Environmental activism undermining B.C.'s industrial initiative

Every time a new smokestack, mill or mine is proposed, B.C.'s environmentally conscious left hand slaps its pro-business right hand into submission

Controversies surrounding temporary foreign workers in the coal sector and the province's decision to reject a mine proposal are the latest battles that focus on minutiae while ignoring the larger issues at hand in B.C. business today.

No one should be surprised.

In the last half-century, Beautiful British Columbia has become a province that's more likely to say "no" than "yes" to industrial development.

In fact, any communications professional worth his or her salt can see that the last half-century of messaging and activism on the part of "friends of the environment" has been the most successful campaign against industrial development in recent memory.

The hand of environmentalism and sustainability has raised those of us under the age of 40 in this province: we are psychologically averse to industrialization, programmed to oppose any major project that so much as threatens the sanctity of "Super, Natural British Columbia."

Kudos to Greenpeace, Dr. David Suzuki and the players on Cortes Island for successfully engineering a complete social and cultural revolution in Canada's western-most province.

Too bad the economy hasn't kept pace.

The lion's share of this province's wealth is generated through the extraction and export of raw materials.

Some 70% of those exports are produced in the north and generate billions in provincial revenue that supports teachers, schools, nurses, doctors and police officers.

The north has $70 billion in major projects on the table, an opportunity that could generate extraordinary new wealth for the province and create thousands of new jobs.

The problem is that every time a new smokestack, mill or mine is proposed, B.C.'s environmentally conscious left hand slaps its pro-business right hand into submission.

This year's slap fest? Oil pipelines.

Next year's slap out? Take your pick: fracking near Fort Nelson, BC Hydro's massive Site C dam, Taseko Mines' New Prosperity copper-gold project, LNG terminals in the northwest.

I'll be the first to admit that not every project is beneficial for British Columbia, but ongoing opposition to every project stalls major investments, which kills contracts for legal, tax, engineering and accountancy firms in the Lower Mainland and strangles job creation in the north.

The problem has become so crippling that the left hand and the right hand don't have enough fingers left between them to shake hands on anything, leaving citizens, activists, industry and government in a perpetual state of agitation.

Take last month's controversy: temporary foreign workers in northeast B.C.'s burgeoning coal sector.

While it's important that major projects generate employment for British Columbians, the media, labour and some levels of government can't see the forest for the trees on this one.

The issue of temporary foreign workers is a symptom of a much larger virus metastasizing throughout the province – the lack of skilled workers.

Industry throughout the province is screaming for workers, and poaching them from wherever possible to fill job openings. (See "Mega-project boom taking toll on north's tourism" – BIV issue 1199; October 16-22.)

In September, Rio Tinto Alcan launched a nation-wide ad campaign to find 1,500 workers for its smelter revitalization in Kitimat. Is it any surprise that the province's expanding coal sector has the same problem?

The north is home to less than 10% of the province's population, and yet it holds the most promise for major investment.

There simply aren't enough people to fill the jobs.

I'll give full credit to B.C. Jobs Minister Pat Bell's attempt to solve the problem via the Jobs Plan, but government can't do this alone.

Labour, activism and industry need to stop jabbing one another with rhetoric and start working together to find a real solution.

The last half-century of social and environmental progress in this province has earned B.C. a sterling reputation for environmentally conscious development.

Still, the resource sector remains the backbone of the province – a fact that's not likely to change any time soon.

Beautiful British Columbia stands at a crossroads.

The province can leverage all that it has learned and the incredible talent pool at its finger tips to create a vibrant economy that leads the world in progressive, sustainable resource development, or the agitators can continue to point fingers and let opportunity wither on the vine.

That still doesn't solve the "no" psyche prevalent among B.C.'s younger demographic, but more on that next month. •

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