News

Hard Feelings in the Hurtland

Lillooet went solidly Liberal in 2001. Devastating cuts have residents crying betrayal.

By Chris Tenove 22 Apr 2005 | TheTyee.ca

Chris Tenove is a journalist and broadcaster based in Vancouver. He writes for magazines such as The Walrus, Canadian Geographic, Reader’s Digest, and Maclean’s, and produces radio documentaries for CBC and the Radio Netherlands World Service. He is a contributing editor for The Tyee. For more information, see www.tenove.com.

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[First of a two-part series on the election and rural BC.]

When Gordon Campbell's Liberals swept into office, Dave Chutter rode the wave, winning the MLA seat for Yale-Lillooet.

He's not running this time, a decision he likely contemplated on February 28, 2002, as he sat at the front of the Lillooet Recreation Centre before a seething crowd. Nearly 400 people had come to vent their confusion, frustration and anger. This was just a few weeks after the provincial government had taken the sickle to the town. More than 50 public service jobs would be cut. The local office of the Ministry of Forests was to be closed, along with the courthouse, the Legal Aid office, an elementary school, and the Human Resources office. Rumor had it that the town hospital was about to be downsized.

People in Lillooet felt like their town was being gutted, and Chutter was the local man to blame. Constituents stepped forward and accused the Liberals of betrayal. When Lyle Knight got the chance to speak, the engineering technician asked his colleagues from the town's Ministry of Forests office to stand. "I want you to look at the faces of people whose jobs you just took away," Knight told Chutter.

Another local, Stuart Douglass, threatened Chutter with a recall campaign if the Liberals didn't ease back on the job cuts: "If we go down, you go down," he warned.

Just 10 months before, Chutter had been a cattle rancher in the Nicola Valley near Merritt. Now he sat through a two-hour reprimand in front of an entire town. Throughout the meeting he fought to keep his expression placid and attentive, but everyone could see that below the table his legs were squirming in a continual dance of agitation.

Dashed hopes

It was a remarkable turn of events, given that Lillooet had overwhelmingly voted Liberal in the provincial elections. Bain Gair, vice-president of the Lillooet Chamber of Commerce and publisher of the Bridge River-Lillooet News, says that many people blamed the New Democrats for the sluggish town economy. With the Liberal victory, he says, a glint of optimism returned to Lillooet.

"We all thought the Liberals would put the province's fiscal house in order and build a strong provincial economy, one that would benefit Lillooet as well, " says Gair, a trim man with short hair greying at the temples, dressed in our provincial uniform of jeans and a fleece jacket. "So to have them turn around and kick us in the teeth was difficult."

That sentiment has reverberated throughout the province for much of the last four years. Everyone knew that the Liberals were going to make cuts to the public sector. Gordon Campbell had won a mandate to reduce taxes by trimming waste. But while deeper than expected job and service cuts affected thousands of individuals in the Lower Mainland and Victoria, many small-town British Columbians felt that entire communities were at risk. To fight back, towns launched hunger strikes, recall campaigns, court challenges, angry protests and back-channel pleas, sometimes threatening and sometimes begging the government to relent.

On a Main Street sign you learn that Lillooet - a hamlet of about 3,000 people - is "a forest industry-based community…fortunate to have many other economic resources. BC Rail, BC Hydro, and the Ministries of Forests and Fisheries all have regional offices in town."

Not anymore.

In the last two years, the Ministry of Forests office was cut from 35 people to a skeleton crew of five. Their former office - which the province still rents - sits empty. And BC Rail has been swallowed by CN Rail, headquartered in Montreal. CN reportedly is planning to eliminate most of its Lillooet workforce.

'No real understanding'

These are the kind of economic blows that can cripple a town, says Bain Gair. From the tiny brick office of the Bridge River - Lillooet News, he helped form the town's Community Response Committee. It was the unveiling of their report that brought Dave Chutter to the Lillooet Recreation Centre on February 28.

"There seemed to be no understanding of the real difficulty that these cuts would cause," says Gair. "We were bothered almost as much by the way the cuts were done - without consultation beforehand and without an attempt to help us cope emotionally and economically afterward - as with the cuts themselves."

Ian Routley, chief of staff at the Lillooet Hospital, says that the job cuts meant the loss of a significant part of the town's middle class. They were the type of people who volunteered, who made craft sales and road races happen. "When you lose some of the best jobs in town, it changes the place's whole socioeconomic character," Dr. Routley says. And that, in turn, makes it harder to attract new physicians - a perennial concern in rural B.C. - or the young, energetic, well-educated people needed to vitalize the community.

Cutbacks tended to have multiplier effects. The loss of over $2-million in wages in Lillooet was immediately felt by businesses up and down Main Street. House prices dropped. There were unexpected losses: several mournful pet-owners told me that the cuts led to the departure of the town veterinarian.

Cutbacks in welfare and disability payments sent worried people to Lillooet's government offices. They found that the Legal Aid and Human Resources staff had already been cut, and they were told to get help online or from an automated telephone service. But Dale Calder, a Legal Aid paralegal in Lillooet for 10 years, says that this recommendation was useless for many of her former clients.

"A lot of people I dealt with had a grade four or five education," says Calder, now a district councillor and an angry critic of the Liberal government. "People became absolutely desperate, and they kept coming to me for help. So for the first 13 weeks after my position was cut, I kept working as the Legal Aid help, but it was EI paying me rather than Legal Aid."

Compromises made

To make matters worse, BC Rail's passenger service was cancelled around the same time, ending all public transport in and out of town. If you had to get to court in Kamloops and you didn't have a car, you were forced to hitch hike or - as happened in some cases - wait to be arrested for non-appearance and then make the trip in a police cruiser.

Lillooet's list of woes could go on and on. But in some cases there were compromises made with the government. The town bought the courthouse, and eventually set up a monthly circuit court. A few jobs at the Ministry of Forests were salvaged. The Lillooet Friendship Centre managed to get funding to hire a part-time legal advocate, two years after the Legal Aid office was closed.

What really upsets Bain Gair is that there were ways to lessen the blow of the cuts, if only the government had consulted with the community beforehand. He made that argument to Dave Chutter in front of the Rec Centre crowd. "At the end of the town meeting, what we got from Chutter was, basically, 'I'll take it up with the minister,'" says Gair.

He later had a chance to explain Lillooet's predicament to Gordon Campbell himself. In his brief minutes of face-time with the premier, Gair explained that the sudden loss of 50 jobs in Lillooet was like axing 43,750 of the best-paid and best-educated people the Lower Mainland, or 5,250 in Victoria. "What kind of a reaction do you think that would cause?" he asked the premier.

Campbell, says Gair, scratched down a note and turned to the next speaker.

This winter, Kama Steliga, the executive director of the Lillooet Friendship Centre, saw an increase in use of Lillooet's food bank to 300 people a month, about 10 percent of the town's population. She's seen an elderly couple suddenly lose their benefits and try to survive on a combined income of less than $370 a month. She's been told that because Lillooet has fewer than 5,000 people it cannot have a problem with homelessness, making the town ineligible for related funding. "Tell that to the people living under the bridge outside town," she says.

Steliga points out that there have been some improvements under the Liberals. For instance, she applauds the premier's attention to early childhood education. Lillooet now offers a limited amount of free pre-school to anyone who wants it. "I really believe in the Liberals' motto 'Communities taking care of communities,'" she says. "But the cuts took away our ability to do that."

Booster spirit

The resulting exodus from Lillooet has torn up a small town's social fabric. Gair remembers one night in the men's locker room, when he realized that most of his hockey teammates would soon disappear from town. "It becomes very personal when your colleagues and friends are suddenly gone," he says. "Personally, I never hope to experience it again."

But while hard times are driving some people out of rural communities in British Columbia, residents like Christ'l Roshard refuse to give up.

Roshard and her husband live just outside Lillooet, in a small white house on a bend in the Fraser River. Roshard is the town coroner, a district councillor, and the courthouse clerk when the circuit court is sitting. But I've also seen her buzzing around town in her little red beater as she took a meal to a hospitalized senior, transported an injured loon, or checked on the health of the famed Hangman's Tree that grew in the town cemetery. (The tree is now deceased).

The texture of her life would be impossible to recreate in Vancouver -- whether it is the summer evenings she spends among her grapevines, or the way she knows the family dramas of almost everyone she sees in town. Roshard, like a lot of small town residents, is ready to make tough decisions and sacrifices in order to preserve this kind of lifestyle.

"We've been through a heartbreaking few years," Roshard tells me over breakfast at the Reynold's Hotel. (An incorrigible town booster, she has taken me here to show off the hotel's renovations -- all done with local pine!) "The Liberals were calling us the 'heartland' while ripping the heart right out of us. It's like they had something rotten and wanted to try to make it pretty."

Roshard thinks Lillooet might have turned the corner. She lists off plans for a new aboriginal cultural centre, new local tourism operators, possible tie-ins to the 2010 Olympics, and a town beautification project by a local rock garden artist. By dint of hard work and gorgeous scenery, she believes, Lillooet will fight its way back to vitality.

Bain Gair, the town publisher, is slightly more pessimistic. "The most important thing you need to make a thriving community, a place that people want to stay and help build, is for people to believe in themselves and their future," he says. "These cuts took that away from us, and we're still trying to get it back."

Eyeing the future

Both Roshard and Gair have soured on the provincial Liberal government, and they doubt the Liberals will sweep the Yale-Lilloet riding the way they did in 2001. They both hope that the coming elections will give the province a chance to discuss the future of rural B.C.

As Christ'l Roshard told me, "Out here in the 'heartland,' we're tired of being made to feel like the poor cousin, being ignored and cut without consideration. When it comes right down to it, Vancouver and Victoria need us more than we need them."

This is the first of a two part series. On Monday: The Politics of Rural BC's Future

This article is adapted from Chris Tenove's chapter in Liberalized: The Tyee Report on British Columbia under Gordon Campbell's Liberals. Tenove is a contributing editor to The Tyee who has reported for The Globe and Mail, the CBC and many others.  [Tyee]

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