Premier, Strankman bicker during Redford’s Stettler visit

From inside Stettler’s historic train station at the Stettler Town and County Museum last Friday, Premier Alison Redford announced

Agricultural and Rural Development Minister Verlyn Olson (left) and Premier Alison Redford ham it up with Special Areas board chair Jay Slemp last Friday at the Stettler Town and Country Museum

From inside Stettler’s historic train station at the Stettler Town and County Museum last Friday, Premier Alison Redford announced long-awaited funding for modern rural communications.

Residents in the Special Areas rural municipality south and east of the County of Paintearth will have greater access to high-speed Internet through a $111,975 Final Mile Rural Community Program grant.

“It will allow us to reach that last mile for people waiting for six years,” said Jay Slemp, chair of the Special Areas board.

“This funding will help our farmers and rural residents to be connected to the world.

“Being connected to global market information, real-time weather, research on rapidly evolving technology advances, online banking, online repair manuals, and quality-of-life connections with family and friends, are now possible.”

The Special Areas project includes work on three tower sites and installation of broadband network equipment.

“We had no idea how it would impact rural Alberta,” Slemp said.

He said all communities and regions are equal, with rural and urban working as partners.

The Final Mile Rural Community Program is part the Final Mile Rural Connectivity Initiative, a joint-effort between Service Alberta and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, with the goal to ensure at least 98 per cent of Albertans have access to high-speed Internet, regardless of where they live.

“Whether it’s a student doing homework, an entrepreneur exploring new opportunities or a family staying connected, the Internet has become a part of everyday life,” said Premier Alison Redford, making her first Stettler visit since taking office in April 2012.

“As we continue to build Alberta, it is essential that Albertans in all parts of our province have access to this powerful tool. We want to encourage young people to come back to rural communities.”

The agriculture and rural development minister emphasized the value of the funding and the program.

“This will make a big difference,” Verlyn Olson said.

“It’s a partnership between local communities and the government and it is very much a community-led initiative.”

Although he didn’t address the issue to the audience of more than 50 people, including local government officials and provincial cabinet ministers, the local MLA lauded the government for the support.

“I appreciate the government’s commitment and advocacy and tenacity toward this technology,” said Drumheller-Stettler MLA Rick Strankman of the Opposition Wildrose.

Strankman, however, wasn’t satisfied with the premier’s dismissive response to his question about the urgent need for acute care at the Consort hospital.

“It’s frustrating,” Strankman said. “I appreciate technology, but technology is only part of a community, a society. You can’t get health care from the Internet.”

He said the beds were closed in 2011 and Alberta Health Services promised the acute care beds would re-open when the community found doctors. Instead of continuing to wait for AHS to find doctors, the community found them, but the beds haven’t returned, Strankman said.

“I’ve raised questions in the house to the health minister as to why those beds aren’t being reinstated.”

He said the nearest acute care beds are 50 kilometres away in Coronation, 80 kilometres away in Provost, and 90 kilometres away in Oyen.

Redford said the issue is one for medical experts and that there needs to be discussion to ensure the right health-care decisions are made.

“There is no doubt when we look at what health care will be in Alberta, it’s going to have to be as innovative, as what we’ve been talking about in respect to the SuperNet,” Redford told Strankman.

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