‘Am I upset? Damn right I am’

Mayor publicly responds to trade minister’s comments about mining reserve fund

Thompson Mayor Dennis Fenske had some choice words for Growth, Enterprise and Trade Minister Blaine Pedersen, and the provincial government in general, during the June 18 city council meeting.

After several weeks of conflicting reports about the status of the Mining Community Reserve Fund (MCRF), the topic came up once again during the correspondence portion of the agenda, when Fenske read a letter from Dave Dyson, the deputy minister for Growth, Enterprise and Trade.

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According to Dyson, the City of Thompson cannot have access to the MCRF right now, since it can only be used if the balance is at least $10 million and “the fund does not currently meet that threshold.”  

Even though the MCRF currently stands at $11,257,500, a government spokesperson told the Thompson Citizen June 13 that that extra $1.25 million is already being allocated to the province’s Mineral Exploration Assistance Program.

Pedersen said back on June 7 that Thompson city officials have only presented them with a four-year plan on how they are going to spend that money, which the government views as an inadequate given the enormity of the layoffs taking place at Vale Manitoba Operations.

Fenske responded to Pedersen’s comments during Monday’s meeting by saying that they cannot reasonably plan beyond a four-year period for the MCRF.

This is because the city’s grant-in-lieu (GIL) agreement with Vale in 2018 already dropped by 20 per cent from last year’s level and will drop to half of the 2017 level for the next three years before being renegotiated in 2022.

“We asked for $100,000 this year,” said Fenske. “We asked for a million dollars in the next three years to offset the GIL loss. They’re response wasn’t good. They didn’t want to cover operating costs.”

Secondly, Fenske went on to say that this kind of response from the government isn’t an isolated incident and represents a recurring pattern of behaviour that comes up whenever they ask the province for help with long-term projects.

Whether it’s a restorative justice program to help cut down on crime or a housing project that’s meant to shelter the less fortunate, Fenske said the city’s calls for assistance constantly fall on deaf ears.

“Prior to the election, there was a housing project on Cree Road next to the Fas Gas that was slated to tear down that existing building and rebuild it. The current government put that in mothballs.”

However, Fenske said that the city is far from a short-sighted entity that is constantly looking for handouts, since government and businesses will be investing $160 million into the community this year alone.

Combined with the revenue that Northern Manitoba provides through mining, forestry and hydro, Fenske said it isn’t unreasonable for the city to ask for a little bit of assistance from the government when they are undergoing unprecedented economic challenges.

“Am I upset? Damn right I am. Is this council upset? They should be. Is the community upset? We should be, because we’re not a have-not community,” he said. “We provide a lot to the province of Manitoba. A lot. And it’s about time somebody came back to us and said ‘Thanks. You’re in tough times. We’re going to help you out.’”

NDP leader Wab Kinew said that the Progressive Conservative government’s handling of the MCRF stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the Mining Tax Act, which originally established this fund back in 1970.

“There’s no prescription in there that says it can’t be used when the mining reserve fund is less than $10 million,” he said. “The only part where it says that you can’t access the fund for projects if it’s less than $10 million applies to exploration initiatives. But the act itself says very clearly that this fund exists to help mining communities when they’re on tough times and so I don’t buy the minister’s argument. We know the Pallister government is always looking to save a buck but in this case it’s the wrong approach. The approach should be to help the people of Thompson because there’s a pot of money specifically set aside for this purpose.”

Moving forward, Fenske said he hopes that this unproductive back-and-forth over the MCRF can be resolved, and has already scheduled a face-to-face meeting with Pedersen June 26 in Winnipeg. 

As for Thompson city council, they have officially transitioned into their monthly summer schedule, with the next regular meeting set to take place July 16 at City Hall.

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