Train cars in Terrace, B.C.
Northwest BC

Making sense of the economy in Northwest B.C.

In the vastness of Northwest B.C. defining the shifting economy isn't easy.
Daniel Mesec May 1, 2018

As the sun begins to fade on a chilly afternoon in Terrace, B.C., the regular crowd shuffles into Sherwood Mountain Brewhouse for a post-work pint. The brewery has become the proverbial spot for drink and dialogue about all things. But today the topic of discussion hovers around jobs and the economy, which after years of booms and busts, seems to be back on the upswing.

I take up a spot at the end of a long cedar table on the patio next to three young men and ask them how they’re feeling about the current state of the local economy. At first things seem pretty positive, everyone is working, an epic ski season has just come to an end and people can hardly wait for spring weather to arrive. But there is clearly tension when the conversation shifts to the possibility of another major industrial boom.  

Historically, the massive expanse of Northwest B.C. has been a hub for resource extraction projects, mainly forestry and mining. But more recently, the northwest coast has been eyed by Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) producers who want to pipe fracked gas from wells in Northeast B.C. to export terminals in Kitimat and Prince Rupert. It’s a contentious issue for many, and it doesn’t take long for the topic to come up.

“The natural gas industry up here is pretty crazy about all the projects they’re trying to pass through,” says Andy Leighton, a second year nursing student at the University of Northern British Columbia’s (UNBC) Terrace campus.

“I think it’s important to protect industry to a certain extent, but we also need to transition towards more renewable resources, especially when markets aren’t necessarily going to stay,” he adds.

My discussion with Leighton and others on the brewery patio is part of a listening tour I’ve been doing over the past couple of months in collaboration with The Discourse, a journalism company based in Vancouver. I’m trying to get a sense of what concerns people who live in the area have about the Northwest economy and what opportunities are emerging.

Reporter Daniel Mesec met Robin Cecioni (left), Andy Leighton (centre) and Tristan Tafel (right) at listening event at the Sherwood Mountain Brewery in Terrace B.C. They discussed the joys and challenges of living in the north.

As the conversation deepens, a heated debate between two patrons breaks out, it’s clear the issue of LNG is a polarizing one. Leighton and his friends don’t see exporting gas as a viable option for the Northwest — too environmentally risky. But others at the table don’t agree and argue if LNG projects do move ahead, the region would benefit with direct and indirect job prospects as well as revenue to be invested back into the regional economy.

Despite their opposing views, everyone remains friendly and all seem to agree on one thing — they don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a job.

“I don’t know anyone that is looking for a job and can’t find one,” Leighton says. “All my friends that are looking for jobs find one pretty quickly. They just have to work outside of their regular work environment.”  

This notion seems to be coming up again and again, that the best way to build a diverse local economy is to diversify your personal skills so you can adapt to a fluctuating labour market.

“I would still define the Northwest as a resource-heavy and [resource]-rich economy,” says Liliana Dragowska, a community planning consultant based in Smithers. “But there’s this other element of a creative economy that’s not so focused on big dollars, but it drives so many individuals to keep the lifestyle they want and keep living in these communities.”

When Dragowska was planning a move to B.C., it was a toss-up between Victoria and Smithers. Although the opportunities for higher wages were more plentiful in Victoria, the draw to the northern lifestyle was more appealing and pushed her to find creative ways to make a living.

“Our resource economy is still strong and there’s opportunity for sustainable and reasonable growth, so that’s good as a stability marker, but what gives me hope is there are still so many ideas that haven’t come to fruition.”

Smithers seems to be a special case in the Northwest. Although the town of about 5,000 hasn’t seen much growth in almost 50 years, it has done a reasonable job at diversifying its economy. Main Street is full of boutiques and coffee houses, West Fraser operates a sawmill that employs about 200 people, it’s a hub for government and health services, there’s a regional airport and the community is smack dab in the heart of steelhead paradise.

This all contributes to a diversified economy. According to the 2016 Census, employment in Smithers is spread over multiple industries, giving the town a better chance at weathering the storm in an economic downturn. But not all communities are in the same situation.

So, how do we ensure that economic strength and diversity throughout all northern communities, across all economic sectors? What kind of economic development do you want to see in your community?

During the coming weeks and months, I’ll be visiting several other communities in the Northwest from Hazelton to Kitimat in the hopes of speaking to as many people as possible about what they think of the economy and what stories are missing from the coverage. My reporting aims to fill in those gaps.  

In the Bulkley Valley the current economic outlook seems to be positive with several industrial and infrastructure projects on the go. But the strength of the local economy continues to be rooted in innovation and entrepreneurship. For Allan Stroet, the former Bulkley Valley economic development officer, it means supporting each other in all our economic endeavours.  

The economy in Northwest B.C. can’t be defined by one thing, but it’s also defined by everything. It’s cultures and subcultures,” Stroet says. “But it always boils down to the people, and being the most remote place in the province, we’re forced to stick together.”


Daniel Mesec is one of Discourse’s local news fellows. This article was co-published in Northword Magazine. If you have any questions or ideas to help Dan with his reporting, connect with him on Facebook or email him at [email protected].

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