Northern living allowance returning for Fort McMurray college staff

Keyano College lost the northern allowance over the last year.  (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC - image credit)
Keyano College lost the northern allowance over the last year. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC - image credit)

Employees of a college in Fort McMurray will be seeing the return of a cost-of-living subsidy for northern residents that was cut more than a year ago.

Jay Notay, president of Keyano College, announced to staff last month that the northern living allowance would be returning to the school after the province agreed to provide funding.

"There was a standing ovation," Notay said. "There [were] tears."

He said for some employees, the northern allowance represented up to 26 per cent of their salary.

"That's a huge impact, and to get this back is a big deal," Notay said.

Notay was hired by Keyano College about a year ago, after the northern allowance had already been pulled.

He said he discovered there were several unintended consequences from the decision, including staff leaving and program cancellations.

The northern allowance payments stopped in July 2021, Notay said. The school lost about 10 per cent of its staff in the first two months of 2022.

"We lost a number of people that had several years of experience," Notay said.

There are about 300 staff at the college currently and Notay expects to hire more over the next two years as the school introduces 18 new programs.

Sam Blackett, press secretary for Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides, said in an email that the government will provide $3.9 million for Keyano to reinstate the northern allowance.

That will mean $1,040 a month for full-time eligible employees. The money will be retroactive to April 1, 2022, wrote Blackett. Employees must live in or around Fort McMurray to receive the subsidy.

Blackett said the funding was initially pulled because the government was facing a financial crisis in 2019. In recognition of the higher living expenses in Alberta's northern communities, the money was reinstated. Blackett said the Alberta Spatial Price Index indicated the cost of living is 11 per cent higher in Fort McMurray compared to Edmonton.

In the emailed statement, Nicolaides stated he spoke to the president of the college and it was clear the living allowance was needed to "deliver effective programming and compete with other agencies and companies in Fort McMurray."

Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo MLA Tany Yao said he's been lobbying the province to get the northern allowance back for college employees since the funding was cut in 2020.

"It was impacting the college greatly… in their ability to recruit people," Yao said. "They have to be able to compete with local businesses as well as industry."

Yao said when the province decided to pull the funding, Keyano College's spending was higher than others in the province.

"It took a few years for Keyano to kind of get things in order," Yao said.

Lou Arab, communications representative for the Canadian Union of Public Employees, said the northern allowance should have never been taken away in the first place, and it's cruel to be making promises about the return of that money.

"If they have that money to put on the table," Arab said.

Arab said the allowance has not been brought up in bargaining between the union and the college.

Notoay said he has received formal approval for the allowance, but not the details on what that will look like. Because of this, Notay said the issue hadn't been raised with the union during bargaining, because the college doesn't have the full details on the funding.

Notay says he plans on bringing up the northern allowance when the union and college return to the bargaining table.