County of Northern Lights Celebrates 110 Years
County of Northern Lights (CNL) started as Large Local Improvement District 122 in December 1913. It was incorporated in 1995 as the Municipal District of Northern Lights No. 22. Then, in 2010, at the request of our council the Lieutenant Governor changed the name to County of Northern Lights.
With 20,627 km2, the county spans west to both the BC border and the border of Clear Hills County. On its eastern side, it hugs the meandering Peace River. Its boundary extends north up to Paddle Prairie Métis Settlement and south down to the Town of Peace River and the MD of Peace, near Grimshaw.
Terry Ungarian is a councillor and reeve for the County of Northern Lights. Representing Ward 6 (Hotchkiss/Hawk Hills), he has been in office for 13 years. Move Up reached out to Mr. Ungarian for a conversation.
What is your role with the County of Northern Lights?
Ungarian: I’m an elected councillor, and I’ve been appointed by my fellow councillors to serve as reeve.
The reeve’s role is parallel to the role of a mayor in an urban council. Our duties are to lead and facilitate meetings, be a spokesperson for the council, and be a general role leader.
Tell us about CNL.
The County of Northern Lights is a huge municipality. The Town of Manning is pretty much in our geographic centre. A lot of our residents obtain services from Manning, Peace River and Grimshaw, so we have three urban towns that we support.
We have a huge geographic area with a low population—fewer than 3,600 residents—so it’s sparsely populated. It’s nice for people who appreciate a slower pace and extra freedom. I think we have a more peaceful way of life. I know some of the professionals who come, like teachers, doctors and nurses, love it here.
Tell us about the local economy.
We have a long history of communities founded by agriculture. As time passed, the oil and gas industry became a major player in our local economy. Now, we have a very vibrant forestry industry.
We see value in supporting our surrounding communities. That’s where we get our services from. Our healthcare, our education, our protective services, our retail—the list goes on—are all located in these urban areas.
We have very good relationships with other municipalities in the region because we all have common interests. Whether it’s our roads, water, drainage issues, or anything else we share in common, we see the value in working together.
What are some of CNL’s challenges?
I think all rural municipalities face the challenge of getting support from higher levels of government because our voting base is not as powerful as urban areas like Calgary or Edmonton.
Our local MLA advocates for us, and we probably receive a fair share of provincial grant money and support. However, it’s sometimes a challenge because a lot of people have no concept of where we are—and not just on a political level. People in general often don’t understand where we actually live, work and play.
We are equally as important, even though we’re a great distance from the major centres. A lot of people say, “Oh yeah, I’ve been to Northern Alberta. I went to Westlock or Barrhead.” They don’t realize the road extends another 10 hours to the Northwest Territories border, and there’s a lot in between.
Sometimes, I think we kind of get forgotten about. It can seem like they’re thinking, “Well, there are only 3,600 residents up there, so what does it matter if we close down their school, or if we don’t repave something? We’ll build a ring road in the cities instead, or expand the LRTs, and that’ll be a better value for that money.”
That’s why it’s important to keep up our advocacy effort.
Our rural MLAs obviously recognize they’re representing us living in rural areas, so they do their best to advocate for us. I do appreciate their efforts to ensure we are not forgotten about.
What makes CNL an attractive place to live?
Our biggest asset is our people. People here tend to have your back all the time. They’re warm, and they’re willing to help.
We look out for each other, so it’s a very good environment to live, raise a family and retire in.
Then, mix in the fact there are abundant employment opportunities.
We have two large forestry mills. We have all the mill’s support industries whether they’re harvesting the trees, hauling the trees to the mills, the mechanics—all the service industries.
We need teachers, nurses, and clerks at the grocery store. Everyone has a “Help Wanted” sign hung right now. So, there are opportunities for employment here.
We have a huge wilderness. For anybody who is into big game hunting, or just going out for a hike, we have thousands of square kilometers.
How has your role as councillor changed over the years?
Over time, more things have become the municipality’s responsibility.
I always say the provincial government’s goal is to balance their budget. So, if they download certain items in their budget, to us municipalities for example, it’s a lot easier for them to balance everything.
Fortunately, because energy prices had a big rebound, they’ve got some money to work with. However, I think if they’re going to make us responsible for new budget items, they need to listen to what our needs are.
For example, we now contribute to police services, seniors housing and education requisition—plus many more things have been shifted to municipalities now.
So, we’re collecting tax dollars from our residents and submitting them to the government—rather than the provincial government collecting those tax dollars directly from individuals.
It used to be more about roads. You’d go to a council meeting every couple weeks, drink some coffee and talk about the roads. “We should gravel this road, grade this road.” We’ve got a lot more on our plate now.
What do you think is in store for CNL’s future?
My vision for the future is to stay viable—to keep the County of Northern Lights as a place that’s desirable to live, work and play. We want to make our county the place of choice. We do that by keeping the tax base competitive and reasonable.
We can’t have the cheapest tax base in the province, but we want to ensure we’re not the highest. We try to make budgets and policies that are going to benefit us all collectively.
The future is about maintaining our level of service, and not putting it on the backs of the residents because we know they’re having their own challenges with cost-of-living increases and everything that goes along with it.
We also hope to see more economic diversity in the future. The sky’s the limit, but it’s often a gradual process.
In the meantime, we’re looking at our immediate needs in the current local economy. For example, it’s critical to get our products to market.
This year was good for the agriculture industry. They had a decent harvest and got most of their grain to market, but in other years some contracts can’t be filled because there’s no
capacity at the elevators due to limited rail service.
Most of our exports need to get to port, and the only economic way to get them there is by rail. So, transportation is critical. We need to improve our transportation system.
We’ve joined the Community Rail Advocacy Alliance, and I sit on the executive board. We’re advocating to get more predictable, reliable rail service from the North.
Is there anything you would like to add?
I’ve seen many changes. I took over my parents’ farm. I remember what it was like to drive on roads that had no gravel. When it rained, you didn’t go anywhere, and your only source of water was a dugout.
We have a lot now that we didn’t have before. The bar continues to get raised.
We’ve set a fairly high standard, and now we need to ensure it’s maintained.
Interview by Robyn Robertson | Article by Tormaigh and Jenelle Van Slyke Samantha Rose Photography | CNL Council photo submitted | Landscape photo by Jeff Bartlett