PRINCE GEORGE — The natural-resource sector will remain the cornerstone of Northern B.C.’s economy, but it is changing in its nature and its weight, the B.C. Natural Resource Forum heard Thursday.
The proportion of B.C.’s population that lives in the north has shrunk to seven per cent as of 2016, compared with nine per cent in 1996, Joel McKay, CEO of the Northern Development Initiative Trust, said in a state-of-the-north address at the forum.
And province-wide, the number of people working directly in forestry, mining and energy fell to 4.4 per cent of the provincial workforce as of 2016, compared with eight per cent in 1997.
“We kind of had an idea that’s the direction things have been going in communities,” McKay said in an interview, but his organization commissioned the study, conducted by accounting firm MNP, to quantify the shifts, driven largely by automation.
“If you’ve spent time in rural communities, you know our industries have been adopting technology, in many cases resources industries can be described as high-technology industries,” McKay said.
What that has meant is a trend toward fewer jobs in traditional industries that involve less manual labour and more automated tools.
“We talk a lot about the fourth industrial revolution that is coming,” McKay said. “The data shows that it’s been here for 20 years.”
That is not even counting the short-term beating that forestry, the region’s core resource industry, has been taking, with collapsing markets and a shrinking timber base that has resulted in closures and curtailments across the north.
The MNP report cited three mills permanently shuttered, one temporary closure, and three more that reduced shifts, which McKay said has cost the north 1,200 jobs.
Because of that, he added, economic growth projections for the north remain flat, despite the region absorbing the ramp up of construction on LNG Canada’s $40-billion development, the biggest private-sector investment in Canadian history, and B.C. Hydro’s Site C Dam project, the biggest public infrastructure project in the country at the moment.
“The short-term outlook is, well, mixed at best,” McKay wrote in his introduction to the report.
That is not to say that mega-projects aren’t generating opportunities or that resources won’t play a major, albeit smaller, role in the northern economy, McKay said, but the long-talked-about goal of diversifying rural economies “remains elusive.”
Nearly 1,200 delegates gathered in Prince George’s Civic Centre, a record for the 17-year-old forum, to take in presentations, network and do business in side meetings to the main event.
Talking about opportunities, Haisla First Nation Chief Councillor Crystal Smith delivered a luncheon keynote address Thursday about how jobs and benefits flowing from the LNG Canada development have empowered her community to seize the future.
“Our Nation’s goal is to build an independent, prosperous, powerful Nation,” Smith said. “And we can’t get there without powerful, independent, prosperous people.”
“I think (having) our sights set on having people in key positions (with LNG Canada) for careers is the route to have that goal accomplished,” Smith said.
Even forestry offers future opportunities out of the sheer weight of demographics, according to Fiona McDonald, a project manager at the B.C. Council of Forest Industries.
“Over the next 10 years, 50 per cent of our workforce will be ready to retire, so it means there are still bountiful opportunities in the forest sector and in the north,” McDonald said.
McDonald spoke on a panel that discussed the challenges of attracting the next generation of young workers.
McKay said part of the strategy will mean focusing on investments in health care, education and amenities that improve the quality of life in rural communities.
“The end deliverable is more livable communities,” McKay said. “Vancouver was once a mill town, but now it’s one of the most livable cities in the world. That’s what we need to talk about from a rural perspective.”