Western premiers to meet in Vancouver, Notley absent due to forest fires

VANCOUVER – A disastrous wildfire raging in northern Alberta has forced government leaders in western Canada to tweak their plans to meet in Vancouver later this week and has pushed emergency management towards the front of the meeting’s agenda.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley will no longer attend the 2016 Western Premiers’ Conference, which is scheduled to run Thursday and Friday.

Deputy Premier Sarah Hoffman, who also serves as the province’s health minister, will replace Notley as Alberta’s representative.

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark, who is hosting the annual gathering, said emergency management will be at the forefront of the discussions as the blaze in Fort McMurray, Alta., forces tens of thousands to flee the encroaching flames.

“Alberta’s in the midst of it at the moment, but every other western province experiences forest fires, floods, concerns about earthquakes and other disasters,” Clark said on Wednesday. “So that’s going to be a major focus for us.”

Still, Clark said much of the conference would also centre around the economy, given what she described as Western Canada’s role in a national context.

“We have traditionally been the economic engine of the country for the last decade,” she said.

The meeting will also focus on job creation, immigration and infrastructure investment, and she will push her counterparts to reach consensus on renegotiating a softwood lumber deal with the United States, Clark said.

Two provincial elections have taken place since last year’s conference, and premiers will be making room for a new face at the table.

Brian Pallister was officially sworn into office in Manitoba on Tuesday, two days before the conference was scheduled to begin.

“Premier Pallister is very much looking forward to meeting and improving relations with our Western neighbours,” said Olivia Billson, a spokeswoman for the premier.

The premiers of Canada’s northern territories will also attend the event, which is scheduled to run Thursday and Friday.