Beautiful B.C.'s big business problem is far from pretty

Industry needs to wake up and realize that although it might pay the bills in this province, it has lost much of the people's support

Business in B.C. needs a wake-up call: this isn't your grandfather's province anymore.

As I pointed out in last month's column (See "Environmental activism undermining B.C.'s industrial initiative" – BIV issue 1204, November 20-26), a large contingent of the province's population has become psychologically averse to industrialization.

The mines, mills and pipelines that built this province just don't match the 21st century mentality of "beautiful" British Columbia – sorry, grandpa.

The challenge, of course, is that our resource industries are the backbone of the province, with some 70% of B.C.'s total exports generated out of mines, mills and pipelines in the north.

That shouldn't change given our wealth of natural resources, our expertise in extracting them and the plethora of job opportunities these industries hold for young people saddled with student loan debt and meagre job prospects in the Lower Mainland, or as northerners call it, the great clearcut to the south.

About that wake-up call, I was in the oilsands recently where B.C. and its political machinations are a popular topic these days.

An executive at a company operating near Fort McMurray asked an important question while I was there: "What does it take to do business in B.C.?"

This isn't the first time I've heard this question from oil and gas industry insiders, and I'll give them credit for at least asking it – though it might well be too late.

"You have to understand that B.C. is different from everywhere else in Canada," I replied.

I should've elaborated.

He thought about my answer for a moment and then shook his head.

"No," he said. "You could say that about any part of Canada, from Alberta to P.E.I."

And therein lies the problem.

Too many major resource companies, notably from Calgary and Edmonton, have yet to grasp the concept that things are different on this side of the Rockies – and that's not just regional partisanship on the part of a fourth-generation
British Columbian.

It all boils down to geography.

B.C. is one of Canada's most geographically complex regions. That complexity has helped support a biodiversity on land and in water that's nearly unequalled the world over (think orcas, palm trees in English Bay, vineyards in the Okanagan and boreal forest in the north).

That biodiversity helped support a large and diverse First Nations population prior to European contact.

Consider that, even today, this province is home to some 200 distinct bands, or approximately 33% of the total number of bands in Canada.

When European settlers arrived in B.C. and built the first mines and mills, they failed to ask for permission from the aboriginal population to set up shop.

In their infinite wisdom, they continued to extract resources without settling land dispute claims.

As a result, less than a handful of this province's bands have signed treaties, which, unlike the rest of Canada, means there is almost no certainty over the land base and the resources that bankroll much of this province's economy.

The resource industry later helped along another uniquely British Columbian movement in the 1960s: environmentalism.

From the "War in the Woods" in Clayoquot Sound to the Exxon Valdez spill, Windy Craggy, Haida Gwaii's Golden Spruce and now Northern Gateway, B.C. has housed a steady stream of environmental "media bombs" for the better part of
30 years.

During that time, B.C. has become the de facto global headquarters of the environmental movement, and those grassroots campaigns have developed into sophisticated, well-funded organizations that have continually pushed industry onto its back foot.

In communications terms, industry is in a constant state of reaction.

Business needs to wake up to the fact that these groups are led not by pot-smoking hippies but well-educated and motivated individuals who know how to identify community influencers and drum up local support for protests and campaigns against major industrial projects.

They also use the education system and new technology to engage with young people and have found common ground with First Nations that share similar cultural values and discontent with industry.

In short, environmentalism is a very real and sophisticated business, and industry has not taken it seriously enough.

So, what does it take to do business in B.C.?

  • Get on the ground early, find out what makes people tick in this province and listen to them.
  • Find out who the local influencers are that can affect your project and talk to them.
  • Proactively engage with First Nations and don't be afraid to hammer out new and creative solutions to age-old challenges.
  • Embrace technology and new ways of thinking to develop relationships with young people.

But, most importantly, industry needs to wake up and realize that although it might pay the bills in this province, it has lost much of the people's support.

As I often say, if you don't tell your story, someone else will – and you might not like the results.

I'm reminded of that 700-
kilometre stretch of highway between Prince George and Prince Rupert, a region that could soon become home to
several new pipelines.

These days, that stretch of highway is littered with billboards, posters and signs vehemently opposed to pipeline projects.

Of industry I ask, where are your billboards? •

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