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North Island Dreams of Better Days

Its aging, shrinking population earns below the BC average. How to turn things around?

By Crawford Kilian 6 Aug 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee. He blogs about Sointula at Sointula: Place of Harmony.

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Sointula on Malcolm Island.

Drive north from Campbell River up Highway 19, and you see no farms or ranches. It's just one enormous wood lot, rarely interrupted by small towns.

The towns are getting smaller.

A century ago, the North Island and the whole central coast were studded with working settlements -- logging camps, canneries, fishing villages. Steamers linked them to Victoria and Vancouver, but they were sturdy, self-sufficient communities.

In the glory days of the 1950s and '60s, people made a lot of money. On Malcolm Island, Sointula old-timers recall when their fishing village was one of the most prosperous communities, per capita, in the country. Port McNeill went from a logging camp to a thriving small town.

The pub owner in Holberg remembers the 1970s, when Winter Harbour at night glowed with the lights of 200 commercial fishing boats. Now it lives on a few sport-fishing operations, catering to rich Albertans and Americans.

An aging, shrinking population

The demographics of the North Island aren't encouraging. According to B.C. Stats, the population of the region in 2006 was 12,489 -- about the same as one square kilometre of downtown Vancouver. The region's total population has fallen about 2 per cent a year over the last decade.

That population is aging as well as shrinking. In 2006, about a quarter of North Islanders were young people under 18. By 2016, they'll be down to about one in five. Seniors were 7.7 per cent of the population in 2006, and by 2016 they'll be 13.6 per cent.

Economically, North Islanders have been doing poorly. In the 2000 census, average family income was $62,800 -- $2,000 below the provincial average. And that income was unevenly distributed, with the poorer half of the population living on 24 per cent of the total regional income.

Businesses aren't flourishing. According to the North Island Gazette, Western Forest Products operations are closing down for the rest of the summer in Port McNeill, Holberg and Englewood. Across the street from the Port McNeill ferry terminal, a building has been for rent for two years; it used to sell coffee and gifts to travellers. The Sointula Co-op, in business since 1909, lost $50,000 last year. The Wild Island Café, across the street, has reportedly gone into receivership.

Young and restless

Kirié McMurchy, a Sointula teenager, doesn't see much of a future in the North Island for her generation: "There were eight students from Sointula who graduated from high school this year. One is staying here to work for half a year and then go on to post secondary. One is staying for the time being and will most likely make his living doing odd manual labour jobs like his father. One is going to Malaspina [soon to be Vancouver Island University] in Nanaimo to become a ticketed carpenter and may or may not return here to work.

"The other five are going to UVic, SFU, Okanagan College, Mt. Saint Vincent in Halifax, and Queen's in Kingston (that would be me). Of the latter five, although all of us love it here dearly, we don't have plans to return in the foreseeable future."

Hard hit by forestry crisis

Claire Trevena, the North Island NDP MLA, sees the region's chief problem as the B.C. government: "There's little commitment to the North Island in health care, education and jobs."

She says the forest industry is in crisis. "We have a new forests minister, but no sign of leadership. We see untenable cut levels and jobs being shipped out."

Catherine Bell, North Island's federal MP and another New Democrat, agrees: "Most loggers on the North Island will be out of their jobs until possibly next year. Many of them only worked a few weeks this year.

"The softwood lumber agreement... sold out the government's ability to directly help forest-dependent communities, industry and workers. Any such help would be seen as a subsidy by the U.S., and Canada could be sued under NAFTA rules for violating the SLA."

Fishing is another problem area. Bell says, "The fear with a decline in the salmon stocks is that if we lose any more species or if they are declared endangered... it could shut down all fishing for commercial and sport for the entire coast of B.C. Sport fishing accounts for the bulk of revenue generated from all fishing in B.C."

One new industry has started up: a huge quarry north of Port McNeill, producing sand and gravel for U.S. and Vancouver construction companies. Apparently it's cheaper to ship gravel from the North Island to California than to truck it into San Francisco and Los Angeles from nearby quarries. Whether this venture will survive the current collapse of the U.S. housing market remains to be seen.

Tourism helps, a little

Is tourism the answer? "We're working hard to develop tourism," Trevena says, "but tourism alone won't sustain communities. It's an important add-on, but that's all."

Statistics bear her out. In 2000, the Mount Waddington Regional District reported that forestry jobs earned 44 per cent of the North Island's income. Jobs in the public sector generated 21 per cent of the income. Fishing and trapping earned six per cent, agriculture two per cent, mining one per cent, and tourism eight per cent.

"On the bright side," says Catherine Bell, "the opening of the North Coast Trail this year should attract wilderness hikers from around the world (but not likely in enough numbers to offset the other losses)."

Despite the stunning beauty of the region, most travellers see the North Island at a distance, from the decks of cruise ships. The 'Namgis town of Alert Bay on Cormorant Island is home to a brilliant community of Aboriginal artists, but it got attention only when Oprah, a guest on Jimmy Pattison's yacht, dropped in last year.

Fuel costs affect tourists and residents alike. Trevena says the impending rise in ferry fares will be "devastating." One welcome development is a new bus line running from Port Hardy to Port McNeill and then on to Woss. "It's needed for access to health care," Trevena says. "We have lots of poor people who need transportation."

The North Island may soon see more people in need of transportation right out of the region: on Nov. 30, the Elk Falls pulp mill will shut down, costing about 440 workers their jobs.

You can't go home again

This is especially disturbing because the region has always been one of working towns that proudly paid their own way. Now the money is coming from outsiders who buy waterfront houses, sight unseen, for $300,000 -- and then live in them for maybe a month or two every summer.

Becoming a getaway for rich Vancouverites and Americans isn't just a step down for the North Island. It means young people like Kirié McMurchy and her classmates will never be able to afford to come back.

Visitors and residents alike seem to have mixed feelings about the future. They'd like the North Island to stay the way it is, but they realize it can't.

"Why don't we have a Canadian IKEA?" asks Claire Trevena. The raw logs of the region go elsewhere for processing, when local industries could turn them into more than shakes and carvings.

Investing in infrastructure

More public-sector jobs would probably lead to more jobs in the private sector as well. North Island College has closed some of its local campuses. But an expanded college would give young people a reason to stay, while attracting more professionals to the region.

Government agencies could also expand their presence. A railway from Nanaimo to Port Hardy could carry forestry products and tourists as well.

Trevena says the provincial government is ignoring rural communities in general. "We need jobs, education, and health care to attract people. Why should people not have them?"

Early this summer, a grizzly bear was seen in the water off the east end of Malcolm Island. Evidently it had made the long swim from the mainland.

Perhaps it then walked across the 18-km island and swam west from the Pulteney Point lighthouse, because on July 11 a grizzly was seen near Cluxewe Resort on Vancouver Island, north of Port McNeill. Somewhere on northern Vancouver Island, that grizzly is exploring its opportunities. It may have better prospects than the people already living there.

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