In 2016, the community of Fort McMurray, Alberta, located in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB), was ravaged by a wildfire conjuring up images indelibly etched in the minds of all Canadians. The fire, which began in May of 2016 and raged on throughout much of the summer, burned up to 5,900 square kilometers and wasn’t finally extinguished until the fall.
Insurance Bureau of Canada estimates that almost 1,600 buildings were affected by the fire, including nearly 2,500 living spaces, making this the costliest disaster in Canadian history. This has all had enormous social and economic impact on a community already feeling the effects of the global energy markets.
For public servants involved in emergency response efforts, it was a daunting challenge that required unprecedented, coordinated response efforts from all levels of government and the international community of wildfire professionals.
For public servants working in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, many of whom were personally affected by the disaster, work didn’t stop when the fire subsided. Since then, efforts have shifted to community recovery and incorporating lessons learned into Emergency Response practices.
George Ross, CGE’s Editor in Chief sat down with Annette Antoniak, Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, Alberta, to discuss the recovery efforts in Fort McMurray and more broadly her views on developments in Municipal Government.
George Ross: Let’s begin by giving CGE readers a little bit of background on your public service journey.
Annette Antoniak: It’s been a great journey. I am fortunate to have experienced an unbelievable career and to have been involved in so many different projects that have been life-changing. I began working for the provincial government in British Columbia as part of a team working on Expo 86 for the BC Pavilion Corporation. Once that ended, I was asked to work for a federal crown corporation: Canada Place Corporation in Vancouver, where the Canada Pavilion was housed. We did the retrofit into the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre, which also houses the Pan Pacific Hotel and the cruise ship terminal.
After six years there, I moved to the Pacific National Exhibition as their Chief Executive Officer. I was there for 11 years, at which time I was asked by the then-Premier to consider a position as a Deputy Minister in the provincial government. I became the Deputy Minister of Intergovernmental Relations, and after six months I was fortunate to take over the 2010 Vancouver Olympics file as President and CEO of the BC Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games Secretariat.
Following that, I attempted to retire but wasn’t very successful. The Mayor of Penticton reached out to me through a retired former Cabinet Minister and asked if I would apply for the CAO position at the City of Penticton. During my tenure there, I was approached by a search firm and asked to consider the role of Chief Executive Officer of the Regional Recreation Corporation of Wood Buffalo, which is located in Fort McMurray, Alberta.
I thought that would be a great way to end my career, but at the end of 2016, I was asked to consider joining the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo as the Interim CAO. At the end of 2017, I moved from RMWB Interim CAO to CAO, bringing us to today.
One key leadership value that I’ve learned from the many fantastic mentors that I’ve had throughout my career is that you really can’t do anything without the right team around you. Collaborating with the team, celebrating our achievements, valuing my employees and communicating clearly with them is in my leadership style DNA. It has served me very well.
GR: Annette, it’s been a tough couple of years for the community of Ft. McMurray, both with the implications of the global energy markets, the downturn in the economy and most importantly as a result of the 2016 wildfires that ravaged the community. Tell us, how’s the recovery going?
AA: It’s going really well considering the magnitude of the disaster and the impact it had on the community. It’s been well documented that it’s the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history. To give you some examples regarding progress since the fire: we’ve issued 1,200 building permits, 378 rebuilds have now passed their final inspection and are move-in ready. So we’ve moved mountains to try and expedite people getting back into their homes and helping them in any way we can.
We’ve just learned that we’ve been nominated for a Golden Scissors Award, which is awarded for a reduction of red tape. I’m extremely proud of the team here, as they’ve done an incredible job.
One of the models they used here, which is very different from past disasters, is recognizing the need to have staff that are focused on the rebuild. A recovery task force and a recovery task force committee were created by RMWB Council. The sole purpose of the task force and committee was to identify all the pillars that were necessary to get people back in their homes, and they did a tremendous job doing so.
They did a lot of engagement with the community in respect of the fact that residents were at different stages in their recovery and rebuild. The committee did enormous work regarding moving past what it usually takes for permits because they were dedicated to those areas that were the most impacted and that required the work. We brought in extra staff to be able to accommodate those needs. We had people within the different areas who had been affected, so we had construction management teams who the public could talk to about whatever their particular situation was.
That work continues because recovery is a three to five-year process, and it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. We all work as partners to get there, and different people have different issues, so we try to address them as best we can.
GR: I want to shift focus here a little bit, talk about your organization. This disaster must have taken its toll on public servants in the municipality. We talk a lot these days about organizational resilience, but I’m interested in how your organization, the public servants, have kept a focus while their lives have been impacted by the disaster?
AA: One of the things we’ve done is to put a bunch of resources in place to deal with mental health support. We’ve made sure that has been in place for our staff, both during, after and moving forward. You’re right, the staff kept their heads down, got the job done and at the end of the day, a lot of them were also affected and lost their homes. We continue to put programs in place to make sure that we are constantly communicating with our staff what is available to them and what those resources are.
We also have the Lessons Learned report issued in 2017. From that report came 14 recommendations on which we report to both staff and the public quarterly. We take that very seriously.
In fact, there were two reports done by the province, and then we did our own. Those interested in reading the findings of the Lessons Learned report can find it at rmwb.ca/wildfirereview.
GR: I do recall at the time thinking that it was an important step to take; formally taking stock through an independent lens and using that as a basis for improvement. Maybe for the readers of CGE, you can go over the contents of those reports and how you’ve used them as a framework for action?
AA: We are fortunate to have our Fire Chief Jody Butts leading it. There were certainly some challenges in both the response and the recovery, which the report identified, and as I mentioned, there were 14 recommendations and 57 action items arising from the report.
What it will do is allow us to put together a plan moving forward regarding those Lessons Learned, like how we respond more proactively, how we conduct an evacuation, how we inform our public and how we deal with our staff. Nobody ever, ever expected this magnitude of a disaster and a major crisis. All the traditional responses that you have in place kind of went out the window when you’re dealing with something so vast.
We’re doing a lot of modelling around how we react. We’re making sure that we have the right people at the table. We do a lot of exercises with respect to recognizing the need for a REOC and initiating it. I must say, we did have a bit of a situation that happened last summer, and I was so impressed with how the staff handled it. It was phenomenal. You can see that it’s had an impact on all our staff.
I think we have a responsibility to be proactive and not wait for a disaster to happen but instead make sure that staff are well trained. That can take the form of us saying “let’s run these scenarios,” or, if we know something is scheduled for the area or is in the region, let’s make sure we exercise it, so we’re prepared.
GR: It strikes me that maintaining public confidence and being transparent with the public is critical. How are you using the framework built into the Lessons Learned document to engage the public?
AA: We have a whole engagement policy within our communications branch, so we’re constantly communicating with the public. We do it through various means – social media is incredible now. Everybody pays attention. Pretty much everything is out in the open at council meetings, and very little is in camera or in a workshop, so everything we update is communicated to the public.
We have new framework in place in terms of how we bring forward our budget, for example, which is unprecedented. I think the staff here have done a phenomenal job and we are always looking for ways we can improve our communication.
We think like a taxpayer. That’s a big thing for me. I learned that from one of my mentors. When we put anything out, you’ve got to think like the public would think. Would they understand this? Is this something that they can wrap their minds around and fully understand? And that’s how we communicate now.
GR: I want to ask you about the challenges associated with collaboration amongst different levels of government on a big file like this. Tell me a little bit about your views on the importance of collaboration between the different levels of government and some of the challenges that go along with that?
AA: It’s vitally important and I know that was partly why the City of Penticton hired me. While I didn’t have any municipal experience, I certainly had a lot of experience both provincially and federally. That partnership is key. It’s being able to pick up the phone to a ministry and say, “Hey, I need some help here.” Or you know, “can we collaborate on this”? That’s absolutely essential, and it’s even more essential when you’re in the middle of a disaster.
Both the provincial and the federal government have been strong partners in our recovery, without question. We, of course, are always looking for them to pick up more of the cost, which any municipality or city would do, but they’ve been very engaged. We’ve done a pretty good job at cost recovery so taxpayers should be very happy about that. We continue to look for ways to better communicate and to streamline our processes, particularly considering what happened here.
GR: I’m interested in your views on the future of public service overall. In particular, I’d like to hear where you see municipal government going. There’s been a lot of talk at different levels about moving to digital platforms, different models for engagement with citizens, service transformation, public service renewal and so on. You’ve had a long and distinguished career in public service at the provincial and municipal level and with crown agencies. Where do you see it all going?
AA: Well, you know that interests me because it saddens me to say that I’ve had to go into different situations where either a core service has been implemented, or a review has been done, and I’ve had to do the implementation which is always very difficult.
This has been particularly true here in the Wood Buffalo region and coming in during a very difficult time, as there’s a new piece of legislation that’s been imposed on us which is going to impede our revenues. We’ve had to transform, and it shocks me at times that municipalities and cities are not looking at the fiscal responsibility they have to the taxpayer. To me, it’s common sense.
We’ve implemented zero-based budgeting, and we are constantly challenging the needs of our departments. We work as a team, and everybody sees the budget. Working in isolation doesn’t work anymore; it’s just not fiscally responsible.
I have a lot of views on it, and I think that there has to be a major transformation regarding how municipalities and cities run to be more responsible.
What I have found when I’ve had to go in and do some clean up is that instead of going after the shiny things that people want to be built, make sure you’ve done your business case. Make sure you’ve done your analysis and taken into account the ongoing operating costs. I have found in many cases that this has not been done.
They build new facilities without having taken into account the ongoing operating costs that will have to be assumed by the taxpayer. When an administration brings forward these opportunities for Mayor and Council for consideration, or cabinet or whoever it is, make sure you’ve done the analysis and business case. So often what happens is that if you don’t look at it from an operating lens and if you haven’t had that experience, it doesn’t get put into the business case.
It’s very important to have executives in place that have some operating background. Frequently I see examples of initiatives led by staff who have a policy background and are simply lacking the business and operating experience.
In my view, it is critical for any executive team to have a balance of expertise as when you don’t have that balance you get into trouble. That was a big thing for me when I went into the provincial government because I came from an operating background and most of the rest of the deputies were academics or from policy.
For more information on what’s happening in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, check out the 2018-2021 RMWB Strategic Plan which was approved by Council. This document can be found online at rmwb.ca/strategicplan.