A handful of federal cabinet ministers were in town Wednesday getting a glimpse of the oilsands, some for the first time, to better arm them in defence of this area on a national and international front.
Hosted by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and its members, the ministers, including Fort McMurray MP Brian Jean, met key regional leaders for a roundtable discussion at MacDonald Island Park following tours of Syncrude Canada and Suncor Energy.
Following the roundtable, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney along with Minister of Public Works and Government Services and Minister for Status of Women Rona Ambrose and Minister of State of Foreign Affairs Diane Ablonczy spoke briefly with media while Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Environment Minister Peter Kent slipped out.
Ambrose, minister for Northern Alberta, called it a "great roundtable" because the cabinet ministers heard from a variety of people including environmentalists, industry, and municipal and provincial government.
"We learned a lot about the importance of the oilsands," she added.
Key messages heard were environmental sustainability as well as issues like quality of life, transportation and accommodation, she added.
"All of it is around sustainability. A lot of the conversation was about quality of life and I think responsibility also; responsible stewardship and what we saw was a visible tangible commitment from industry to meet those goals."
Kenney acknowledged a lot of information was heard about the challenges of maintaining services and adequate infrastructure in an area of such explosive population and economic growth.
"We know about that in an abstract sense, but to come here and see the one major through road and to see the one rec centre and that kind of thing, it gives you the concrete sense of the challenges the community leadership are facing."
Reflecting on their tour of the oilsands, Kenney said it's something to walk on what was a tailings pond a few years ago that's now developing into a forest.
"It helps us to go back to parliament and around the world, and defend Canada's oilsands as an environmentally responsible production of energy. That's a really helpful personal experience for us."
CAPP spokesman Travis Davies said the tour was organized because oil and natural gas resources are a vitally important national asset, and it's important federal leaders have a good understanding of the resource and how industry is performing.
"Obviously, the best way to demonstrate performance is to get leaders on the ground at Canadian oil and gas facilities. The opportunity to learn first hand, and subsequent ability to make experienced-based policy decisions and speak with authority on an issue important to all Canadians is valued by our federal leaders," he added.
To criticism the federal government doesn't enforce its own acts in the oilsands, Kenney argued through its actions, the federal government has announced is intention to establish a federal framework for monitoring air and water quality in the region in cooperation with the province.
"We never do anything in a kind of high-handed unilateral fashion. Environment is a shared federal-provincial constitutional responsibility. We take that responsibility very seriously and we think that we can bring the specific scientific expertise of ... Environment Canada to the table here through a significant improvement, co-operating with industry in water and air quality monitoring."
Kenny pointed out that Kent will be announcing details about that plan in the near future.
With more than 20 Alberta MPs in the federal caucus and a prime minister from Alberta, the federal government is well aware of the Alberta perspective.
While the oilsands are often heralded in driving the Alberta economy, Kenney pointed out the oilsands developments constitute the future engine of the Canadian economy.
"We're talking in 25 years about over $2 trillion in economic growth estimated to be some $700 billion in federal and provincial government revenues. We want to pay for our future heath care and pensions, social programs, that revenue's got to come from somewhere; increasingly it will be coming from the Athabasca region from northern Alberta through the oilsands development."
The government, he added, is committed to explaining that to Canadian across country that the benefits aren't just here, they're right across the country.
Those explanations are also aimed at the opposition parties who don't seem to have the same understanding about how this development is so important to the Canada's future.
He noted that in the last election, all three opposition parties were opposed to the future of this industry in a significant way.
There was a lot of "bad mouthing about this industry and our government has consistently stood up in defence of the Alberta oilsands and we will continue to do that. Yes in an environmentally responsible way, but we will stand up for this incredible growth of our prosperity."
With predicted labour shortages, Kenney said Canada has is trying to fine tune its immigration program to ensure the country is attracting people who are capable of filling the jobs of the future including skilled trades such as welders and pipefitters in areas like Fort McMurray.
"Immigration alone is not the solution. That's one of the things that came up in the roundtable that we need to do a better job of getting Canadians from regions of high unemployment here and we need greater labour market mobility across the country. Part of that is the aboriginal population. So it's a multi-faceted solution to the labour market shortages."