Northern B.C. communities are enjoying a jobs and business boost to accompany the outdoorsy lifestyle that its residents have long coveted.
By Andrew Findlay
The iconic alpenhorn welcoming visitors to Smithers is a slice of Bavarian kitsch reminding people that this northern B.C. community embraces its mountain setting. However, it’s not as if a reminder is needed, considering the postcard-ready view of Hudson Bay Mountain that frames the quaint downtown.
Smithers, situated in the Bulkley River valley, is blessed with world-class fly fishing, skiing, hiking and river paddling, as well as a thriving arts community. The town also benefits from a relatively stable economy, as a provincial government hub that has attracted a fair share of educated professionals, while still keeping one foot firmly planted in the resource sectors of mining and forestry.
Life in northern B.C. has always ticked in tune with the ebb and flow of raw resource extraction, and Joel McKay, CEO of the Prince George-based Northern Development Initiative Trust (NDIT), says logs, rocks and energy will continue to define the regional economy. “We are still largely dependent on natural resources, but one of the biggest differences in the next 10 years will be a larger role for energy production and exports,” McKay says.
ENERGY AND INDUSTRY
While the interior’s forest sector slumps from soft lumber markets and a diminished fibre supply due to 2017’s and 2018’s devastating forest fire seasons, as well as mountain pine beetle fallout, it’s boom time in the energy and industrial sectors.
The numbers are impressive. The controversial Site C project on the Peace River has injected $130 million into the regional annual GDP and 2,500 construction jobs, though the dam will employ less than 100 when operational.
Liquefied natural gas is no longer just a pipe dream for the province: LNG Canada is set to start shipping from its new $40-billion plant in Kitimat by 2024, assuming the successful completion of TransCanada’s $6-billion, 670-kilometre Coastal GasLink pipeline linking the gas fields of northeastern B.C. to Kitimat. (The project is opposed by the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs, and at time of publication was under active protest.)
In 2016, Rio Tinto completed a massive $6-billion upgrade of its Kitimat aluminum smelter, while further west, the Fairview Terminal at the Prince Rupert shipping port is undergoing the second phase of an expansion to more than double its capacity.
These big-ticket construction projects have rejuvenated the economy of northwestern B.C., fueling strong job growth numbers and an unemployment rate of around four per cent, well below the national average of six per cent.
“The Kitimat, Terrace and Prince Rupert corridor is doing well for job creation. We’ve already seen the impact in higher housing prices,” McKay says, adding that he expects to see positive upstream economic impacts and more exploration in the gas fields of Dawson Creek and Fort St. John.
The northern mining sector also remains relatively vibrant. The Mount Milligan copper-gold mine northwest of Prince George employs 500, while a number of other metal properties, including Kemess, Galore Creek, and Blackwater near Vanderhoof are in various stages of development and permitting.
Like a lot of northern communities, Prince George, found at the confluence of the Fraser and Nechako rivers, is feeling the forest-sector pinch, but economic diversity will help this city of 75,000 cope, says McKay. “Prince George is a public, education and service sector town,” NDIT’s McKay says. “It tends to weather these resource downturns.”
McKay knows that life north of the balmy Lower Mainland isn’t for everybody: long winters can be a tough sell, he admits with a laugh. However, despite the mandatory-puffy-jacket-and-toque winters, and the vicissitudes of the resource ecomony, increasing numbers of real estate refugees and lifestyle pilgrims are looking north for the land of opportunity.
Among them are lawyer Laura Cochrane and her partner Mattias Fredriksson, a Swedish-born freelance photojournalist, who recently moved to northern B.C. “Prior to that, we spent a year living in Squamish and realized how busy the Sea-to-Sky corridor has become,” Cochrane says. “We were seeking a slower pace of life and crowdless mountains.” An associate lawyer position came up at a firm in Terrace, and “after spending a weekend up there I was sold,” says Cochrane. “We are both avid backcountry skiers, mountain bikers and love hiking, and Terrace has incredible opportunities for all of these activities.”
Cochrane doesn’t consider Terrace, with a population of roughly 13,000, “small-town living.” Signs are that the local economy is on the upswing: for instance, the province is investing nearly $450 million to build the new Mills Memorial Hospital, scheduled to open in 2024. “We’ve noticed many professionals moving here for work, lifestyle and affordability. Many have made the some move as we did, from Squamish and around the Lower Mainland,” Cochrane says.
A visit to the hip and bustling Sherwood Mountain Brewery, after a powder day at the cooperatively owned and operated Shames Mountain Ski Area, proves that Terrace is shedding at least part of its gritty resource reputation and prompting more people to heed the call of the north. It’s a call many more people will continue to follow, as opportunities continue to boom in Northern B.C.