This weekend, elected officials from all levels of government, academics and professionals from the U.S. and Canada convened at the 4th annual Rethinking the Region event, hosted in partnership between SFU and the City of New Westminster.
At my table were three other graduate students trying to multi-task as best we could, listening intently, jotting down notes, and frenetically tweeting quotes from the fascinating speakers and panels.
As the day progressed a theme became apparent before our lunch break had even arrived – over the past few years, the Clark government has turned its back on the region of the Lower Mainland, the largest concentration of people in the province. Whether it is the lack of commitment to regional transit or affordable housing needs, or the insistence on forcing through infrastructure projects that are at odds with our Regional Growth Strategy. Then it appeared (in our Twitter feeds of course!) Richard Zussman’s CBC story this weekend Christy Clark shrugs off urban roots for rural crowds, Clark plays up party’s rural values at expense of urban BC.
Once the head shaking and scrunchy-faced looks of disapproval subsided, we began to talk about where we all grew up: Kelowna, Nanaimo, Powell River, Prince George. At our table were four young professionals and graduate students who grew up in “rural B.C.” – shorthand for anywhere that isn’t in the Lower Mainland or Greater Victoria, and we were put off by what we read.
To us it was personal, because we apparently know something Christy Clark doesn’t, that these other places that we grew up in throughout the province are intimately connected to the Lower Mainland just as it is to them.
Take for example our world-class wine growing regions, led by the Okanagan Valley. Wine has grown exponentially from a six million dollar a year industry in 1992 to a two hundred million dollar industry in 2015. Its incredible growth has been driven in no small part by consumer demand in the Lower Mainland, where locals are just as likely to enjoy a glass with dinner as tourists or conference attendees at any one of our hotels and convention centres. Those same tourists that fly into Vancouver’s international airport to go skiing in the Kootenays, fishing in the Cariboo, whale watching in the Central Coast and kayaking in the Peace region.
Or our billion dollar film and television industry, which not only attracts talented young people from around the province to come make more than $400 million dollars in yearly wages, but brings film crews and equipment based in the Lower Mainland out into rural regions to capture the beauty of our diverse terrain and character of our different rural regions. Those production crews spend their money renting locations, staying in hotels, eating in restaurants and otherwise spending their hard earned cash in rural communities while on location.
Given the obvious inter-connectivity, why is she pushing the urban/rural divide? Liquified Natural Gas, of course.
Clark’s second term in office has effectively been a three-year PR campaign on behalf of an industry that just isn’t feasible, a PR campaign that is now devolving into a desperate discourse of us vs. them as Clark now brands urban British Columbians in the southwest coast as the “Forces of No," intent on destroying economic opportunity for our rural friends and family. As if somehow the laws of supply and demand that influence resource value and project feasibility aren’t the problem.
LNG terminals and the pipelines they connect to are short-term job creators but long-term sunk costs, even if the industry gets off the ground, even if this government’s wildest dreams come true, the gas will eventually run out, and B.C. will endure the same type of bust Alberta is currently suffering through. I repeat, if the LNG industry actually gets off the ground, because analysts now agree this government’s window of opportunity has closed.
The fact is, when we say “yes” to something, we say “no” to something else. Those of us in both rural and urban communities in B.C. know that saying "yes" to Christy Clark’s singular and obsessive vision of B.C. means saying "no" to a range of other better, more strategic, sustainable and sensible investments in our future.
The people who live in the Peace Region know that saying "yes" to site C dam is saying "no" to food security in British Columbia. This at a time when our biggest exporter of food to B.C. is succumbing to the new normal of permanent drought, and food prices continue to rise, as Richmond City Councillor Harold Steves addressed in detail when speaking at our event.
We are not two provinces, but Clark’s wedge politics works to fracture us in half.
Just like the toxic chemicals that are required to fracture the rocks on which our province stands, in the quest for her LNG dream, Christy Clark’s toxic brand of divide and conquer politics breaks apart the foundation on which an important provincial discussion about sustainable long-term prosperity and partnership between our urban and rural communities should be built. Rural communities have complex needs and should not be overlooked. But rural economic development doesn’t happen in a vacuum any more than the lower mainland is some hermetically sealed urban region off in its own world, disconnected from the industries, cultures and families we are a part of in the rest of the province.
B.C. needs a government that builds a shared vision of prosperity in which the regions of our province are seen for the interconnected places that they are, and not one that pits region against region in the unattainable quest to make a single industry feasible at all costs. Enough is enough, it is time to change course and get back on track for the better future we deserve, together.