VICTORIA – A decade ago, Kitamaat Village in northwest British Columbia was broke as residents of the First Nations community faced non-existent job and economic development prospects.
But that was then.
Now, Haisla Nation Chief Ellis Ross is waiting for the bust-to-boom times as restructuring of the Rio Tinto aluminum smelter continues and oil company giants such as Shell and Chevron consider liquefied natural gas developments near the village site, bringing plenty of labour and service industry.
However, Ross wants to do something about his nagging feeling that the jobs won’t last forever.
Kitimat, located 11 kilometres to the south, has seen the bad times turn to good as construction camps fill with workers and more are on the way in 2014 with oil giants closing in on their plans to build terminals and plants to export LNG to Asia.
Ross said he wants his people and Kitimat-area residents to be first in line for the permanent skilled jobs — pipefitters, electricians, millwrights — that are bound to be available.
That’s why he’s organizing an employment summit that brings together First Nations, training institutes, governments, industries and unions to ensure the opportunity doesn’t pass by without long-term benefits.
“Back in 2004, when the first gas company came to us, we, as a council were basically broke,” Ross said. “We had no initiatives on the table and we had no prospects. We had nothing. As far as I could see, every commercial development had failed.”
He said his council sought out economic development and embraced plans to generate an attitude adjustment for village residents.
“We started to think how to get people off welfare,” Ross said. “How to start building a better life for our members. How do we get them to think about independence and how do we get them to start to think about careers. It was out of that where we came to today where everybody’s working.”
He said anybody in Kitamaat Village who wants to work will be hired, but most of the current work consists of short-term labour or service jobs connected to the construction camps.
“If you really want a job, you can get a job,” Ross said. “I’m talking to some of my membership people who have criminal pasts, who are getting jobs. I have one friend who basically has a long criminal record, and he got hired.”
But Ross and his council want more than temporary jobs. He said his council has formed an economic development committee to reach out to industry, governments and institutions to set policy and goals to ensure locals are trained to benefit most from the coming energy development.
“I haven’t seen anybody getting hold of this at all and that’s why I want to actually try and lead this,” he said. “Maybe we’re the only ones who can actually pull everyone together into one room. If we don’t get enough people trained for this, those companies are going to have no choice but to look outside of the region, outside of the province, outside of the country. We need a bigger strategy.”
A shortage of skilled workers is often cited by energy industry analysts as one potential obstacle to full-scale oil and gas development in B.C., which Premier Christy Clark says is a potential trillion-dollar opportunity that could create up to 100,000 jobs.
Ross said he doesn’t want the companies coming to Kitimat to be forced to import its workforce.
“We’ve got to put together training for these people,” he said. “We’ve got to do it in combination with the companies as well as the provincial and federal government. I don’t care if you’re government. I don’t care if you’re private or public. Let’s get to the table and see if we can all work together providing the long-term employment training needs.”
Kitimat Mayor Joanne Monaghan said she doesn’t expect the huge wave of workers to arrive for at least another year, but until then she’s grappling with an unexpected problem for her community of about 8,500 people.
Affordable housing is disappearing as rent-starved landlords are remodelling apartments and evicting tenants to cash in on monthly rents that are more than doubling to $1,800 from $600, she said.
Monaghan said about a dozen Kitimat residents are due for eviction from their 1970s-era apartments on Jan. 31, but she’s seeking affordable housing options.
“I feel very badly for these people,” she said. “I know it has to happen, but I also feel for them. I’m a graduate of a seminary, so you can kind of think of what I’m thinking. I lay awake at night thinking about this.”
Monaghan said she has been approached locally by people who are planning to build some affordable housing units, but they won’t be ready until next June at the earliest.
She said a housing squeeze in Kitimat is a relatively new phenomenon considering that Census Canada in March 2007 cited Kitimat as the community with the greatest population decline in Canada, with a vacancy rate of 44.5 per cent.
“My biggest goal is to have Kitimat, the people of Kitimat, happy, healthy and well housed.”