Thursday, March 15, 2007

Heartlands hurting, but government can't even see it

That was a lame performance by the Liberals this week on the tough future facing most of B.C.'s Interior and Northern communities.
Even for people paying attention, the 2006 census numbers came a shock. The province's population grew by 5.3 per cent between 2001 and 2006, just behind the national average. (The first time in Canada's history that B.C. has lagged the rest of Canada.)
But the growth came in the Lower Mainland, the Okanagan and southern Vancouver Island.
Across the rest of the province, from small villages to major centres, populations were shrinking.
That's not surprising. Around the world, people are moving to the big cities, where the jobs and opportunities are. That's as true in B.C. as it is in Nigeria or China.
But the Liberals have made a big deal about sharing the benefits of growth across the province.
Remember the Heartlands strategy in 2003? The promise was a renewed future for all those communities coping with courthouse and government office closures, or cutting their schools back to four days a week because that's all they could afford.
There was no strategy behind the slogans. Within a year, it all pretty much collapsed like a pyramid scheme.
That was too bad. Based on the census results, those communities could have used real help.
Consider Prince Rupert, which lost 13 per cent of its population between 2001 and 2006. Trail, down 4.5 per cent. Terrace, 6.5 per cent. Prince George, down two per cent.
From here in Victoria, or Vancouver, those are just numbers.
But if you've got a grocery store or contracting business in Quesnel, and the population declines by seven per cent, that's a problem. There are fewer people to shop, or hire you.
So businesses struggle. School enrolments fall and they close, or go to four-day weeks. It gets harder to attract people. Main Street has as many vacant stores as successful ones.
Government can't actually fix all this. But it can help counter the bad effects and be straight with people about their futures. Then it's up to them to decide what to do.
The NDP leaped on the numbers in the first available question period.
The government put up Economic Development Minister Colin Hansen to handle them, even though the questions were directed to Communities Minister Ida Chong. (The day before, Agriculture Minister Pat Bell had answered for Labour Minister Olga Illich.)
As health minister, Hansen had faced the toughest questions with facts and common sense.
But this time he was terrible, offering irrelevant prepackaged spin. He didn't acknowledge the reality of peoples' lives in these communities, or the facts.
People are moving back to B.C., Hansen said.
But not to most of the Interior or North.
Unemployment is at a record low even in these communities, he said.
True enough and a good thing. People who couldn't find work have moved away, an often painful but practical response.
But the number of people working in Prince George today is lower than in the mid-90s.
For the community, that's a problem, even if its sons and daughters are doing well in the Lower Mainland.
Government can't stop these changes, at least without running big risks.
But it can slow them, perhaps choosing to keep a ministry branch office open to help a community or to make forest companies process trees where they cut them down, buying mills a few more years. It can fund schools to be open five days a week.
Stop-gaps, for sure. Mills that can compete don't have a long-term future. That's simply reality.
Still, stop-gaps aren't so bad sometimes.
What was most alarming was the government's apparent unwillingness to even acknowledge that so many communities are facing difficult times, as the census results show. That suggest their problems aren't even being considered.
People in Interior and Northern communities living through these changes have to be wondering how they have become invisible to their governments.
Footnote: Forest Minister Rich Coleman also disappointed. Many of these communities face a drastic cut in the available timber for decades as a result of the pine beetle disaster. But Coleman, asked for an indication of the likely impact and timing, refused to answer. Families and businesses in the affected areas deserved a real answer to a serious question.


Anonymous said...

Only the Liberals could stand up in Question period to tell us that the numbers were all wrong and people are flooding into the province even though the outs and ins didn't change that much even when the dreaded NP were government. The Interior towns arfe losing people schools, hospitals and tax base but they simply won't admit it.

They actually laughed at MLA's from the interior who quoted the federal numbers. What a sick minded bunch

Anonymous said...

But surely we're just missing the government's message: can't it be that all these folks had decided to leave because of the NDP's mismanagement, and it just took them five years to save for a bus ticket? Now that the Liberals are in, they can afford to leave immediately!

Anonymous said...

Snce they were first elected with this Government it has been Lower mainland and Victoria first. The rest of the province except Peace River is of no consequence. Look at the shape of the hospitals , education and highways the farther you get from the Liberal stronghold. The highway between Naniamo and Victoria is a lake when it rains, a rollercoater at intersections and riddled with speed holes.Some of those holes have been there since October.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately in Northwest BC the timber resource sector is now suffering because it is much cheaper to process wood products offshore (and elsewhere) than in Terrace and Prince Rupert. Can low cost labour in Asia be matched - even with BC's competitive industrial electricity rates?

Still, Northwest BC is on the cusp of a renewal that portends a bright future for the North. This fall when Prince Rupert comes on line with its new port facility, things will kick up a notch from the status quo.

That combined with renewable wind energy projects such as Banks Island and Prince Rupert coming online and the promise of small scale hydro, tidal and wave energy emerging the North will soon surface from its moribund economic state.

Prince Rupert Mayor Pond is correct that the turnabout has started. Will there continue to be problems? Of course, but the economic turnaround has begun.

Heretofore unmentioned (in this post) upcoming projects for Northwest BC include, bcMetals Red Chris Mine, Novagold's Galore Creek mine, and Highway 37 electrification; which will bring economic commercial power to a region long held back by the high cost of power.

If properly included in planning and demanded now it can also bring important high speed Internet access to First Nations and other settlements along the route by bundling fibre optics in that same power line.

Yes, the economic turnaround been a long time coming and it won't arrive soon enough. But it is happening irrespective of anything else.

kootcoot said...

To Everyone who knows me

I have decided to come out, after many years of wrestling with it, I have finally decided to live as I want.

Wish me luck!

BCliberals are not 'liberals' said...

I always knew that the best name for the liberals is the "Lower Mainland" party - lets see - a FREE 4 lane highway to Whistler for wealthy liberal contributor's to party coffers to get to their million dollar condos faster, and continued tolls on the Coquahalla 20 years later, well after the highway is paid for ...