Ru­ral ar­eas need at­ten­tion

Times Colonist - - Comment -

In Vic­to­ria, with its low un­em­ploy­ment and buoy­ant econ­omy, it’s easy to for­get that life is not as rosy in ru­ral parts of the prov­ince. It’s a fact our po­lit­i­cal par­ties must not for­get. The party that wins the up­com­ing pro­vin­cial elec­tion must re­mem­ber it gov­erns not only the cap­i­tal re­gion and the Lower Main­land, but the whole prov­ince.

While B.C. has the low­est un­em­ploy­ment rate in the coun­try, the riches are not spread evenly. Even with the B.C. Lib­er­als’ fo­cus on job cre­ation, many parts of the prov­ince are hurt­ing.

“I would chal­lenge this gov­ern­ment to re­ally open its eyes and look at what’s go­ing on in our small com­mu­nity,” Shirley Ack­land, the mayor of Port McNeill, told the Cana­dian Press.

“I don’t think we have the best econ­omy in the coun­try. In the In­te­rior, we’ve got a lot of strug­gles go­ing on,” said Mer­ritt Mayor Neil Me­nard.

In Port McNeill, where 80 per cent of res­i­dents are de­pen­dent on the for­est in­dus­try for work, sawmill clo­sures have left deep wounds. In Mer­ritt, 350 jobs van­ished in the past 18 months when a sawmill closed and an­other lum­ber mill cut work­ers.

The un­em­ploy­ment rate in the Cari­boo is 10 per cent, al­most twice the pro­vin­cial rate of 5.4 per cent.

Big­ger cities can en­dure eco­nomic storms more eas­ily, but small ones have more se­ri­ous prob­lems when the winds come. Re­source-de­pen­dent towns usu­ally have lit­tle in the way of di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion.

When jobs evap­o­rate, fam­i­lies can’t just switch em­ploy­ers. Too of­ten, they have to leave, rip­ping the heart out of the com­mu­nity.

That has hap­pened in Fort Nel­son, where peo­ple have left be­cause of a de­cline in the oil and gas in­dus­try. The North­ern Rockies Re­gional Mu­nic­i­pal­ity had to in­tro­duce aus­ter­ity mea­sures to cut spend­ing, in­clud­ing of­fer­ing its sum­mer-stu­dent jobs to un­em­ployed lo­cal res­i­dents.

Politi­cians haven’t been blind to the chal­lenges in ru­ral B.C. The Lib­er­als fre­quently tout the job-cre­ation prospects of the Site C dam and the po­ten­tial liq­ue­fied nat­u­ral gas projects as signs of their com­mit­ment to sus­tain­ing economies out­side the Lower Main­land.

But the 18 LNG plants imag­ined by Lib­eral Leader Christy Clark dur­ing the last elec­tion have dwin­dled to just one in Squamish that has reached the start-up phase. While Clark says LNG mar­kets will pick up in the years ahead, ru­ral fam­i­lies can’t take that prom­ise to the bank when the mort­gage pay­ments are due.

The gov­ern­ment’s strat­egy to spend $40 mil­lion on ex­panded high-speed In­ter­net ser­vice and in­fra­struc­ture in ru­ral B.C. would help those ar­eas, as fast In­ter­net is as im­por­tant as phone ser­vice th­ese days.

How­ever, the re­lated idea of job cre­ation through a grow­ing tech­nol­ogy sec­tor is likely to be of lit­tle ben­e­fit to ru­ral ar­eas. Ev­ery town wants to be Sil­i­con Val­ley North, but it won’t hap­pen.

One thing that is closer to re­al­ity is a re­newed soft­wood-lum­ber deal with the United States. It’s im­por­tant for for­est-de­pen­dent com­mu­ni­ties, but with U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump thun­der­ing about rewrit­ing trade deals to put Amer­ica first, ne­go­ti­a­tions are likely to be dif­fi­cult.

Bol­ster­ing the economies of ru­ral B.C. com­mu­ni­ties will take more than a few big-ticket projects. The par­ties must pay even more at­ten­tion to those com­mu­ni­ties be­tween elec­tions than they do dur­ing the cam­paign.

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