Rural areas need attention
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.