A resident of Whitecourt for just over 27 years, Ray Hilts has spent the last four years working for the community as a member of Whitecourt Town Council. His interest in joining the political realm grew over the years as he watched policies come into play, such as caribou range planning. "I recognized that political avenue was the best course of action in terms of influencing people and making sure outcomes were good for Whitecourt. I want people in Whitecourt to enjoy the lifestyle and the way of life we have here. We aren't like other communities. We are unique," he explained.
Growing as a person and a politician, Hilts said that his mind has changed on things he once wasn't supportive of. "When transit came in years ago, it was a plebiscite question during the election, and I voted against it. I thought it was just too big for a community our size, and I've come to learn that I was completely wrong." He said that continuing to learn about the needs of community members and evolving from that is essential for any politician. "I wasn't plugged in politically at the time and didn't have a sense for what the community needed. I just saw that we would spend a bunch of money. Honestly, my information was pretty limited, and I decided on limited information. When you get more engaged with those types of services or decisions, you think, wow, it was an important decision that was unpopular, and still is for sure, but I support it."
As a fiscal conservative, Hilts said he is happy to see the town's position financially. "Your finances have to be healthy so you can be responsible in the future as a community. For me, that was important because if you are in a healthy place, you have flexibility, and you have more assurance around decisions you make in the future because you are not so tight with money."
When Hilts first moved to Whitecourt in 1994, he was a city boy moving to a small town. "Whitecourt is known, certainly in the forestry industry, as a great place to work. I ended up quitting a permanent job with the Alberta government to take on a contract position with Millar Western in hopes that it would work out, and it did. Whitecourt is a great place to raise a family." With his wife Tracy, Hilts has two sons, 12, 17.
An avid cyclist, Hilts has a history of competitive racing under his belt. "You're racing in the 30 to 40 kilometre an hour range. When you race, you don't get the luxury of doing it at your pace," laughed Hilts. "Crashes are not uncommon, and they are super dangerous." In 2013, a crash unfolded in front of him. "The rider in front of me crashed, and I tried to leapfrog him but ended up going over and smacking my head on the pavement. That's a note to kids to wear their helmets because had I not had mine on, I probably would have been a vegetable!"
Work ethic and perseverance will be essential attributes for whoever wins the mayor's chair, and Hilts feels that he has proven his worth. "I believe I have the skillset and passion for the community and the challenges we face, whether COVID, financial issues, and larger policy issues in terms of the economy. I want to be part of that."
Through his work within industry and over the last four years on council, Hilts said that he built relationships regionally, provincially and federally. "That's the major responsibility of the job is to be active and present with all levels of government to get Whitecourt's needs addressed. I've done much of that already through different avenues of my career."
As one of seven people working to support a vision for Whitecourt, Hilts has ideas in mind, four pillars, that he will be bringing forward to the new council should he be successful in the election. The first is Building Up Partnerships and Relationships. "The relationship with Woodlands County now is certainly not what he has been in previous years. I have heard loud and clear from the business community and people that we need some harmony there and rational, stable governance so that businesses can flourish, and we have a better community to live in."
The second is Economic Development. "We've seen through COVID the harm that it has placed on our businesses and community. I'm proud of the work that our town has done and organizations like Community Futures Yellowhead East and Whitecourt's Chamber of Commerce." As to the proposed Municipal Centre, Hilts said he wants to see it on the ballot as a plebiscite. "I want to make sure our residents have a say. Residents need to know that, though we have spent money on a business plan and designs and location, a decision has not yet been made on proceeding with this facility."
Hilt's third pillar is Seniors Care and Housing. He said that the new Christenson Development will help reduce wait times for seniors wanting into facilities but that there is still a lower income bracket of the population to serve. His final pillar is Community Social Services. He said that continuing to lobby for a new hospital or funding upgrades needs to be a priority, as does addressing and serving Whitecourt's homeless.
When asked what a vote for Ray Hilts would mean in the October election, Hilts said it would mean getting a leader who encourages ideas and encourages collaboration. "You'll get a mayor that wants to see evidence of progress on programs and services. You'll get a mayor who is always interested and willing to talk to residents and genuinely listen to their needs and who always has the time of day for you on any issue."
Serena Lapointe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Whitecourt Press