Keeping the lights on - The Orca

Keeping the lights on

Dene Moore

100 Mile House is like a lot of BC towns, struggling to cope in BC’s forestry crisis. As Dene Moore reports, her hometown is fighting just to survive.

A year ago, West Fraser Timber Co. began to announce what has turned out to be a long list of production cuts and closures at British Columbia forestry operations.

West Fraser mills in Fraser Lake and Quesnel were the first to see cuts, with the company eliminating its third shift at each. The next month, December, West Fraser announced temporary curtailments at its operations in Chetwynd, Williams Lake, 100 Mile House and Chasm. Merry Christmas.

In June, Norbord Inc. announced the indefinite closure of its oriented strand board plant in 100 Mile. A week later, West Fraser announced the permanent closure of the Chasm mill and further curtailments at its 100 Mile operation.

That’s my town. 100 Mile House. More than a house, less than a city. A small hub carved out of the wilderness, surrounded by trees, thousands of lakes, and the small communities that congregate around them. Most stores close on Sunday but the hockey rink stays open, and that’s what matters.

And many of us are worried about what comes next.

We’re far from alone in this.

Canfor, Tolko, Louisiana-Pacific, Conifex, Western Forest Products, Interfor, Teal Jones, Sinclair Group, Downie Timber, Vavenby, Kelowna, Fort St. John, Mackenzie, Maple Ridge, Smithers, Chetwynd, Chemainus, Armstrong, Isle Pierre, Surrey, Fort St. James, Houston, Prince George, Vanderhoof, Heffley Creek, Revelstoke. The list of closers, closures and cuts is a long one.

It’s about 370 fairly well-paying jobs whose existence supports the existence of thousands more jobs.

Blame timber supply constraints. Wildfires. Price declines in lumber markets. High cost of fibre. That’s the short version. But this is about the long version.

This is about my town, the working-class wonderland where I grew up and where I live once again in a small house nestled amongst towering fir trees a 20-minute drive from the childhood home where my parents live still.

It’s about 370 men and women who lost jobs, some of them jobs they’ve had since high school. It’s about 370 families whose children go to our schools and play on our minor hockey teams in winter and spend months organizing dry grad or the Halloween trunk-or-treat at Lone Butte hall. Men and women who volunteer with Rotary or the hospital auxiliary or the volunteer fire departments we rely on in small towns.

It’s about 370 fairly well-paying jobs whose existence supports the existence of thousands more jobs – for logging operations that supply the mill, for independent contractors who provide support services, for road builders, and mechanics, and truck drivers, and car dealerships, and first aid personnel, and the cash clerks at retail stores where they buy their groceries.

Photo courtesy District of 100 Mile House

Forestry is the engine of our town and many others far beyond where the HOV lane ends, where stores still close on Sunday and your neighbours know more about you than you probably want them to. This is small town B.C., home to the natural resources that pay for our schools and hospitals and highways.

When Greyhound announced last year that it would end bus service in rural Canada, Maclean’s magazine declared small town Canada is dying. And it suggested – so what?

It’s a house of cards…and cards are a paper product.

“We’re leaving these towns for the same reason most of our ancestors left their countries to come here: the hope of a better life,” wrote the author, Scott Gilmore.

“The modern Canadian economy is an urban one, driven by services, manufacturing, construction and finance. Less than 10 per cent of our GDP now comes from traditionally rural-based sectors such as mining and agriculture. We are not hewers of wood and drawers of water. We are baristas and barristers.”

The problem is, those services, construction, finance, real estate, health care and social assistance – those sectors that take up such big slices of the GDP pie on paper – rely on the hewers of wood and the drawers of water. It’s a house of cards…and cards are a paper product.

In British Columbia, forestry products like lumber and plywood and pulp and paper accounted for more than 32 per cent of provincial exports in 2018. Or just shy of $15 billion coming into the province.

Natural resources as a whole were responsible for 6.9 per cent of British Columbia’s gross domestic product in 2017. Oil and gas isn’t extracted in Surrey and timber doesn’t get cut in Kitsilano.

Rural British Columbia is the ATM of the province. Until we’re not.

The northern B.C. town of Cassiar was built on the back of an asbestos mine near the Yukon border in the 1950s. At its peak, Cassiar was home to 1,500 residents. Then the mine shut down, and in 1992 the entire company town was put on the auction block.

Rural British Columbia is the ATM of the province. Until we’re not.

Kitsault, on the north coast, was built in the late 1970s to service workers at a magnesium mine. Within a couple of years, commodity prices dropped and the mine emptied. It was bought by an eccentric millionaire in 2005, theatre, curling rink and all. To date, nothing has materialized at the site.

In the heyday of the Cariboo Gold Rush, towns like Stanley and Richfield were relative metropolises. Barkerville, it is said, was at one time the largest community in western Canada. Today, some of these gold rush ghost towns are open for tourists in the summer. Others have long been reclaimed by the land.

But this is not our first rodeo, as we say in the Cariboo.

There are a lot of For Sale signs up and there are worries. But at the political level and in our living rooms, we’re mobilizing.

Things boom, they bust, but they do not break.

Dene Moore is an award-winning journalist and writer. A news editor and reporter for The Canadian Press news agency for 16 years, Moore is now a freelance journalist living in the South Cariboo. Moore’s two decades in daily journalism took her as far afield as Kandahar as a war correspondent and the Innu communities of Labrador. She has worked in newsrooms in Vancouver, Montreal, Regina, Saskatoon, St. John’s and Edmonton. She has been published in the Globe and Mail, Maclean’s magazine, the New York Times and the Toronto Star, among others. She is a Habs fan and believes this is the year.