by Rebekah Benoit
Every morning just before 4 am, before the sun has even peeked over the horizon in Fort McMurray, Stephen Drover is out of bed and on the campaign trail. He makes a pit stop at Tim Hortons to pick up a steaming ten-pack of coffee, and then heads over the bus stop to meet the first shift of oilsands workers headed out to site. Over coffee, Drover asks questions and listens to the issues and problems facing his fellow oilsands workers as he sips his double-double, and then, as the first rays of the morning sun slant through the trees of the surrounding boreal forest, he climbs aboard a bus himself to begin his own shift on site.
“I have a different perspective, being working class,” Drover says, adding that it’s important to him that his fellow workers understand that someone is looking out for their interests. “I need to tell them that someone is rooting for them. I believe in the working class. For too long, we’ve let this province be run by the elite. It’s time the working class has a voice.”
Drover, who came to Fort McMurray with his schoolteacher wife in 2004, says he was inspired to run as the NDP candidate in Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo by the need for accountability from provincial government. “For us, it’s really about accountability, and I just don’t see any from local government when it comes to the decisions being made here,” Drover says.
Drover wants to see more investment in the Fort McMurray region, considering the wealth the province receives from the oilsands resource. “I’d like to see more of our natural resource refined here in northern Alberta,” he says. “I see a lot of our wealth leaving the province, but not much coming back in.”
He’s concerned about the budget proposed by Jim Prentice’s government, saying that after years of what he calls bare-bones budgets in education and health care, the proposed cuts have the potential to wreak havoc on systems that are already at the breaking point. “What’s going to happen next year if oil doesn’t go back up?” he asks. “[The PC government] is always saying we need to do more with less, but education and health care are already cut to the bone – there’s no more fat to trim. This [budget] is going to hurt people in my community.”
In addition to his roles as union steward and vice-president of Suncor’s CEP Local 707, Drover also serves as a public school board trustee. He says he’s concerned, both as a trustee and as the father of a Grade 1 student, about the future of education in the region. “Canada is one of the richest countries in the world, Alberta is one of the richest provinces and Fort McMurray is one of the richest cities, and yet it’s always a struggle to get basic services,” he says. “Education in this province needs long-term, stable funding for schools to be successful, and not only do we need the right funding, we also need the right structure.”
He points to special-needs students in particular as examples of how funding has left many students in Fort McMurray without the support they need. “We have special needs kids in the classroom, and that’s fine as long as you have the proper supports in that classroom, but we’re continually cutting back on [educational assistants] throughout the entire province,” he says.
Drover says the erosion of funding to education impacts all students, not only those with specific learning needs, as class sizes increase and teachers struggle to be all things to all children. “How does a teacher even get to go to the washroom? They’ve got 20-odd students that they’re responsible for, supervising them over the recess break, putting on their winter clothes,” Drover says. “We’re continually piling responsibilities on people who are already at the breaking point.”
Drover also takes aim at health care in the region, calling into question the government’s plan to cut more than 1600 jobs in health care. “We need to adequately fund the people on the ground, the nurses and the doctors,” he says. “They know how to do their jobs, but we need to give them the right tools to do that. Public sector workers are the backbone of this community – they’re skilled, trained professionals. The government keeps cutting and cutting, and expecting people to put out the same amount of service. You cannot do more with less.”
Drover is facing off against incumbent Mike Allen. The PC MLA has been credited with finally getting action on the twinning of Highway 63, but Drover says Allen should not take credit for a job that isn’t even half finished. “Infrastructure on Highway 63 and 881 needs to be a priority.”
If elected, Drover promises to provide a voice for Fort McMurray’s workers. “I’m a proud oilsands worker. This industry has given me, my wife and my child a great life, and I’m so grateful for the opportunities given to us in Fort McMurray,” Drover says. “The priority for me is the working class, to meet them and get their voices heard.”