It's a balmy February day for northern British Columbia -- a high of zero degrees -- and Felisha Harris and George Reid are sitting in the living room of their apartment with their two young sons. It's sparsely decorated, one couch covered in clothes -- they have no dressers -- another holding the family, and an empty entertainment unit against the wall. The open bedroom doors reveal a mattress on the floor with no bed frames.
The couple's eldest son, David, three, is crawling over the couches and adults, occupying them like a fleshy jungle gym. Justice, one, is wearing only a diaper and a huge smile, smeared with food -- he's just learning to walk and Reid has him propped up between his legs, holding his hands while Justice toddles forward.
Harris and Reid are just 23 years old, but already the young common-law couple have been supporting themselves and their two young sons with social assistance on and off for four years. They know the odds are stacked against them. Neither has a high school education, they're both unemployed and their one household phone is a cell with a text-only plan. Making matters worse, they live in Hazelton: the community with the highest family poverty rate in British Columbia, the province with the highest family poverty rate in the country.
"It’s hard raising two kids on [social assistance]," says Harris, looking on as her children play on the floor before her.
Harris is a petite woman, with a round face and long-brown hair -- she looks younger than her 23 years. She knows first-hand the effect that growing up on social assistance will have on her children: Harris lived on welfare with her alcoholic mother before she was put in a group home and later foster care with an aunt.
"It just deprived us from what we needed," she says. "Sometimes my mom wouldn't have enough groceries. Barely bought any clothes."
How high is the highest?
On Saturday the BC Liberals chose a new leader in Christy Clark, who waged her campaign on the promise of a "Families First Agenda" that would "provide communities and parents the tools they need to grow and succeed." Her platform included a pledge to "renew the northern and rural economy" by "reinvesting" in rural towns and taking steps to "protect and create" jobs there.
The need to extend support to families and offer them financial opportunities could not be greater than in Hazelton.
The latest Child Poverty Report Card, issued every year by the anti-poverty group Campaign 2000, puts British Columbia at the top of the child poverty heap at 14.5 per cent before tax in 2008 -- just above 14.2 per cent nationally. Statistics Canada estimates that in 2006, the town of Hazelton had a family poverty rate of 80 per cent. It's a number Hazelton's Mayor Alice Maitland believes is much bigger.
"I just think that statistics for Hazelton are pretty much BS because it's so coloured by what they want to count around us, even our EI figures," says Maitland, a petite elderly woman with strawberry blond hair and a whispery soft voice.
In Hazelton the mayor is a volunteer position, one Maitland has held since 1976 -- her day job is as principal of the Hazelton campus of North West Community College. Seated behind a long green table in the council's chambers, one of five rooms in the gingerbread house-style town hall, Maitland is not shy about tearing apart Stats Canada's figures.
"Our EI figures are mixed with the Smithers and Houston area. So then it makes us look a lot more employed than we are," she says, adding low pay and underemployment in the area means having a job doesn't mean you're not poor. "Child poverty, if you're looking at the whole area, you would probably have 80 per cent of the children in every village."
Maitland's assertions are backed up by the fact that the data doesn't include measurements from reserves. According to Statistics Canada, consistent survey responses are difficult to access from reserve populations, and without that data it's hard to identify the poorest community in the province. But Hazelton is definitely a top contender.
Shadowed by a mountain
The town of Hazelton is nestled within the Roche de Boule mountain range in the Skeena Valley of northwestern British Columbia. It is the last of a series of towns, reserves and unincorporated communities in the 10 kilometre stretch of road off Highway 16, beginning with the town of New Hazelton if you're coming from the south, or South Hazelton if you drive from the west. Both communities are situated near the base of the imposing Hawgilget Peak.
Standing at just over 2,000 metres, the peak is never hidden. It strikes an imposing figure on clear days, but even when the sky is gray, the summit peers ominously over the clouds. If you stare at it too long while driving through town, you might miss Hagwilget, a Wet'suwet'en reserve just off the main road -- but it's easy to miss. The only way to tell reserves from non-reserves in this area is the lack of paved roads.
After the reserve you have to use the Hagwilget Suspension Bridge, a one-lane metal bridge constructed in 1930 to cross the Bulkley River, which flows a staggering 80 metres below. Crossing the bridge is the only way to reach the communities of Hazelton, Two Mile and Kispiox Valley, and the three Gitsxan First Nations reserves: Gitanyow, Sik-e-dakh, and Gitanmaax. If you don't have a car, like most people living in the area, there is a narrow walkway to cross on foot. Though separate from one another in terms of political geography, locals don't make much distinction between the communities because they're so small and close together -- they refer to the whole area as the Hazeltons.
Unreliable reserve data makes it difficult to determine the area's unemployment rate. But locals estimate it is as high as 85 to 90 per cent, much higher than the provincial level of 7.6 per cent.
Statistics Canada has province-wide unemployment estimates for reserve populations, however, and in 2005, 25 per cent of First Nations people living on reserve in B.C. were unemployed, compared to 11.6 per cent for First Nations living off reserve, and 5.6 for non-First Nations -- numbers that have likely taken a turn for the worse since the recession began.
For a town the size of Hazelton, the Low-Income Cut-Off, a measure of inequality used by Statistics Canada, for a family of four is $23,000, while the Market Basket Measure, a federal government measure of inequality, is $29,219. The median income for the town of Hazelton itself is just under $17,000.
Living hand to mouth
Harris and Reid are members of the Gitxsan nation, who make up roughly 85 per cent of the 6,000 people living in the Hazeltons. Last year the couple received $1,780 per month in social assistance and Canada Child Tax Benefit (CCTB) payments to cover $1,730 in expenses. B.C. has its own BC Family Bonus, but it's clawed back for the first two children in families who also receive the CCTB.
With just $50 for incidentals, Reid has to do small jobs for his mom who lives seven miles away in order to pay for the kids’ snacks, which cost about $80 per month. It takes an hour-and-a-half for him to walk there, so he usually hitchhikes.
"Paying $10 an hour, go down there are do dishes for them, just whatever they need done I’ll go down there and do it for them," he says. "It’s not much, at least it’s $30 every time I go there, it helps out with the kids’ stuff, especially Justice’s milk."
When times get really tough, they use the food bank in downtown Hazelton. Run by the Salvation Army, it’s open every Wednesday for three hours and can get very busy for a small community, sometimes over 30 families visiting during operating hours. Harris walks four kilometres to get there when she visits her family in Two Mile.
It's not as though Reid and Harris haven't been trying. Harris wants to get her diploma and go to college to become either an early childhood educator or a licensed practical nurse. She has already attempted to finish school once, but found it next to impossible to do without a reliable babysitter. David won't start at the Band's pre-school until this fall, and there still isn't anyone to care for Justice.
Reid has training as a roofer, but for flat roofs, which aren't found in the area. He had work in Calgary two years ago, but the couple had to return to Hazelton after he lost his job. He's been to Prince George twice already looking for work but to no avail, and no one is hiring in the Hazeltons.
A pattern grimly reinforced
Family poverty has become a pattern for this couple -- both of their families are currently receiving welfare. There's a good chance it will be passed down to their children as well. David and Justice are nearly twice as likely not to graduate from high school here -- 46 per cent of 18 year olds in the area's Coast Mountain School District didn't graduate in 2006-2007, compared to a provincial average of 26.2 per cent. Across B.C., First Nations people are much less likely to graduate -- 43 per cent of First Nations people between 25 and 64 years have not completed high school.
Many kids drop out because they see no point in education when even that won't get you a job here, while others cannot handle the hour-and-a-half commute by bus each way. But some kids don't live to see graduation. Hazelton, in addition to being one of the poorest communities in the province, had the highest number of suicide attempts in 2007: 111 attempts and eight deaths by mostly young, First Nations women. And the number has not changed much since -- there were at least 115 suicide attempts admitted to the local hospital emergency room in 2009, and that doesn't include those who went to hospitals in Terrace or Smithers, or didn't go at all.
Such bleak odds faced by First Nations people in Hazelton and elsewhere in B.C. have been the focus of criticism for decades by Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs. The former chief of the Penticton Band Council for 14 years, and now grand chief for 12 years, Phillip is one of the most high-profile defenders of First Nations rights in the province.
"The formative years of children are when they're born until about the time they're six," says Phillip. "And if their communities are ravaged by unemployment, domestic abuse, violence, the influx of the drug trade, poor housing and a very discriminatory environment, their chances of breaking through all of that is very, very remote.
"Children don't do well when the communities themselves are suffering. Children become the victims of this systemic economic marginalization."
Minister of Child and Family Development (MCFD) Mary Polak says the child poverty rate is the lowest B.C. has seen in years, having dropped 46 per cent since the 1980s -- although it hasn't been a steady decline, with a major spike in 2003. But she recognizes that doesn't include reserves, where many Aboriginal families live in third-world conditions of substandard and overcrowded housing, and clean water and electricity are seen as a luxury many can't afford.
"We decided (in 2010) we would take $5 million of that from the non-Aboriginal population (MCFD services), and we would specifically enhance programs and services that were directed towards Aboriginal children and families and that we would prioritize those according to need in the different communities," says Polak, adding they will continue to make large allocations to Aboriginal services in the future.
"For the longest time, we've had people thinking about MCFD services in terms of here's the mainstream, and then here in a separate piece is Aboriginal. The reality is, when 54 per cent of your clientele are Aboriginal, guess what, that's the mainstream and your funding ought to reflect that."
Hazelton's richer history
This level of poverty wasn't always the norm for the Hazeltons. The region was never rich, but people used to have jobs. Maitland, who grew up in the region, remembers that time.
"There was just a way to make a living here -- you worked in the bush in the winter, the villages just totally went to the coast for the summer to work with fishing and processing," she says. "We had three grocery stores in this town, and they had everything in them: shoes, fabrics, hardware."
Now there's a sparsely stocked convenience store in Hazelton, one small grocery store in New Hazelton, a couple of restaurants, bars and gas stations, a cafe, a dollar store, one movie screen and a lot of empty buildings. Those who can afford it go to Smithers, a 40-minute drive away, or Terrace, an hour and a half away, to shop at Wal-Mart or Zellers. Because most people don't have cars they must rely on a local bus service that runs three times a day, on Tuesdays and Fridays, between Smithers and Hazelton and costs $4 each way.
In 2001 the Carnaby mill just outside Hazelton shut down, putting hundreds of people out of work after the operating company, Skeena Cellulose, filed for bankruptcy. Until 2003, there were still several smaller mills that employed locals and these mills relied on what is known as a appurtenacy clause: each mill was connected to a tree licence, which was connected to the area, therefore the trees had to be processed by mills in the region.*
But that year the provincial government voted to scrap the appurtenacy clause and raw logs were exported out of the province for processing. The smaller mills just couldn't cope and began shutting down. Now forests full of dying trees surround the Hazeltons, reminders of the lasting damage from the pine beetle and the death of what had once been a thriving industry.*
The oil and gas industry stepped in with economic proposals for the area including the Sacred Headwaters project, drilling for coal bed methane at the mouth of the Skeena, Nass and Stikine rivers; and the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline, twin pipelines running from Bruderheim, AB, to Kitimat, B.C., exporting petroleum and importing condensate through Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en territory south of the Hazeltons. The response from locals was a resounding "no" to both, though the pipeline isn't off the table.
The major employers in the area now are the local hospital, four schools and various social services. But the provincial government has threatened to downsize the hospital. And South Hazelton Elementary closed down after classes ended in June.
Tomorrow: In a region with high suicide rates, and mental health services drastically cut, poverty takes its toll. *Story updated at 4 p.m., Mar. 4.