Top 10 news stories of 2021

As is tradition at the end of one year and the beginning of the next, we present our top stories of the year past.

In 2021, as it was it 2020, the top story of the year was the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the story was so dominant, we treated it separately in the Dec. 23 edition. (See: “Year in review: COVID-19 dominates 2021,” The Interior News, Dec. 23, 2021).

Here we present the last five of the other Top 10 news stories of the year in no particular order.

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Perhaps one of the most overlooked stories of the year, according to Stikine MLA Nathan Cullen, Rogers Communications started construction on new cellular towers intended to fill the gaps in service between Prince George and Prince Rupert.

Rogers began constructing the first of a 12 new towers in Seaton, near Witset (Moricetown), in early December.

The project is a joint venture with the province and federal government announced in April to improve connectivity and close cell gaps along Highway 16.

As part of the project, Rogers will set up 12 new cellular towers by fall 2022 along the stretch of Hwy 16 from Prince George to Prince Rupert.

The project will provide 252 kilometres of new highway cellular coverage, closing several gaps along the 720-kilometre corridor. Rogers will also provide coverage to three provincial highway rest stops at Boulder Creek, Basalt Creek and Sanderson Point.

The $11.6 million project which is a collaboration between Rogers, federal government and Province of B.C., was welcomed by most owing to the route’s infamous reputation of being the Highway of Tears.

Bridging the gaps of cellular connectivity was one of the 33 recommendations in the 2006 Highway of Tears Symposium report due to the high number of women that have gone missing or have been murdered along this northwestern route.

“It means the world to me and our women to connect with others and keep in touch, especially on this highway – anything can happen at any given time,” said Gladys Radek, Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) activist.

“This tower and project will bring a lifeline to all of us who travel along Highway 16 regularly and will bring a sense of safety and security that will help us prevent future tragedies.”

As part of this project, Rogers also commissioned two totem poles carved by Mike Dangeli to be placed at each end of Hwy 16, in Prince Rupert and Prince George.

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An untenable situation at the Smithers wastewater plant, became even worse over the course of 2021.

In June, it came to light the Town is in violation of the Fisheries Act for exceeding the authorized concentration of suspended solids in effluent for which it received a written warning in April 2020.

In order to fix the problem, council ordered staff to commence with an upgrade of the plant by applying to the Rural and Northern Infrastructure Program under the federal Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program.

But in October, the Town found out its application had been denied for the second time.

Now, council is scrambling to figure out how Smithers is going to fund the necessary upgrades before fines kick in.

If convicted the Town could face fines of not less than $500,000, but not more than $6 million.

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In the spring, controversy broke out in Telkwa over the location at Flagpole Park of a popular food truck.

Lonny Carroll owner of the Telkwa Pub originally raised the issue with village council concerned over the potential impact of the proximity of the Quick Eats truck to her business.

Councillors were sympathetic to Carroll’s cause and directed staff to prepare a report including current regulations and an analysis of what other communities do to regulate food trucks with respect to fees, licences, approved locations etc.

But the owners of Quick Eats fought back with a lot of support from the public.

Al and Evelyn Zittlau took umbrage with the fact they were not informed about Carroll’s delegation to the previous council meeting and disputed they negatively impact the pub.

Staff’s report came back with a recommendation of leaving Quick Eats at Flagpole Park, but raising fees for mobile vendors, which council accepted.

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Coastal GasLink (CGL) made huge construction progress of its natural gas pipeline across Northwest B.C., but little progress was made in resolving the conflict between the company and opponents at the worksite near Houston.

In October, the company announced it had surpassed 50 per cent of its construction goal meaning 100 per cent of the 670-kilometre route had been cleared, 60 per cent of grading was done and more than 200 kilometres of pipe had been laid.

Opposition to the project, however, once again ramped up in late September with the establishment of what the Gidimt’en Checkpoint group dubbed Coyote Camp, which blocked a key point on the Wedzin Kwa (Morice River) where the company intends to drill under the river.

Two people were arrested at the time.

In late October, Gidimt’en Checkpoint released a video of Chief Dsta’hyl (Adam Gagnon), identified in the video as the Likhts’amisyu enforcement officer, “decommissioning” a CGL excavator by removing the battery.

He then places “Likhts’amisyu Clan Govt.” stickers on the equipment explaining he is seizing it under Wet’suwet’en law.

Two more people, including Gagnon, were arrested in association with that incident.

Things really started heating up, though, in November when project opponents shut down the road to CGL’s work camp issuing an eviction notice to the company.

Police responded en force, clearing the main blockade and also raiding the Coyote Camp.

A total of 29 people were arrested, including two journalists, Amber Bracken and Michael Toledano, who were held over the weekend. CGL later decided not to pursue civil charges against the two.

There were also arrests in New Hazelton associated with a solidarity demonstration near the CN rail tracks, which prompted Gitxsan hereditary chiefs to “evict” Nathan Cullen from his constituency office in Hazelton.

All the arrestees were ultimately released on conditions, including not being within 75 metres of any Coastal GasLink worksite.

Nevertheless, just before Christmas, Gidimt’en Checkpoint announced the reoccupation of Coyote Camp, although it is not clear whether any of the previously arrested individuals are part of the reoccupation.

Discussions on the overarching issue of Indigenous rights and title are ongoing between the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, B.C. and Ottawa.

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Often local stories of importance become regional, national or even international stories, as did the discovery in May of (at least) 215 unmarked graves of Indigenous children at a former residential school in Kamloops.

That story, though, became a local story all over the country, as it did in Smithers.

The local response was immediate and visceral. Memorials, including shoes, orange ribbons, orange shirts with the number 215 emblazoned on them and teddy bears popped up all over town.

Vigils were held at the Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre, Bulkley Valley Museum and Muheim School.

The Town flew the flags at Town Hall at half-mast.

A week later, Witset held a huge All Clans gathering to honour the dead and residential school survivors.

In the House of Commons, Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Taylor Bachrach made a motion to have the federal government stop fighting Indigenous children in court, which passed with multi-party support.

In September, the dedication of a new mural on the side of the Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre honouring missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls took on an increased poignancy as did the erection of a brother (totem) pole at the community hall.

Hundreds of people turned out for the inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Smithers on Sept. 30.

While lip-service has been paid to truth and reconciliation for many years, Indigenous leaders, including Dze L K’ant executive director Annette Morgan, have said this time felt different, that perhaps the discovery was the wake-up call Canadians needed.

They only remain cautiously optimistic, however, that it is a true turning point.