Athabasca’s highway intersection

If Athabasca could have only one “high collision area” sign, it would be placed at the intersection of Highway 55 and Wood Heights Road. The A&W intersection. The intersection has been in and out of the news for repeated traffic accidents, most of them since the opening of the A&W, and the subdivision north of the highway. We’ve all heard about the damage left in the aftermath of an impatient driver, or distracted driver.

Many people have suggested a traffic light at that intersection, and it’s been given consideration by the town. However, the highway is under the jurisdiction of Alberta Transportation. Alberta Transportation did their own study, and concluded that the grade of the hill was to great to have traffic lights stationed at the top. They were concerned it would be difficult for large transport trucks to start moving again once they had come to a full stop on the hill, particularly in the winter. They may be right. It seems unreasonable to expect logging trucks to chain up before climbing out of the Athabasca valley.
The placement of this intersection most likely was not meant to handle the volume of traffic which travels on these roads on a daily basis.

The creation of the Al-Pac mill, the mass amounts of oilfield traffic traveling through Athabasca have all added to the headache. For all that they drive the economy, they also wear down the roadways, and increase traffic. The debacle around the bridge may have been considerably delayed without them. School buses compound the problem, piling into cornwall before and after school, to collect and drop off children. The hill and the intersection combine to create blind spots, and in a 70 zone it doesn’t take much extra speed to make that an issue. The traffic comes with a cost, and there is fairly little the town or county can do about it. Their jurisdiction has limits. In hindsight, they might have anticipated this when zoning the new housing, and businesses, on the north side of that highway. Recognizing that the highway was out of their control, they could have planned for what was: development. They could also manipulate traffic flows in other ways, such as the placement of one way streets in the area, to discourage left hand turns.

Many local drivers claim to avoid left hand turns at the intersection; like the difficulties around approaching the highschool hill during the school rush, this has become common knowledge. Instead, people travel to the Canadian Tire intersection, a largely cleaner corner. Others have suggested turning 34th street into a one-way street, and placing lights at the Canadian Tire access… pushing traffic to that intersection, and regulating it to accomodate the new traffic. That is, with the approval of the provincial departments concerned. That might be a solution. The area north of highway 55 is only expanding… with hundreds of acres for sale for commercial development, unsold lots in the subdivisions, and municipal plans that include expansion around the bridge. As the town grows, the traffic is only going to get worse.

These conversations become As the snow begins to fall, Athabasca roads become even more treacherous with stopping distances get shorter. On a nice summer day accidents are narrowly avoided all over town. With ice forming on the pavement, those accidents are not as easily avoided. Early winter is accident season, and everyone knows it. We’ve got a trouble spot, and the province isn’t likely to notice right away… we hear they have other things on their mind. The town has some jurisdiction, and they should consider using it before lives are lost. One way or another, that intersection has to be fixed.

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The immigrant experience in rural Alberta

Untold horror was visited to Beirut and Paris as ISIS attacks left dozens upon dozens dead. The tragedy affects all of us, and it may be our Muslims neighbours that feel it the most. There are Muslims throughout rural Alberta, and few can be more concerned about last week’s events than they are.

Prairie towns don’t get a lot of credit for diversity, but perhaps they should. Decades of immigration have filled our phone book with surnames from around the world. The stamp of each wave of immigration is significant and distinct. Alberta is young, and it’s easy to fall into a trap of believing that our recent ancestors were the first to settle it. Somehow, every wave of immigration since then is marked as an intruder, and a threat to way of life. Our way of life isn’t static, each generation of immigrants adds their character and distinctiveness to it. We forget the discrimination faced by the Polish, the Ukrainians, the Germans, the Chinese, the Jews, and all of the rest. Those people belong here now, and we hardly remember that they were hated. People come to work on farms and railroads, for mills, and oil, and to flee poverty, war, and religious intolerance… and gradually they all become a part of Alberta. Stephen Harper’s idea of old and new stock Canadians is a fantasy; the dividing line between old and new is meaningless.

New immigrant populations are typically not welcomed. Once Alberta advocated for federal restrictions on black immigration to Canada, the same kind of migrants that established communities like Amber Valley, when they fled even worse racism in America. Ukrainians were interred across the country during the first World War, and Japanese in the second. We hated the Germans, for having the war, and for losing it. We hated the Chinese when they were done building our railroads, and the migrants when they were working our farms. There is a long history of unpleasantness to immigrants here. Nor is our history with refugees as glorious as we’d like to pretend, alternately admitting and denying groups because of their race. We have prevented people from working, and forced them into poverty. Today many refugees and immigrants are detained, delayed, and held, and when they do make it inside Canada, our cities form ghettos for the cultures of poor immigrants.

Many of the migrants in the Athabasca area are from Pakistan, Lebanon, or Somalia, but could come from any of the dozens of predominantly Muslim countries around the world. Muslim populations in northern Alberta have existed for more than seventy years. Lac La Biche is famous for its mosque, and known for its hospitality to the Muslim community. That immigration was founded by government policy, before World War 1, to bring immigrants to work in rural areas to boost the agricultural sector. That mosque is one of the oldest in North America, and their presence in the community has done nothing but strengthen it. The Laurier Wheat Boom was about nation building; Canada needed those immigrants to work in the prairies, just liked they’d needed others before, and just as we bring in foreign workers and immigrants every year still. Immigration has waxed and waned, and continues to influence the culture and populations of rural towns. To this day, immigrant families from Muslim countries arrive to establish their new lives in Athabasca. We do not boast a very large Muslim population, but we still have one, and it is growing. We could look to Lac La Biche as an example of an integrated community.

Much like many immigrant populations of the past, Muslims are the target du jour of the media, of the small-minded, and of the scared. Scared people responded to the recent tragedy predictably, with hateful speech, and a serious of attacks across the western world targeting Muslims. Meanwhile, millions of refugees flee Syria, desperate for safe haven, and look toward our borders. With our recent change in government, Canada is going to welcome those refugees, and we may even see some here, in the Athabasca area.

Fear is not helpful. We need to be rational and understanding. ISIS’ primary targets are not white Christians, they’re after other Muslims. According to their ideology, a Muslim who does not swear fealty to the caliphate is an apostate and must be put to death. The purpose of the terror attack in Paris was to inflame Islamophobia, and to cause pain to those Muslims who have not joined ISIS. The result is a horrible choice – join ISIS, or deal with angry mobs who assume you’ve already joined. The more borders close, and the more bombs fall, the less options civilians in regions controlled by ISIS have; they join or die.

ISIS’ strategy preys on racism, and small towns are fertile ground for this kind of thinking. We need to remember our values, and to respond as an open community. We should welcome new arrivals in town and make them part of our Athabascan identity. To be that open community we have to be vigilant about racism, call out those who perpetuate it, and work hard to ensure that ‘we’ includes all of the people here, not just those who are lucky enough to be of the right religion, or skin colour.

The sense of community in a small town is a wonderful thing, but can be hostile and alienating to those that we don’t include. A new Muslim in town will find no mosque, few halal offerings for food, uncomprehending locals, and cold indifference from strangers. If we are a town who suspects, alienates, and excludes new arrivals on the basis of their skin colour, or perceived religious beliefs, we are a town on the wrong side of history. If we choose fear, we become a shameful footnote in Canadian history. We can be better than that.

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