that have lost their everything, especially with young families.
I did talk to one fire fighter that had lost his house and, you know, he was not happy. His ear—his eyes teared up, and you know, he talked about what he was going to do now. And I just told him I was – I told him about my experience with – and understanding of insurance, and how good of a system we had, and how that things would take care of it. I know there’s a lot of stresses and pressures on a young family, financially especially, and there’s nothing worse than having a major impact (inaudible) financial impact like this that you have no control of to make you really appreciate what we have here in Alberta.
Q: We know the governments of Alberta and the federal government are working together to try and help those people who have lost everything and to battle the flames. Moving forward, though, what needs to happen next to try and help the people of Fort McMurray? Where do we go from here?
A: Most important thing right now is to support the emergency services people, to stay out of Fort McMurray, to allow them to do their job. We’re not out of the situation yet. We’re not out of trouble yet. We need to focus on putting out this fire, and then we can rebuild. We need to look at the services. Even though the critical infrastructure is still in place, there have been, as a result of obviously a number of factors, a serious problem with gas, a serious problem with water, a serious problem with electricity in some areas. These things need to be rebuilt. I mean, we had fire go through and destroy, for instance, a good percentage of the poles that carry electricity. Those poles, although they may still be in existence – or hanging by a thread, as the case may be – and the power may still be active, the poles need to be replaced. And so that will interrupt power. And the more we stay away from interfering, and you know, obviously, the less traffic there is in town, the better these people will be able to cope with what’s going on and how to repair it as quickly as possible so the entire community can get back in. That’s what we want to see as quickly as possible, the community return to Fort McMurray.
Q: That’s – rebuilding a city after such devastation is a monumental task. It’s going to be huge, no doubt about it. How do you rebuild? I mean, you know, how much is that going to cost? How many resources are going to be needed to be brought in? It seems like it’s going to be a massive task.
A: Well, it is going to be a massive task, but we’re from Alberta, we’re Fort McMurrayites, we’re very resilient people, hard-working people. We’re used to, you know, having some tough times now and again. And you know, you’ve seen over the last few years we’ve had, you know, some kicks when we’re down. And in the eighties we did as well. We had some – you know, some fiscal situations then that just about drove every business out of town. I would say 90 percent of the businesses in Fort McMurray in the eighties when I was here in business, you know, were driven out of town during the National Energy Program, for instance. So we’ve had this happen a few times.
But we’re resilient, we’re hard working, we’re used to working seven days in a row, 12-hour shifts, or 21 days in a row, 12-hour shifts. That’s the kind of work we do. The average age of the population here is about 31, 32, young people, young families, usually quite happy. We have great – we have the best recreational centre, indoor recreational centre in all of Canada. It’s huge, and it’s a really good infrastructure. We have, you know, five rivers that flow into the river valley. It’s one of the most beautiful places on Earth. And I know that the people that live here love it. People that come and visit our camps, our work camps, or come through and work for 21 days straight and leave sometimes have a bad taste in their mouth, but those people that call this place home, the 70 or 80,000 people that call this place home, they love it, and they don’t want to be anywhere else. They’re second- or third-generation Fort McMurrayites at this stage, and we don’t want to move. We don’t want to move anywhere else. So I know this town is going to come back strong and better than ever.
Q: It was just a couple of weeks ago – I know the focus right now is mainly on the emergency crews and helping the evacuees, but it was just a couple of weeks ago that you in the Legislature were questioning the government’s cutting of forest fire prevention budgets. And last year it cost the Alberta government $500 million, and the government was looking to cut that down to just $84 million. In this situation, was there any indication that funding or preparedness was an issue at all?
A: You know, I’m not going to – right now I’m just worried about my people. I’m worried about their lives and their safety, and frankly, I’m worried about their property. Those are my priorities right now. I’m going to – I can look at the politics of this later. There’s another time and another place for those questions to be answered, and I don’t want to jump to any kind of conclusions. I want to make sure that I can answer it appropriately. What I do right now is that the – my community is suffering, my people are suffering, and I’m here for them and I’m going to focus 100 percent of my efforts to reconfirm to them that everything will be OK, because it will be; that everything is going to be great because we are resilient and we will rebuild something even better. And I want to just concentrate on that right now and leave that politics for another time because it’s not important, to be honest. When it comes down to it, the only thing that is important is my people, their lives, and their quality of life, and their health. And everything else I will concentrate on, but those are the things that right now I need to focus 100 percent of my efforts on.
Q: Fair enough. And then finally, on the rebuilding process for Fort McMurray: how long might it take to rebuild these neighbourhoods?
A: Yeah. It’s going to take – it’s going to take some time. And I’m not going to get into specific time periods because I’m not an expert at that. But I know that, you know, I’ve talked to a builder yesterday morning, I’ve talked to a few people, I’ve talked to some developers from Fort McMurray that have been involved heavily in the first building of the community from 1500 homes when I got here in 1967 to, you know, a hundred thousand people now – or sorry, 1500 people to a hundred thousand people now just in 50 years. So there’s been tremendous growth, and a lot of that growth is attributed or been part of discussions with people that are still alive. So we’re very fortunate to have all that expertise on the ground, and I’ve had talks with them, and I will tell you that I’m in the process of putting together a group that would be able to properly advise us on how to move forward, or to at least contribute to that, as quickly as possible so that we don’t miss anything and so that we react as soon as possible to this obvious disaster.
And you know, frankly, I feel that the sooner we start working towards solutions on a number of fronts, and have participation from the community and people that are leaders of the community, the better off the end result will be and the happier my constituents will be, and that’s what it’s all about. I’m here to serve the people and to get them back into their homes as soon as possible, and that’s what I’m going to focus on right now, and their quality of life where they are in the evacuation centres.
I will tell you I’m so proud of what’s happened in Alberta. All Albertans have opened up their home – homes, and hotels. I’ve heard from people that own hotels that they’re going to provide them free of charge; for people that own apartment buildings are going to relocate people within them. People that have basement suites, they’ve opened them up. All Alberta has opened up their home. I’ve even had a hotel chain from Saskatchewan tell me that they would open up that as well and they have rooms available there. So I’ve had tremendous response. Albertans, Canadians opened their hearts and are opening their wallets to the people of Fort McMurray, and I can’t tell you how much we appreciate that.