John Les

John Les

Clark’s right hand man speaks in Smithers

John Les, who is also the MLA for Chilliwack, stopped in Smithers on Aug. 31 to talk about the future of the B.C. economy. He travelled from Terrace to Prince George on behalf of Premier Christy Clark, who is expected to unveil a new jobs strategy in late September.

B.C.’s parliamentary secretary is hearing calls to give northwest B.C. towns some of the tax revenue generated by the new resource projects going up outside their municipal borders.

John Les, who is also the MLA for Chilliwack, stopped in Smithers on Aug. 31 to talk about the future of the B.C. economy. He travelled from Terrace to Prince George on behalf of Premier Christy Clark, who is expected to unveil a new jobs strategy in late September.

The idea of new revenue-sharing in the northwest was just one of several topics that came up at the meeting, which was attended by about 20 local business and community leaders.

If such a deal were made, Smithers and other northwest municipalities could use some of the provincial revenues from future mines, pipelines and other resource projects to help pay for a list of local priorities.

“It’s obviously something that has resonance in this area—no question,” said Les. “People have noticed that there’s a Fair Share agreement in the northeast, and they’ve noticed there’s a Columbia Basin Trust.”

Since 1994, the Fair Share program has channeled a total of $185 million in provincial oil and gas revenues to the rural communities in northeast B.C. The Peace River Regional District, for example, currently receives about $20 million a year under Fair Share.

The Columbia Basin Trust is a somewhat similar program in the Kootenays. It started as a way  to compensate towns for the flooding that followed after new hydro dams were built on the Columbia River.

Both of those funding programs arose as a way to compensate municipal and regional governments  for the impact of major resource developments on local infrastructure—an argument that might be made here in the future.

In his opening speech, Les emphasized the economic benefits of the B.C. Liberal’s Pacific gateway strategy.

The province has spent the last decade investing heavily in seaports and other infrastructure that will make it easier for B.C. exports to reach rapidly growing markets in Asia.

Les presented a graph showing that by 2050, China is expected to make up more than half of middle-class consumption in the world.

“For us, this is just one huge opportunity,” he said, adding that the province is already seeing signs of that huge shift.

For the first time, B.C. shipped more lumber to China this year than it did to the U.S. Even with a U.S. recession, Les said, no one would have thought that was possible five years ago.

A lot of the exports B.C. hopes to trade in Asia will also come from the mining industry, which Les noted is expected to receive $12 billion in investment over the next seven years.

Still, Les said the province has to do more to manage such successes.

Beyond resource exports, B.C. needs to develop more value-added products, he said.

On a recent trip to Holland, Les visited plants that strip wood into very thin strands and mix them with cement to produce a top-selling insulation material. He said there is no reason why manufacturers can’t set up similar projects in this region.

And the northwest already faces a shortage of skilled workers who can take on jobs in resource industries, he added, noting that the province is obliged to ensure that local workers can train for those jobs.

The permitting process for mines and other natural resource projects is also too slow, he said.

On that last point, local MLA Doug Donaldson said the B.C. Liberals own cost-cutting is to blame.

“I don’t doubt John’s sincerity in trying to address some of these issues,” said the Stikine MLA, “but that’s one of the topics that flies in the face of what he said.”

Under the B.C. Liberals, he said, the province has made deep cuts to the ministries responsible for getting those environmental permits out the door. The region no longer has its own mine inspector, he said, and the regional geologist and agrologist jobs have remained unfilled for years.

“They’re shooting themselves in the foot,” he said, adding that an NDP government would do more to hire front-line workers who are responsible for assessing environmental impacts.

And on the plans to expand trade to Asia, Donaldson sounded unimpressed with the B.C. Liberal’s record, pointing out that between 2001 and 2009, B.C. was the only western province to have a negative growth in exports.