Location of immigration office in Vegreville steeped in Mulroney Era pork barrel politics, and never made sense

Posted on October 29, 2016, 1:40 am
7 mins

PHOTOS: Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada’s soon-to-be-moved national case-processing centre in Vegreville, Alberta. Below: Mulroney Era deputy prime minister Don Mazankowski, the man who pushed for the centre to be located in his riding; Vegreville’s famed giant Ukrainian egg; and Vegreville Mayor Myron Hayduk.

News Ottawa is at long last going to move Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada’s national case-processing centre from the scrubby boondocks of east-central Alberta to where it belongs – a large Canadian city that actually attracts immigrants and where future staff needs can be filled – appears not even to have been formally announced.

The city in question will be Edmonton, which will considerably simplify the move from Vegreville scheduled for 2018. After all, Alberta’s capital is only 100 kilometres west of the town of 6,000 souls that is soon to be best known once again as home of Canada’s largest Ukrainian egg.

mazankowski_donaldJudging from media coverage of IRCC’s bombshell, someone called a meeting of the centre’s staff on Thursday to tell them about the move and the news spread from there like the proverbial Prairie fire.

The local MP, Lakeland Conservative Shannon Stubbs, raised the matter in apocalyptic tones during the House of Commons Question Period yesterday, calling the plan an “out of touch, deliberate attack.”

Immigration Minister John McCallum responded: “It is a responsibility of the government to spend taxpayers’ money wisely, to improve the efficiency of immigration, to reduce processing times and that is what this move will do.”

For his part, Mayor Myron Hayduk told an Edmonton reporter he only heard about the coup bureaucratique from “an informal source” at the meeting – a text message, I’d bet – in time to run across town and crash the party. He said he was ready “to make a trip to Ottawa myself and jump up and down in front there.”

The unexpected development hit the news just as most of the province’s overworked media were in far-away Calgary writing fulsome, lengthy and colourful stories about the historically significant but not very impactful “state memorial service” of former premier Jim Prentice, who was killed in a plane crash on Oct. 13.

The development appeared to some to belie the Sunny Ways, Sunny Ways narrative about Justin Trudeau’s prime ministership, especially in light of the Liberal Party of Canada’s surely-not-unexpected loss of a by-election in another bedrock-conservative Alberta riding just last Monday.

eggThe reality, though, is that regardless of the timing and strategy for releasing the news, it’s certain the move was planned in Ottawa while Stephen Harper was prime minister of Canada.

Moving the centre to a major city obviously makes business sense, notwithstanding the undeniable impact the move is going to have on Vegreville’s economy. And the loss of 230 jobs in a town of 6,000 where 100 houses are already for sale cannot be good news.

But the decision to locate the centre there never made any sense, and has its origins in the murky pork-barrel politics of prime minister Brian Mulroney’s government a generation ago.

Federal Conservatives have always been influenced by the strange notion of their Alberta brethren that you can do economic and moral good by locating national service centres in one-horse hinterland towns. So we got immigration appeals in Vegreville, the Western Canada Lottery Corp. in Stettler, and the problem-plagued public service pay centre in Miramichi, N.B., to name but a few.

Well, in fairness to the Cons, that last boondoggle probably wouldn’t be on the list if the Liberals themselves hadn’t put their long-gun registry in backwoods New Brunswick first.

Regardless, the Vegreville fiasco could have been put right with much less pain long ago. And even if the federal Conservatives were never going to do he right thing, Liberal federal governments had plenty of opportunities to fix the problem, seeing as the place didn’t even open until 1994, the year after Brian Mulroney had been sent packing by voters and Jean Chretien has been sworn in as his replacement.

myronInstead, it sat there, a national monument to pork-barreling, for 22 long years.

The pork in this particular case came from Don Mazankowski, a successful local car dealer who was elected to Parliament in 1968 and represented the constituency for a quarter century.

In 1986, Mr. Mazankowski became Mr. Mulroney’s deputy prime minister and right-hand man, and there’s no secret he pushed hard for the centre in his rural redoubt.

After sensibly declining to run in the 1993 federal election, when he would have risked defeat by Preston Manning’s Reform Party, Mr. Mazankowski led an investigation into health care for Ralph Klein’s government that, unsurprisingly, was enthusiastic about the potential of privatization and free markets on health care.

Less came of that, fortunately, than his efforts on behalf of Vegreville, though Mr. Mazankowski did get his name rather ironically on a public Edmonton heart treatment institute that opened in 2009 when Ed Stelmach – MLA for Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville – was premier of Alberta.

The timing of the lease on the centre’s Vegreville building provided the official excuse for the move, but as an IRCC spokesperson told CBC Edmonton, the change makes sense because “the proximity to universities, the availability of public transit and housing options, and career growth opportunities within the federal government will make it easier to recruit and retain both qualified and bilingual employees and to meet our growing needs.”

It’s very hard to argue with the logic of this decision, though, of course, many of the usual suspects will.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

26 Comments to: Location of immigration office in Vegreville steeped in Mulroney Era pork barrel politics, and never made sense

  1. Sam Gunsch

    October 29th, 2016

    The RW insist we all should worship their cult of ‘efficiency’ only so long as it’s not their pork or their political base getting cut to improve productivity/efficiency.

    Reply
    • Bob Raynard

      October 29th, 2016

      I agree. I have posted this before, so I apologize for my repetition, but I love the neo-con mantra: I AM OPPOSED TO ALL GOVERNMENT WASTE!!!*
      *(unless its wasted on me)

      This oxymoron came to me in the mid-nineties. The armed forces invited a bunch of business types out to CFB Wainwright and let them play on all the military equipment, presumably to curry favour for military expenditures. After joyriding in a tank and shooting off some of the big guns, one of these captains in industry, a realtor from Leduc, said to one of the accompanying reporters “Boy, if all our government spending was done this well we would be in great shape!” Our underfunded military spending money on a PR junket is a great idea for those invited.

      Reply
    • Sam Gunsch

      October 31st, 2016

      For the record, I also feel sorry for the many costs to those employees from this upheaval.

      However, RW political and business leaders are constantly pounding on cutting the fat in government, cutting civil servants for their cult of efficiency, to serve the taxpayer.
      e.g. Rob Ford’s ranting Trump-like on the ‘gravy train’. And what have we heard from pretty much any WRP spokesperson or PC leaders starting with Klein: cut the fat, do more with less, fat cats in unions, etc. etc.

      But Oh My God, the political RW sky falls when examples like Vegreville happen.

      Hypocrisy is foreign concept to the current RW political parties, the friends in ‘taxpayer’ groups, CFIB, Fraser, etc

      And no jobs will be lost, they’re being transferred and according to the Lib’s, jobs will be increased at the new location.

      Maybe, just maybe, because they’ve found the money from seeking efficiency? again…Isn’t that what the cult leaders/market worshippers. that have been telling us to run gov’t like a corporation, are alway propagandizing about?

      Reply
  2. Bob Raynard

    October 29th, 2016

    I would love to know how many of those 230 employees commute from Sherwood Park. My iPad map says it takes 55 minutes.

    Reply
    • gayla

      October 31st, 2016

      Of the 280 employees, 200 live in Vegreville.

      Reply
      • gayla

        October 31st, 2016

        Of interest, over 20% of Vegreville’s students are from immigration families. The ripple effect in staffing changes just at the two school boards levels is an example of one effect on losing 280 employees in a community of 5800 people. In the present economy of farmers crop loss due to snow, and oil and gas slow down, the timing on this is not good. This effects many stakeholders strategic plans. Upsetting that no stakeholder input was done on impact assessment.

        Reply
  3. TENET

    October 29th, 2016

    You make your case very clearly. The character and the future of Vegreville was also drastically altered when the highway by-passed the town. Don Mazankowski’s presence in parliament directly and indrectly benefitted Vegreville: be it the isolated case processing centre, or its hinterland Walmart. Maz was a towering presence in Ottawa and Alberta. He altered the destiny of his home town.

    MP Stubbs is a symbolic Wildrose victory, and she is also a powerful reminder to everyone who remember the good old days, to be careful what you wish for.

    Maz publicly and privately loathed Wildrose. He felt their presence pernicious in the dark alleys and back rooms of his constituency, and they figured prominently in his decision to leave politics and to leave Vegreville behind.

    As an MP Maz was a person who laid golden eggs.

    The big egg will never be as big as Maz, and the (political) detour caused permanent damage.

    Reply
  4. ronmac

    October 29th, 2016

    Pork barrelling has a rich tradition in Canadian politics. During the second wolrd war the Canadian navy located its ship repair yards in Ontario even thought the place the was blocked by ice four months of the year.

    Which confused our allies who coudn’t understand why we woudn’t locate them in Halifax, one of the finest natural harbors in the world that was open year round..

    Turns out the repair yards were located in the riding of a high level cabinet minister.

    C’st la vie Canadian-style.

    Reply
  5. Athabascan

    October 29th, 2016

    Except for the fact that this immigration office will finally be relocated, I don’t see much difference between initially locating the office in Vergreville, and the Alberta government’s decision to relocate Athabasca University from Edmonton to the town of Athabasca back in the 80s.

    Both were stupid decisions based on what can only be called pork barrel politics.

    Reply
    • gayla

      October 31st, 2016

      Interesting concept, stupid decisions to have employment in rural areas? What is stupid about it? Do you think only stupid people live in rural areas? Are rural people not to be allowed good jobs. Maybe, just maybe, intelligent people like to raise their families in safer rural communities. Maybe it’s a lifestyle choice. For decades the immigration office was run with good production. Less turnover than urban centers.

      Reply
      • Athabascan

        October 31st, 2016

        Whether there are intelligent people in rural areas is a different issue, than pork barrel politics that defy logic and cost effectiveness. Moreover, the choice to raise one’s family in a rural community is also another issue.

        You make the classic move of conflating one issue with a totally unrelated one. Nice try though, but no one is falling for the old bait and switch.

        Reply
      • gayla

        October 31st, 2016

        Yes it was pork barrel politics. I totally agree. Canadian Politics for generations that I do remember. It is what it is, and likely still will be.

        Reply
  6. Rob Wells

    October 29th, 2016

    If the conservatives really want to use the Case Processing Center to promote development and sustainability of small town Alberta, they should move it to Lavoy.

    Reply
  7. Sassy

    October 29th, 2016

    I have mixed feelings on this one. I don’t consider myself the usual suspect, though.

    I do believe the town will be in big trouble and I don’t like to see that happen. Commuting one-way 1 1/2 hours to downtown Edmonton (assuming the office will be relocated there) is not something many people could manage for long. Yes, the original decision was wrong for many reasons, but the current staff, their families, and the citizens living in and around Vegreville shouldn’t be punished for those poor decisions made by Conservatives almost 25 years ago.

    The other three processing offices are located in Sydney, Mississauga, and Ottawa. Will the federal government be relocating the Sydney office? After all, it only has 30,000 residents. These offices are not open to the public so, with modern communications, couldn’t they be located most anywhere? I expect lease costs from a building in Vegreville would be lower than one in Edmonton, but I also know some greedy landlords reside in small towns.

    In the news item, the reason given was “to respond to increased demand in various lines of business, and to expand operations”. The department might want to share more information about their plans so people have a better understanding for the decision.

    There are a fair number of working Albertans who actually choose to live outside the larger cities, especially those raising families. I think the smaller cities, towns and hamlets in Alberta provide an important lifestyle choice for some of us. Their economies shouldn’t be harmed by government decisions without sound reasons.

    Reply
    • jerrymacgp

      October 30th, 2016

      “…These offices are not open to the public so, with modern communications, couldn’t they be located most anywhere?…” True, except at the time the decision to locate this office where it is now, communications weren’t yet so “modern”. The Internet didn’t yet exist, and in fact even in ’94 when the centre opened, it was still embryonic and could only be accessed via slow dial-up connections.

      So, while this argument might be valid now, it simply didn’t hold water back in the Mulroney era when the pork was first put in the barrel. (In fact, even today, there are still numerous rural & remote communities without access to modern high-speed Internet connections).

      Reply
      • Sassy

        October 31st, 2016

        I don’t dispute the decision was a poor one and a corrupt one, but that was almost 25 years ago.

        If 200 of the 280 employees reside in Vegreville (population 5,800), that works out to one in 29 of Vegreville citizens working for the federal government at this one centre. If one in 29 Edmonton (population 900,000) citizens lost their jobs, that would be equivalent to 31,000 jobs. Now do you understand why the mayor and town are in shock? This move will definitely harm the community. Maybe the federal government has a good case but I’m not convinced at this point.

        Reply
  8. David

    October 29th, 2016

    It does seem strange to handle immigration processing in a small town with not a lot of immigrants. It might make sense if something agriculture related was in Vegreville.

    Part of being “efficient”, which the Conservatives like to talk about all the time, is putting things where they make more sense, not where pork barrel politics dictate. I remember it was not that long ago Harper was closing Veterans Affairs offices in smaller communities across Canada, so he wasn’t always the friend to smaller communities that he liked to give the impression he was. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was an initiative of his government. Of course in the Veterans Affairs offices case a number of the people they served lived in those smaller communities, so it made less sense to close them than this office.

    Reply
  9. ema

    October 30th, 2016

    It shouldn’t be overlooked that the spouse of Shannon Stubbs is the former one term provincial Wildroser, Shayne Saskiw. He was one of the “loyal” Rosies who refused to cross the floor when Danielle Smith and her nine member entourage bolted to the PCs. Saskiw did not run again, citing disillusionment with politics. Perhaps one member in the family at a time in politics was the plan!

    Reply
  10. gayla

    October 31st, 2016

    In my research, contrary to the authors opinion, there was no planning on moving the vegreville immigration center under Harper. There were no problems with the operations at all. Shame on the author for refering to vegreville as the scrubby boondocks! Really, I guess as an urban dwelling person living in Victoria, your reporting skills have always been urban viewed. Too bad, rural reporting would bring a lot of insight to your career.

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      October 31st, 2016

      Victoria? If only. The author lives in the Edmonton area. He has been to Vegreville.

      Reply
      • gayla

        October 31st, 2016

        My apologies, but that being said, I take insult on your description of Vegreville. I totally do not get why you think a federal office cannot operate in a rural area efficiently. Vegreville has strong French heritage also. Justin said, build the economy from the heart, the heart being middle class. This is not supporting rural middle class. If there was operational problems, I could understand the move. But this immigration centre had little turnover and had no problem staffing bilingual employees. I donot understand why you think it was wrong to employ rural albertans.

        Reply
      • Athabascan

        October 31st, 2016

        I think “Gayla” is suggesting only residents of Vergreville are entitled to weigh in on the move issue, and all others are somehow resorting to urban bias when commenting.

        Of course that’s everyone except “Gayla” who does live in Victoria.

        Reply
        • Gayla

          October 31st, 2016

          Sorry, I do not usually weigh in on political issues, excuse my etiquette! Everyone certainly has the right, and yes, I am a Vegreville resident who understands the history and impact. Thanks for your comments on rural Alberta! I will agree that we disagree.

          Reply
  11. Sassy

    October 31st, 2016

    I’m still curious about the building in Vegreville leased to the federal government all these years. Was/is the landlord a relative of a Conservative politician or a connected member of the constituency? In the Trinity Christian School Association scandal, auditors found a trailer parked on a farm outside the hamlet of Derwent (one hour east of Vegreville) was identified as the school board’s office. They were claiming 10 times the going rate for rent.

    Reply
    • Gayla

      October 31st, 2016

      No connection. I lived here all my life. I believe been sold at least once. I can check that out further for you tommorrow. Present Landlord not from our province, I believe someone in BC. Will confim this info though. In a small community, there was never talk of political connections with the landlord.

      Reply
  12. frank

    November 5th, 2016

    Just going back to saving taxpayers money, how the hell are they saving our tax dollars by moving and leasing in Edmonton. They will be paying 10 times the lease that they would in Veg. When the employees move they will be covered by a moving allowance paid for by our taxes. Employees that chose to stay will be given a package and all this is going to most certainly cost us, the taxpayers, money. The real reason for Mr. MacCallum’s decision to move is simple, It is a great opportunity to downsize knowing that they’ll easily lose 20% of their staff. The Immigration department’s efficiency and the slowdown in immigration over the next few years, according to demographic studies, makes for a need to cut back with the opportunity to hire as needed down the road. There is no good reason for this move.
    Frank

    Reply

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