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Youth in BC’s Northwest Interior Wrestle With Mega-Project Future

Jobs are badly needed, but is industry-as-usual the way? Many aren’t sold. First in a reader-funded series.

By Katie Hyslop 8 Sep 2016 |

Katie Hyslop is The Tyee’s education and youth reporter. Her work is supported by Tyee ‘Builders’ and a matching contribution from The Vancouver Foundation. Supporters neither influence nor endorse the particular content of the reporting. Other publications wishing to publish Katie’s work can contact editor Chris Wood here.

[Editor's note: Tyee education and youth reporter Katie Hyslop recently spent two weeks in British Columbia’s ruggedly beautiful, resource-rich and jobs-poor northwest, exploring both the promise of gas, oil and other mega-developments and their perils with dozens of teenagers and young adults. She’ll be reporting on what she learned over the next week or so.]

As a reporter, I spend most days sitting at a desk, eyes glued to a computer. But on Aug. 9, I was rafting down the Bulkley River in northwest B.C. with about a dozen teenagers.

I was tagging along with the Youth On Water river camp, a week-long day camp where teens learn how to paddle increasingly difficult sections of the Bulkley River, and about its importance to the region’s economic, cultural, and environmental health.

I’m not there to learn how to raft — that’s a bonus. Instead I’ve come to ask those with the biggest stake in the region’s future how they feel about the natural resource megaprojects being promoted as potential employers.

According to the Chartered Professional Accountants of British Columbia, over 80 envisioned projects — including mining and infrastructure development — could bring $234.4 billion to the North Coast and Nechako regions. Projects also include 18 liquefied natural gas (LNG) proposals and the currently on-hold Enbridge Northern Gateway diluted bitumen pipeline, which would cross the region on its way to the Pacific coast.

Proponents say those dollars would create much-needed jobs. Detractors say that if, or when, something goes wrong, the environmental destruction could be monumental and last decades.

As the long-term beneficiaries of the economic bounty — or victims of potential environmental catastrophe — how do young people feel about these projects?

“When it comes to the LNG stuff, a lot of people are all about the money,” said 14-year-old Youth On Water camper Autumn McRae.

“And after, is it really that worth it? It will bring jobs, but after everything’s all over and done with, if something goes wrong, then our fish and everything’s just wiped out because there’ll be oil in the river.”

McRae isn’t the only young person I talked to who conflates LNG and bitumen pipelines — only the second pose a risk of leaking oil. Both are among the megaprojects proposed for the northwest interior.

And around here the economy is hurting and many people, particularly in the 15 to 24 age range, are feeling the effects. In 2012, almost five per cent of those youth were on income assistance and another 7.7 per cent were on employment insurance. By 2015, youth unemployment was below the B.C. average for workers their age, but still high at 8.6 per cent.

But as I’ll discover, people in the Bulkley Valley — running from Hazelton down past Houston — are reluctant to say ‘yes’ to resource megaprojects, particularly pipelines which would deliver most of their long-term jobs to refineries and ports on the coast.

A view of the Bulkley River from Moricetown, BC
A view of the Bulkley River from Moricetown, BC. Photo by Katie Hyslop.

“I don’t support them,” said a 16-year-old rafter who lives in Glen Vowell — aka Sik-e-dakh, one of many Gitxsan villages in the area.

Looking out on the jade-green Bulkley River as we break for lunch, he expands: “This area is one of the last places that are actually pretty pure. I think the pipeline would just ruin everything. With the oil spills and such.”

Scenery, but also struggle

This isn’t my first visit to the Bulkley Valley. Six and a half years ago I was reporting on child poverty in the “Hazeltons,” a series of towns, reserves, and unincorporated communities with majority indigenous populations. As of the 2006 census, it was home to the greatest concentration of poor families with kids in B.C.

As I’m reminded again while I’m here, it was also the suicide-attempt capital of the province.

Thanks to the cancellation of the mandatory long form census in 2010, I can’t say where Hazelton’s poverty rate sits now.

We can say that as of 2012, the northwest region as a whole — roughly 70,000 people scattered across more than 100,000 square kilometres — had an income assistance rate of 4.2 per cent, more than twice the provincial rate. A third of recipients were single parents. About one kid in 10 under age 15 had parents on assistance, almost triple the number province-wide.

The more than 30 young people I spoke to on this trip, in six different communities, ranging in age from 11 to 36, were surely no scientific sample. The kids rafting with Youth On Water may have picked up some views from the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition that runs the program. The environmental organization was born from the fight against Shell Canada’s plan to drill for coalbed methane in the Sacred Headwaters of the Stikine, Nass, and Skeena Rivers.

But you don’t need to tell the young rafters about the need for jobs. Many come from reserve communities like Kispiox, Gitamaax, and Glen Vowell, and have seen mill closures devastate the region.

“There’s not that many jobs around here,” acknowledges 15-year-old camper Kobe Muldoe, a member of the Gitxsan nation. But he doesn’t believe LNG is safe — despite industry’s explanation that liquefied natural gas will evaporate in the event of a leak.

Kobe Muldoe
Kobe Muldoe, 15, noted that jobs in his community are scarce. Photo by Brian Huntington.

Any accident could devastate the rural economy. A 2004 economic assessment of the Skeena watershed, which includes the Bulkley River, found the salmon fishery alone contributed $110 million annually to the local economy. And that was 12 years ago (plans for an updated assessment are under way).

“Fish is like a big thing in our traditions,” Muldoe said. “That’s why a lot of people have smokehouses, people make profit off of it.”

A funky ‘gateway’ town

An hour’s drive southeast on Highway 16, Smithers is a different story altogether.

According to the Bulkley Valley Economic Development Association, the town’s median family income was more than $70,000 last year — above the B.C. and Canadian average. Its population of 5,500 had grown by four per cent since the previous census. On its website, the association boasts that Smithers is the “gateway” to more than $60 billion in resources and development.

Downtown Smithers is funky, dominated by one-and-two storey buildings more like chalets and cabins than stores. Main Street is lined with restaurants, boutiques, and outfitters for every hiker, biker, skier, and boarder on the mountains that surround the town, not to mention those who raft and fish the Skeena.

At the Bugwood Bean, an outdoor café where I’m told young people hang out, I meet The Racket, a funk and blues-rock trio who are a staple of Smithers’ music scene.

Formed five years ago when the trio of friends were just 16, Elijah Larsen, Stephen deWit, and Simon Stockner have two EPs under their belt and will release their first full-length album, ‘The Racket,’ in September.

Elijah Larsen, Stephen deWit, and Simon Stockner
Elijah Larsen, Stephen deWit, and Simon Stockner make up ‘The Racket,’ a staple of Smithers’ music scene. Photo by Hailey Krakana.

Last fall they moved to the Lower Mainland to pursue their music career — only to have their Burnaby rental sold from beneath them. What was meant to be a summer back home in the north might now stretch until next spring. The band doesn’t mind.

“Being home, we just realized how much we missed being in nature and around all of our friends, and just what an amazing place this is,” said drummer Stockner, who along with singer-guitarist Larsen, hails from Hazelton. De Witt is the only member from Smithers.

“We were feeling super drained in the city, there’s just so much,” Larsen said. “So coming up here, it’s like a breath of fresh air, in both a literal sense and an emotional sense.”

You can hear their passion for the land in their music. “Fortune,” the title song second EP, is about Fortune Minerals’ Sacred Headwaters mining proposal: “Walk down the Skeena River/How would you feel if/the water ran black?/Some say we’re coming to disaster/That’s why so many of us are fighting back.”

The band feels the same way about pipelines. The week after we meet, The Racket will embark on a four-show mini-tour with all proceeds going to the Lax Kw’alaams protest camp on Lelu Island.

The coastal island is where Malaysia’s national oil company plans to build the Pacific Northwest LNG terminal. Protestors, along with scores of scientists and The Racket, fear it could destroy vital salmon habitat just off its shore.

“The huge draw that brought us back up here is the nature and the rivers,” Stockner said. “If there’s leakage in the river and the salmon are being destroyed, that’s huge, because salmon are a cornerstone species and so much relies on salmon. I couldn’t stress it more.”

‘Pushed’ into trades

Joining The Racket on their tour was 18-year-old Simbiyez Wilson, a Wet’suwet’en musician who’s been belting out protest songs since she sang at age 12 outside a meeting of the Northern Gateway Joint Review Panel in 2010.

Wilson’s from Smithers, but I first see her as she’s closing out Hazelton’s annual mid-August Pioneer Day with a solo performance of originals like “Christy Clark” — not a fan song — and “Idle No More.”

Simbiyez Wilson
Simbiyez Wilson, 18, feels that students at her high school were pressured to pursue trades that rely on resource industries. Photo by Katie Hyslop.

Not surprisingly, Wilson’s not a fan of resource megaprojects, either. “Definitely not necessary,” she said when we spoke after her show. “There’s so much bad things that can come out of it, more bad things than positive.” Bad things like leaking pipelines and harvesting resources to extinction.

Wilson feels her high school pressures students to pursue trades that rely on resource industries for work after graduation.

“Every other week we had [an assembly] about trades and how [Northwest Community College] is now only offering pretty much trades instead of philosophy, archaeology, and stuff like that,” she said. “I was really irritated. I could tell it had something to do with getting everyone more focused on the megaprojects.”

Yet it’s at the same celebration of the gold prospectors who founded Hazelton — next door to the ancient village of Gitanmaax —that I first find some kids who support megaprojects. With qualifications.

“I’m more inclined to LNG, obviously, than oil or bitumen,” said Tyler Clarke, 26, who believes that with so many proposed projects, one will eventually go through. “Just the risk for disaster with the spills: if there’s an LNG spill, it’s going to be less harmful to the environment than oil.”

Over at the outdoor basketball court Colton Murrell, 19, took a break from playing to give resource projects his reluctant support. “I’d rather not, because of environmental reasons,” he said. “But Hazelton’s dying. There’s not much here, so if it could create jobs then I’m all for it.”

Colton Murrell
Colton Murrell, 19, gives large resource projects his reluctant support: ‘Hazelton’s dying.’ Photo by Katie Hyslop.

Lucas Hnidan, 19, who lives in South Hazelton and is taking trades at Northwest, feels the same way — if. “If they take care of it properly, and no short cuts, then it’s a good idea,” he said, acknowledging that might take more time and money than previous pipelines.

Hnidan’s friend Jasmine Gawa, 16, disagrees. “I think it’s too dangerous for the environment, and after LNG’s done, they’re just going to leave and the jobs are going to end anyways,” she said.

I asked how they felt about adults making the decisions about projects going ahead or not.

“It would be cool if they got the opinion of the youth a lot more,” Hnidan answered. “Because they’re the ones that are going to be dealing with all the effects of everything that’s happening.”

Lucas Hnidan and Jasmine Gawa
Friends Lucas Hnidan, 19 and Jasmine Gawa, 16, gently disagreed on the role of big resource projects in their region. Photo by Katie Hyslop.

Jobs that don’t ‘compromise your values’

As Pioneer Day winds down I run into Denzel Sutherland-Wilson at the volleyball court. Sutherland-Wilson, 19, was a Youth On Water guide, his second summer as a guide after first participating as a camper at 16.

He splits his time between Kispiox, where his father is a hereditary chief, and Montreal, where he moved with his mother eight years ago and now attends McGill University. When he’s back west, though, he takes any chance to get on the water — and get other young people out with him.

He’s not blind to the region’s economic woes, or the value of its resources, but he’s not sold on megaprojects.

“I agree we need jobs in the area, but those aren’t the type of jobs we need,” Sutherland-Wilson said. “Because even though it’s creating jobs, I feel it compromises a lot of values, especially of the Gitxsan people. How can you be happy if you’re working at a job that compromises your values?”

Denzel Sutherland-Wilson
Denzel Sutherland-Wilson, 19, splits his time between Kispiox, where he works as a guide, and Montreal, where he attends McGill University. Photo by Katie Hyslop.

A little prodding reveals he’s not against all natural resource extraction, but he’d like to see a smaller scale, sustainable, Gitxsan-controlled industry. “I’d like more locally owned businesses, and long-term jobs that people will actually feel passionate about.”

A lot of the megaprojects promoted here might never happen. Of the 83 the CPAs identified, almost 90 per cent are — like Enbridge’s Northern Gateway and the Pacific Northwest LNG plant — on hold or pending approval.

If all don’t pan out, it seems the lost job opportunities won’t break every young heart in the Bulkley Valley. But in the next instalment of this series, I’ll meet some other teens and young adults who are depending on those promised projects to keep their communities on the B.C. coast afloat.  [Tyee]

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