Author brings personality into Port Alberni book

Port Alberni: More than Just a Mill Town

By Jan Peterson

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Heritage House, 264 pages, $19.95

Port Alberni’s history is unique on Vancouver Island, thanks to its remarkable geography: a deep-sea port at the end of a long inlet, a gateway to resources, history and recreation, a community just over the hump from the beaten path.

Oh, and it had a Woodward’s, too.

It was a mill town, to be sure, but it has always been more than that, as Jan Peterson tells us.

For too many years, of course, Port Alberni depended on a single industry, an industry that gave it the title of forestry capital of Canada. That meant that Port Alberni’s booms and busts were tied to markets around the world.

The city boomed in the 1970s, but when forestry ran into trouble in the 1980s, economic diversification was needed. Later, environmental protests in nearby Clayoquot Sound polarized the community.

This book is a recent history of Port Alberni, told by a writer who worked as a journalist for the Alberni Valley Times for a couple of pivotal decades.

In some ways, it is a personal look back at her time there, since she relies extensively on her first-hand knowledge of events and people.

She covered many of these stories first for the daily newspaper, and a couple of basic truths shine through.

First, a newspaper is history written on the fly. Second, anybody who works as a reporter at a small daily for a couple of decades will know everybody in town and what they’ve done, good or bad.

In this, her 10th book, Peterson describes how the people in the community have worked together through good times and bad to shape a city that is, in some ways, a hidden gem despite being a century old.

She writes about industry, for sure, and the commercial areas of town. But her scope is vast; she touches on unions, First Nations, the arts community, the sports scene and politics.

One of her best anecdotes deals with her successful efforts to bring Pierre Trudeau, the prime minister at the time, to Port Alberni to attend a youth arts concert. She arranged the visit on her own, and then found herself serving as master of ceremonies for him.

She gained valuable experience as a public speaker, she earned a kiss on the cheek from Trudeau, and best of all, she ended up with a great story — one that she is sharing in this book.

It’s just one of many stories. Together, they help prove that Port Alberni is indeed, as the title says, more than a mill town.

The reviewer is editor-in-chief of the Times Colonist.

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