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Can B.C.'s North Be Saved?

Northern towns grapple with a shifting economy, government cutbacks, and doubts about whether the rural way of life is worth saving.

Heather Ramsay 2 Sep
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Waiting for evacuation notices due to flood or fire has become relatively common in B.C., but in the northern reaches rural dwellers have been wondering whether it will be economic instability that causes the air horns to blow.

The Canadian identity is styled on tales by Farley Mowatt and Robert Service, majestic Group of Seven paintings of northern landscapes and the latest - signature beer commercials featuring the quintessential rural dweller.

Although many would say the rural way of life is essential to the myth of Canada, fewer and fewer people are living it. Those who do are barely hanging on. Which leads to the question of whether there is a rural way of life worth maintaining at all?

A recent study prepared for the Ontario government suggests that some rural communities are surviving solely off subsidies. The committee, struck to investigate the role of government, recommends some hard choices be made, including picking which northern Ontario towns to take off life support.

Life in the hurt land

Back in B.C., the provincial and federal governments are cutting services and shutting offices left and right in the heartland, indicating some rural towns may already have lost their life blood.

What families softwood lumber didn't affect, mad cow disease did. Health authorities have been chopping staff and northerners can't even count on the post office for a well-paid job any more.

Divergent livelihoods may not be interconnected in the south, but the way of life in the north is different.

"How goes the lumber industry is how goes the beef industry as well," says Dr. Don Richardson, the vet on Haida Gwaii, who also runs the ranch his family has held since 1919.

He points out that most families with new agricultural developments along Highway 16 rely on the forest industry as their primary source of income.

"Most are fallers, run a skidder, have a logging truck or whatever, but that is how they finance the development of their farm."

Subsidies hard to get

If not forestry, then farmers rely on the teaching or nursing income of their other half. Richardson, himself, has diversified operations with his veterinary services and a feed store on the property.

As for so-called subsidies propping up the rural economy, he hasn't seen any. Richardson is also the president of the Canadian Hereford Association and says in the thick of the mad cow crisis, his industry was losing $50 million a week across Canada.

Money has since come in to support the industry, but according to him, those dollars usually end up at the feed lots or with the packers in the south, not in the hands of farmers who now only get $200 for an animal that used to bring in $800.

With most ranches in the north raising an average of 35 head of cattle, Richardson quickly crunches the numbers to show that making a living in ranching is next to impossible.

Why does he continue?

"It's a great way to raise kids."

'Where do you go?'

Jim Abbott who owns Abfam Enterprises in Port Clements, one of the only operating sawmills west of Smithers, admits that most people in the forest industry are in it for a job not the way of life.

But he has seen to it that his job has kept him in the home he chose 45 years ago, the town of Tlell.

"Somebody says I'm local, I've worked here for 20 years. And I always say, when your job goes away where do you go? A lot of them say Nanaimo or Chilliwack."

According to Abbott these southern centres also control the resources in the north. He says what gets cut, where and how much are decisions made far from the forests of Haida Gwaii.

"If the economy goes into the toilet in the north it is generally because of decisions made in the south."

Abbott's mill is still around because he's always done things differently.

"We are constantly changing our markets and what we do with the timber. We always go for the highest value, not for the most production."

Struggling to adapt

The ability to adapt to constant change is exactly what Greg Halseth, in Prince George, says is necessary for small towns to survive. The University of Northern BC geography professor also holds the title of Canada research chair in rural and small town studies.

"Rural Canada has to adapt and find new ways to play in the shifting economy."

Since the 1980s, he says, there has been real change in the rural economy. Sawmills across the north employ far fewer people than in the past and governments face competing interests for tax dollars.

To prove his point he mentions the shut down of the coal mine in the town of Tumbler Ridge and how the community galvanized to diversify and keep the community alive.

"People have to do other things, but we need infrastructure, services, skills training and the support of public policy to be able to do this."

Rural economy 'on agenda'

According to Halseth, the rural economy is on the agenda both federally and provincially with a focus on equipping rural Canada to be able to re-energize.

Of course, one department doesn't always know what the other is doing. He mentions the ferry across Ootsa Lake, which the government wanted to cut back in order to save $100,000 a year. Meanwhile the Ministry of Forests said they would lose more than that a month if trucks were unable to get across to the beetle infested timber.

Other communities re-tooling themselves to become tourist destinations instead of one-industry towns found the provincial government planned to shut down their biggest draw - the surrounding provincial parks.

Halseth says those calling for an end to rural subsidies aren't looking at the real relationship between rural and urban areas.

"The Canadian state has been built on reciprocal relationships between different places. One place provides funding for the other. The resource communities drive the export base and the cities drive manufacturing."

The urban / rural relationship

Urban areas provide connections to markets, legal, financial and corporate activities for what happens in rural areas, he says. The rural areas play an important role too.

In Europe, he says, the rural landscape is part of the cultural heritage of the state.

"People have decided this is important. The rural tourist economy is central to the national economy. They would never call it subsidies. They call it investment and development. And they are generating wealth from this investment."

But unlike Europe, the identity in many Canadian rural communities is fragile and if people just see dollar signs at the end of the day, communities may not survive.

Art Lew, manager of the Community Futures in Masset, says that communities committed to understanding how best they learn and setting up networks to help citizens do so will be better equipped for changes in the economy.

After all, as Amanda Reid-Stevens, a Haida from Skidegate, asks, if you take everyone out of the rural areas and start flying people in to work on resource extraction, who is going to put the brakes on?

She says it is important that people stay in rural areas because they understand the rhythms of nature.

"Not just First Nations, but any rural people who are connected to the land."

Rays of hope

Reid-Stevens is optimistic about the way native and non-native people are coming together on certain issues. She points to Port Clements and Masset's support for the Haida on the case against Weyerhauser now in front of the Supreme Court of.

For all the disasters in the rural economy, there are rays of hope as well, such as the cruise ships and potential port container in Prince Rupert, the rail transportation corridor and, of course, tourism.

Northern small towns are also attracting a different type of migrant - those with capital who are seeking the mythologized Canadian way of life.

Halseth says things are changing, but they've always been changing.

"There are lots of innovative ways to address that."

He doesn't believe that globalization is all bad and, with some planning, communities can be heralding newcomers searching for a better quality of life to the North, instead of fearing the siren-call of the city.

Heather Ramsay lives in Queen Charlotte City. This article first appeared Northword magazine, distributed from Prince George to Haida Gwaii.  [Tyee]

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