North Island: From forestry strike frying pan into pandemic fire

As the Oct. 24 provincial election approaches, Jack Knox is looking at Vancouver’s 14 ridings and some of the issues affecting them. Today: North Island.

Jack Knox mugshot genericAs the Oct. 24 provincial election approaches, Jack Knox is looking at Vancouver’s 14 ridings and some of the issues affecting them. Today: North Island.

This time last year, if you drove the long, empty expanse of highway that stretches north of Campbell River, you’d round a corner and find a couple of lonely looking guys standing smack dab in the middle of nowhere.

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They’d be at the entrance to some logging road you had never noticed before, huddled around a campfire, probably wondering whether to burn their On Strike signs for warmth.

The pickets looked forlorn and forgotten, appropriate considering many in the rest of B.C. failed to notice as the Western Forest Products strike dragged on for almost eight months, idling more than 3,000 workers on northern Vancouver Island.

Forty years ago, a drawn-out forestry dispute would have topped the news every day, such would the Island-wide impact have been. This time, most of those south of Courtenay treated the strike like a distant conflict, not something that affected their everyday lives — Afghanistan, as opposed to the Second World War. If not off the map, then on its fringes.

“That’s how we felt,” says Port McNeill Mayor Gaby Wickstrom. “Nobody was saying anything. It was like we didn’t exist.”

It’s a different world at the top of the Island, one where resource industries still drive the economy.

There’s even a difference between the little fishing and forestry towns in the far end of the North Island riding and Campbell River in the south. The strike was devastating in the rural reaches. They had already suffered blows such as the closure of Port Alice’s cellulose mill, at a cost of 400 jobs in 2015, and the loss of Woss’s logging railway, decommissioned after a crash killed three in 2017.

The Campbell River region also suffered, though it has managed to roll with the punches over the years. A decade or so ago, after the area lost 3,000 mill and mine jobs in quick succession, skilled workers became long-distance commuters, shuttling between the Alberta oil patch and their families on the Island. Then the oil industry slumped but there was work to be found back home, thanks to some big capital projects, including the $1-billion reconstruction of B.C. Hydro’s John Hart generating station. Next up, beginning in 2023, Hydro hopes to do seismic upgrades on the Campbell River’s three dams, spending hundreds of millions on each one.

In Campbell River itself, the city lured developers with property tax breaks and high-speed internet service, triggering a downtown construction boom that included a big hotel, the Berwick by the Sea retirement complex and an eight-storey office building housing 200 new jobs.

There’s also a continuing residential construction boom. The benchmark price for a single-family home in Campbell River was $454,200 in September, up just a bit from $451,400 in the same month last year, but a big jump from the median of $305,000 five years ago. People are cashing out in Alberta, the Lower Mainland and even ­Victoria and relocating; some are retirees, others telecommuters.

“One thing the pandemic has identified is you can work from anywhere,” says Mayor Andy Adams.

Right, the pandemic. Its ­timing was particularly rotten up-Island, coming just a month after the forestry strike ended in mid-­February. At least there is federal government help for small businesses during COVID, unlike during the labour dispute, Wickstrom says. Still, she worries that the one-two whammy of the strike and the pandemic has left many of those businesses ­scrambling to survive.

While forestry has been going flat-out since the strike ended, other sectors are struggling. Poor salmon runs made it a tough year for commercial fishing, hitting First Nations communities hard.

Tourism took a big hit this summer. Campgrounds were packed, but often with people who kept their wallets in their pockets and brought their supplies from home. Canada’s ban on international travellers meant big-spending Americans and Germans couldn’t cram into Alert Bay’s U’mista Cultural Centre or go on bear- or whale-watching expeditions. In mid-July, the normally bustling Telegraph Cove boardwalk was empty.

Pandemic protocols left people in remote communities feeling even more isolated, Wickstrom says. “When we were on strike, we could at least hug each other. We could lift each other up.” It’s against this background that the Oct. 24 election is being held.

The North Island riding has long been a New Democrat stronghold. They have won it nine out of the past 10 elections.

But if they retain it this time, it will be with a new MLA. Claire Trevena, B.C.’s transportation minister, is stepping down after holding the seat for 15 years. Running for the NDP this time will be Michele Babchuk, a city councillor from Campbell River, the riding’s largest community.

She’ll be up against Liberal candidate Norm Facey, who spent a career in the forest industry, including time as an executive with Western Forest Products and Campbell River’s now-defunct Elk Falls paper mill.

Running for the Greens is biologist Alexandra Morton, known for her long campaign against open-pen fish farms. She can be a polarizing figure up-Island, an icon to those who oppose the farms, a source of frustration to those who don’t. There’s the usual debate about whether a high-profile Green will siphon away enough NDP votes to get a Liberal elected.

Also on the ballot is Conservative John Twigg, a 1970s press secretary to NDP premier Dave Barrett. He earned 543 votes for the B.C. First party in 2017.

jknox@timescolonist.com

Candidates

  • NDP — Michele Babchuk
  • Liberals — Norm Facey
  • Green — Alexandra Morton
  • Conservatives — John Twigg

2017 results

  • NDP — Claire Trevena 12,255 (47.72 per cent)
  • Liberal — Dallas Smith 9,148 (35.33 per cent)
  • Green — Sue Moen 3,846 (14.85 per cent)
  • B.C. First — John Twigg 543 (2.10 per cent)
  • Voter turnout: 61 per cent

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