Jack Knox: North Island-Powell River, where people learn to live without

Here’s a vignette from late September: Sharon Batch, carefully balancing two food platters — one veggie, the other cheese and sausage — slides through the back door to the Sayward rec centre.

She wants the Tour de Rock riders, tired and chilled to the bone after a 147-kilometre rain-soaked slog from Port McNeill, to have something to eat when they arrive.

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Arrayed around the gym are cots and air mattresses that residents have hauled over from their homes. The cyclists will need somewhere to sleep, too.

But first there’ll be the big potluck dinner at the school next door (that’s why there’s a platter of ham on the passenger seat of Batch’s car) where the community will present a $17,250 cheque, the product of a year of fundraisers.

Tiny Sayward — 900 people live in the valley, including 400 in the village itself — steps up for the childhood cancer charity like this every year, in good times or bad.

Frankly, this has been a rough year at the top end of the Island. Dotting the highway north of Campbell River are the makeshift shelters where Western Forest Products workers huddle around picket-line campfires — 3,000 of them have been on strike since Canada Day.

Forty years ago, a forestry strike would have paralyzed the Island, been front-page news every day. That was the era when a union leader like the thundering Jack Munro was as well known as any premier, and when forestry was so dominant that premiers felt obliged to wade into industry affairs. (“B.C. is not for sale,” declared Bill Bennett in 1979 as the province blocked the “foreign” takeover of forestry giant Macmillan Bloedel by Montreal-based Canadian Pacific Investments.) Forestry is still the big dog in North Island-Powell River, but it has lost much of its bite. MacBlo is long gone now, and so are many of the jobs. The area is dotted with mill towns — from tiny Tahsis to Campbell River, where a third of the riding’s 106,000 people live — that no longer have mills. Even when loggers are working, mechanization means one or two people can do the work once performed by a crew of six.

Even in Sayward, a forestry strike isn’t as crippling as it once would have been. The nature of the place has changed.

“When I was growing up here, people came here to work,” says Mark Johnson, 66, hovering in the office of the village’s K-5 school. Now, the newcomers are just as likely to be retirees or single-parent families drawn by cheap housing, not jobs. In fact, there’s now a rental shortage in a place where an old mobile home goes for maybe $650 a month, a decent house for $1,000.

People do what they can to cobble together a life. Johnson is the school custodian, drives the school bus, is a pastor in his church and raises beef cattle with his brother.

Johnson likes living in Sayward, likes having the kind of neighbours who step up for the Tour de Rock, but it means doing without some of thing city dwellers take for granted. The school, which once had a couple of hundred kids, is down to 43. The shopping centre is vacant, the grocery store, laundromat, bowling alley and hardware store long gone.

It’s a similar scenario elsewhere. Port Alice has been reeling since the Neucel cellulose mill, which employed 400, went dormant in February 2015. Woss was already suffering when its logging railway was decommissioned following a 2017 crash that killed three. All along the coast, the salmon fishery remains critical and fish-farming contentious.

So here’s the concern of many of those living in the outer reaches of North Island-Powell River: They’re being left behind, at least relative to those in the south end of the riding, where Comox, with its air force base and pensioners, is shielded from the vagaries of the economy, and Campbell River is humming along beyond expectation.

Campbell River city seemed doomed after being staggered by a series of economic body blows over the last decade. First, TimberWest closed its Campbell River sawmill. Then the giant Elk Falls pulp mill went under, followed by Quinsam Coal and the Nyrstar mine — a total of 3,000 resource jobs, gone, in quick succession.

As it turned out, many of the people who lost those jobs found work in the far-off oil patch, but instead of moving to northern B.C. or Alberta, they kept their homes and families in Campbell River. They commuted, two weeks on, two weeks off.

Some drifted home as three big capital projects — the just-completed $1-billion reconstruction of B.C. Hydro’s John Hart generating station, an associated $46-million water project and a $350-million hospital — took shape. Seismic work on four hydro dams will mean another $1 billion over the next six to eight years. Meanwhile, aquaculture and tourism have been strong.

Campbell River council brought in a property tax holiday for developers and high-speed internet service, which spurred construction in downtown Campbell River: an eight-storey office building housing 200 new jobs, the Berwick by the Sea retirement complex, a big hotel.

Relatively cheap housing lured young families, who were followed by their parents (“Grandparents go where their grandkids are,” notes Mayor Andy Adams) who cashed out of their big-city homes. The municipality is trying to keep up to the residential construction boom.

This is reflected in house prices: The benchmark for a single-family home in Campbell River was $451,400 in September, a big jump from $270,400 five years ago. For the Comox Valley, the figures went to $523,900 from $316,100.

But north of those communities, the comparable number only rose to $202,000 from $172,800. So much for the dream of retiring from your job in Port McNeill, selling up and moving to Comox.

The northernmost part of the Island is only a few hours from the capital by car, but in some ways seems as far from Victoria as it does from Ottawa. Once past Campbell River you enter the Land Beyond Starbucks, a wilder, more remote, more rugged place than the tamed, uncalloused south.

And no, it’s not as though the political parties, their campaigns geared to the vote-rich cities, are speaking to people up there. When politicians promise tax breaks for transit users, or penalties for absent, foreign property owners in Toronto and Victoria, residents of Port Hardy fail to fall in love. The disconnect might be even more keenly felt among the Indigenous people who comprise 13 per cent of the population in the riding in which Jody Wilson-Raybould, who landed in Ottawa with such hope and promise four years ago, was raised.

Overall, the riding is a massive, hard-to-get-around place, the bulk of it across the strait in an all-but-unpopulated expanse of coast sweeping north of Powell River. In area, is not much smaller than the Republic of Ireland, but its population is less than that of Saanich.

North Island-Powell River was a newly created riding in 2015, though its footprint was close to that of Vancouver Island North, which had been held for 20 of the previous 22 years by John Duncan, representing either the Conservatives or their Reform Party and Canadian Alliance predecessors.

New Democrat Rachel Blaney won the seat handily in 2015, taking 40 per cent of the vote. This time she faces the same Liberal candidate she did then, retired government scientist Peter Schwarzhoff. Port McNeill councillor Shelley Downey is running for the Conservatives, and former educator Mark de Bruijn for the Greens. The People’s Party’s Brian Rundle, Marxist-Leninist Carla Neal and independent Glen Staples are also in the mix.

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