Serious recommitment to B.C.’s rural development needed now

News of mill closures and curtailments across the north this year was shocking to anyone but northerners, but no less painful for the families that call our part of the province home.

What was unexpected was the timing and volume of closures, the result of a perfect storm of U.S. trade action, a decline in exports to China, higher log costs, increased stumpage fees and consecutive years of record wildfires.

The good news is that forestry is here to stay.

The bad news is that this most recent downturn furthers the narrative that rural communities are economically unsustainable so long as they’re reliant on traditional resource industries.

That brings me to two points.

One, I’m only 35, but my research shows me we’ve been talking about this problem for at least half a century and we’ve done precious little to solve it.

Two, that line of thinking reinforces the philosophy, often concentrated in urban centres, that the answer must be to move our rural communities away from resource industries (read: shut ’em down).

Truth is, these industries are here to stay due to our abundance of natural resources, our labour pool, integrated supply chain and proximity to market.

If there’s anything we should be focused on when it comes to our resource sector, it is improving its profitability, integrating value-added product development to improve its sustainability, lessening its environmental footprint and providing a stable, inclusive regulatory framework in which it can operate with certainty.

Now, let me get back to that first point – how we go about solving the problem we’ve been talking about longer than I’ve been alive.

Rural B.C. losing ground

First, let’s address the context – rural B.C.’s role as the engine of the provincial economy is fading.

In a good year the resource sector accounts for more than 70% of the value of B.C.’s goods exports.

Yet goods exports themselves account for only two-thirds, or less, of total provincial exports.

Service exports, which are largely concentrated in urban areas, are rapidly gaining ground as we transition to a knowledge-based economy.

Consider that, according to Statistics Canada, service-based industries now account for 70% of Canada’s economic output.

In B.C., you see the decline in the importance of the resource sector reflected in the provincial budget.

A quick review of Budget 2019 shows natural resource revenue now accounts for only 4% of provincial tax revenue.

In 1999, it accounted for roughly 12% of provincial revenue.

Other trends in northern B.C.’s economy also give cause for concern.

While the population of B.C. increased 9% between 2013 and 2019, in northern B.C. it declined 1% to 331,000.

Today, if you were to combine the populations of Richmond and Delta, they would be roughly equal to the number of people who live in northern B.C., an area the size of France.

And the rural-urban divide is growing.

Renewed commitment to rural development needed

What’s needed is a renewed vision for rural development – and we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

The old approach, watching towns decay until they die, is not acceptable.

We must learn from our Indigenous communities that the places we call home are permanent – outgrow the settler mindset that sees Canadians leave home, go where the work is and fracture families – and rededicate ourselves to the notion that our communities, large and small, rural and remote, are here to stay and worth investing in.

It starts with investing in the people that are already here because they’re the ones most likely to stay.

That means ensuring rural British Columbians can access the education they need for the jobs that are in demand in rural areas.

On the service side, it means that health, education and social service programs need rural delivery models – not urban delivery models adapted to rural settings.

Innovative solutions such as rural-focused internships, co-ops and dual-credit trades training programs for high school students are all models that exist in B.C. and elsewhere, and they can help ensure rural youth have pathways to rewarding lives in small communities and address our ongoing capacity challenges.

Investing in community development should be another area of critical focus – ensuring that our communities are attractive places to live, which means investing in low-cost, multi-use, energy-efficient amenities, upgrading building facades and focusing on placemaking enhancement initiatives to improve overall quality of life and attract visitors to rural communities.

Housing is another area of need – many of our remote communities have inadequate housing and can’t attract developers for renovations or new builds.

Innovative solutions, in small towns and Indigenous communities, not just for social housing but for market housing, are needed to ensure we can house the residents we have so we don’t have professionals saying no to jobs because they can’t find a decent place to live.

On the economic infrastructure side, it means we need to ensure there’s a stable, competitive environment to retain and attract investment – that might mean different tax frameworks for specific zones in B.C. to attract capital, but it certainly means ensuring existing tax regimes are competitive with other jurisdictions in the key sectors we want to attract and retain.

It means certainty of timelines for investors – from turnaround times for development permits at city hall to approval decisions that rest with senior levels of government, business needs to know how long it’s going to take to get to yes or no and have clear, consistent regulatory processes.

It means reconsidering how the wealth that’s extracted from rural areas is reinvested in those same areas.

It means having a coherent vision and prioritizing the physical infrastructure that enables commerce – from highways and ports to ferries, rail lines and fibre optic networks.

And last, but in no way least, we need to accept that reconciliation with our Indigenous communities will be a multi-generational effort that will require patience, understanding and compromise on all sides.

The thing we need to understand is that success doesn’t look like better stats – this isn’t about output; it’s about impact.

The measure of success is the well-being of the residents who call rural B.C. home.

As I’ve said, the problem we’re trying to solve is older than me.

A lot of good people have been working on this one for generations, but just because we haven’t solved it doesn’t mean we give up on it – it’s time for a renewed attempt.

A recommitment to rural development.

Joel McKay (joel@northern development.bc.ca) is the chief executive officer of Northern Development Initiative Trust, a non-profit organization that stimulates economic growth throughout northern B.C.