During most elections, the economy is a topic that is of great importance to voters. In the Stikine riding, resource development is a major part of the region’s economic wellbeing. Forestry, fossil fuels and mining all provide jobs and draw investment to the region.
But with the forestry sector far diminished compared to its peak years, a global push to transition away from fossil fuels and the proverbial crapshoot that is mineral exploration, how do the 2020 Stikine candidates view these sectors and propose to move forward?
Forestry has been a pillar of northwest B.C.’s economy for generations. In recent years, the pellet industry has gained prominence as green energy solution. Pellets are billed as an alternative to other forms of fuel such as coal, and can be made from wood waste, known as fibre, from other forestry operations.
The previous NDP government touted the benefits of the pellet industry because fibre can be used to make pellets as opposed to being burned openly in the forest, and pellets can take the place of coal-fired power plants in Asia and Europe. Doug Donaldson, former minister of forests said the pellet industry was “on an incredible upswing” and can reduce worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.
However, there have been complaints about using whole logs, and pellets feeding foreign markets, especially after regional pellet shortages.
Liberal candidate for Stikine Gordon Sebastian thinks the industry should play a large role in the riding into the future, citing a proposed Hazelton pellet plant.
“In the middle of winter last year we ran out of pellets in the Hazelton area so the Gitxsan chiefs had to get some pellets, scramble, and brought it in to the people,” he said.
“We feel that that project in Hazelton will employ about 100 people, it will take the wood [fibre] out of the forest and also it will produce white pellets for local use and black pellets for the global market so its an interesting and viable project, it’s shovel ready right now and we feel that is one project that will get the forest industry going.”
Sebastian also said he would like to see stumpage rates reevaluated after the election. He thinks rates should be lower because of the geographical barriers to accessing forestry in Stikine.
“At this point we are basically coastal. We have mountains and deep valleys and we pay interior stumpage rates and what that means is because we are coastal we should be paying the lesser, closer to zero stumpage rates because the coastal people have to build roads and infrastructure, bridges to access the timber,” he said.
BC NDP candidate Nathan Cullen also talked about pellet shortages and agreed the industry can play a large role in the economy into the longer term.
“We had a pellet shortage last year and it just really frustrates people that we live surrounded by so many trees and all these pellets being made that because of the export contracts we actually ran short, so I think we can build on it and do it better for local communities, not just provide jobs, but fuel as well,” he said.
“I think it is long-term, I mean we try to diversify what happens with our wood, some will remember the days of beehive burners and too much slash burning, and industry would claim we only want to take saw logs out, so having pellet options seems good to me. I think the industry and the policies could perhaps use some refinement in that we want to make sure that it is net positive for the environment.”
On pretty much all files related to resource development, Rural BC Party candidate Darcy Repen is critical of the former NDP government and Liberals before that, for being reactive rather than proactive.
With respect to the pellet industry, he said he sees a role for it in a larger picture approach.
“If the question is do I think the pellet industry is a long-time solution to our forestry industry woes, no I do not,” he said. “I think the pellet industry could be an important part of our forest industry, but again, I’d like to see a far more proactive approach in looking at the very specific resources we have on the ground including non-forestry values and including also non-timber forest products.”
“I think we need to step back and take a 30,000-foot view of what our forestry land-base is looking like right now, particularly with the impact of the forest fires and be realistic about what we can and can’t do over the next 50 years with our forest base.”
Like Repen, Christian Heritage Party of BC candidate for Stikine Rod Taylor thinks the pellet industry should be a minor player in the forestry sector.
“The pellet industry has a limited role, I don’t think it can stand alone or should stand alone,” he said. “We shouldn’t be taking any timber that could be made into lumber and converting it into pellets. That’s contrary to the original plan, the original plan was to use waste fibre and even it that regard, when the pellet plants started going it increased the competition for fibre, for pulp and panel board plants and all those things,” he said.
“It’s certainly a legitimate source of fuel, but I think shouldn’t be considered a standalone industry, it should work hand-in-glove with the existing lumber industry.”
OIL AND GAS
Like the pellet industry, oil and gas was part of the previous government’s economic strategy, if only in the medium term. That plan included the contentious Coastal Gaslink (CGL) natural gas pipeline, which is opposed by the Office of the Wet’suwet’en.
The B.C. Supreme Court issued injunctions and the RCMP cleared blockades and arrested opponents of the pipeline, sparking solidarity protests from coast to coast. Construction on the pipeline has since resumed, while questions surrounding First Nations reconciliation and a transition from an oil-based economy remain.
All of the 2020 Stikine candidates denounced the previous government’s approach to the CGL situation.
“I think the previous [Liberal] government left a mess, where they had pitted elected versus hereditary Indigenous leaders by being exclusive, by leaving out the hereditary, it’s been a difficult road since then obviously,” said Cullen, who was appointed by the NDP government to serve as a liaison between the Province and the Wet’suwet’en in January 2020 and was contracted by the B.C. Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation this summer to help with Wet’sewet’en talks.
“Yet we’ve been able to, through the leadership of the Wet’sewet’en establish a rights and title table which is making steady progress.”
More generally, Cullen said he would like to see more effort put into the previous government’s CleanBC agenda, which calls for a shift away from fossil fuels.
“Personally I think that needs to be ramped up, I know it needs to be ramped up in order to meet our very ambitions climate goals and creating those green jobs that have started, but I think needs more to make sure that people in rural B.C. have work opportunities.”
Sebastian, who is Indigenous, last worked as executive director of the Gitxsan Treaty Society. He panned the NDP’s approach and said a Liberal government would work through Wet’sewet’en concerns “man-to-man.”
“The elephant in the room is the Wet’sewet’en, that gets me emotional because they’re my relatives and I grew up with a lot of them, and when the police go in there aiming their guns at them and then the court ordering an injunction, that causes emotion,” he said.
“We have to sit down and get the solutions, do it properly, get the bureaucrats out of there and have top level government people talking, the proponents talking and work it out rather than just going in there and pretending to talk and patronizing, patting the Indians on the head and saying ‘oh yeah, yeah, we hear you, we hear you.’”
Sebastian said some progress was being made by Doug Donaldson, which was squandered by then-premier John Horgan’s approach.
“The effectiveness of Doug Donaldson was lost and then they decided that CGL was going to push through the lands and nevermind any concerns of the Wet’sewet’en, they hired Nathan Cullen and it’s not clear what his purpose was because the government already decided to push the CGL through, so Nathan was not any more effective than Doug Donaldson, they were basically ineffective because of the approach by Horgan.”
Repen invoked his time as the mayor of Telkwa as a lesson on how government should consult with First Nations.
“When [I was] mayor of Telkwa, I believe we took the appropriate approach and the right approach by consulting first directly with the Office of the Wet’suwet’en. And I believe we might have been the only government that did that before we put a shovel in the ground. I personally sat at the table with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and asked very directly permission to do development on the Cassyex ground in the area of Telkwa for our water tower development,” he said.
He said this is the real problem with the Coastal GasLink pipeline project.
“Rightly, the Wet’suwet’en felt like an accessory to a project and I’m not at all surprised they had the reaction they did in opposition, I think largely because of how they were treated rather than about the project itself. I believe the way they were treated was wrong.”
He noted he is neither an economist or price forecaster for natural resources, but believes natural gas is probably part of B.C.’s economic mix going forward.
“If there is a global market that is making natural gas a profitable export, my personal look into natural gas as a transition fuel over coal in Asia tends to make me believe it’s worth exploring,” he said.
Taylor said Wet’sewet’en assertion of title is legitimate, and that hereditary chiefs have been ignored for decades.
“Well, it’s been bungled from the beginning,” he said. “The failure of both the federal and provincial governments to come to good agreements with First Nations is a sore point and I think there are wounds there that are difficult to heal even if all sides take a positive approach.”
He said that the onus is on First Nations to resolve whether hereditary chiefs or Indian Act-instituted band councils represent them at the negotiating table because, in his view, there cannot be two separate representative bodies.
Taylor wants to see more of the benefits of oil and gas staying in the country and province reiterating a plank of the federal CHP platform that would see raw bitumen mined in Alberta upgraded there before being transported through B.C. to foreign markets.
“The whole oil and gas industry is in a downturn right now, but the demand will come back. British Columbia should participate to the greatest extent possible and get the most benefit possible from allowing clean energy products to pass through pipelines.”
EXPLORATION AND MINING
The mining sector is also a significant driver of B.C.’s economy in general and, in particular in the Northwest. The Stikine riding is home to B.C.’s “Golden Triangle,” an area rich in a variety of mineral deposits.
Repen believes the future is looking fairly bright for mineral exploration and mining in the northwest. He points to a number of projects that are nearing their construction or production phases including Blackwater (160km southwest of Prince George), Kemess underground (430km northwest of Prince George), Seabridge Gold (110km northwest of Stewart) and Telkwa Coal.
“I think that, again, we have a number of ingredients in our region and we need to be proactive in our planning and in our engagement and consultation with Indigenous groups here in their territory to make sure what we are doing is taking a proactive approach and obviously we have a ton of mineral resources, as well as, agricultural, forestry, fishing and, again, an underdeveloped knowledge industry.
“Previous governments and our NDP representation here have been exclusively reactive.”
Taylor said that the sector is an important part of B.C.’s economy, and wants to see more mineral exploration and mining for the Northwest. But he doesn’t like the government directly investing taxpayers’ money in the success of projects.
“Obviously the government should be exercising its jurisdiction in terms of protecting the environment [but], if it comes to building infrastructure then industry should take a major role if it’s infrastructure that’s basically going to benefit industry,” he said.
“If it benefits the residents of the area, then government has a role in sharing in the cost, whether it’s highway corridors or power lines or that sort of thing. But industry should pay it’s own way and, of course, we oppose corporate welfare as such, but we also oppose highly restrictive tax regimes that would cause industry to look elsewhere.”
Taylor also sees good will with Indigenous peoples as being critical for the mineral exploration and mining industries.
“We need to have proper consultation with First Nations,” he said. “We really need to take each other seriously, we do not want to end up with another blockade situation and ill feelings on all sides. We need to have good will and work together to find solutions that are good for all the people of British Columbia.”
Sebastian said investing in infrastructure is critical to drive the economy in the northern reaches of the Stikine riding, and that such investment will help ease geographic barriers and help the mining sector have success.
“The first thing is to build the infrastructure, build roads, build bridges, like Highway 37,” he said.
“Build a road into Telegraph Creek along the canyon there, use tunnels so that the people will be safe traveling and that will do two things: It will attract eco-tourism into the area, people will come in with their RV’s they’ll get to see the country and the second one is that the exploration companies will get in there quicker.”
Sebastian thinks the future is bright if there is significant investment in the area and mining companies are not forced to rely on helicopter transportation.
“There’s a zillion miles of forest service roads out there and they’re not maintained so they fall into disrepair and these exploration companies have a hard time accessing,” he said.
“So I believe at this point that the Liberal Party is going to have to invest in infrastructure, make that Highway 37 into a better road, we have to get the railroad built between Stewart and Kitwanga, a lot of exciting things could happen and just imagine the work that’s going to come from that.”
Cullen said many of the jobs in the mining sector are filled by people who live in the Northwest, and that B.C. is well on its way to being a global leader in the industry.
“Every miner will tell you, I don’t know if the ratio is accurate, but for every thousand exploration projects you get one full-blown mine, and so you need a lot of pokes in the ground to figure out where it’s best to do it and what’s viable, I’ve heard from the mining sector and they’re very supportive of this [former NDP] government,” he said.
“I think a lot of those jobs are jobs done by northwesterners, they have to be done environmentally, of course, and with good standards, but this region is rich, we have leadership being shown by Tahltan and others about how to do it right and I think that’s a global leading standard of what we are seeing happen in some parts of the North.”
With files from Thom Barker