I recently wrote about the so-called urban/rural divide, and the relative invisibility (or unsightliness) of rural/production to urban eyes. An end-of-summer drive up Vancouver Island reminded me that there's another kind of rural divide in BC these days. This divide, unfortunately, isn't going to be remedied by our new-found foodism and the kind of "change your mind" approaches I suggested in my earlier article.
The rural divide that quickly became evident as I drove north of Campbell River on Vancouver Island relates to things like:
- the dramatic changes in rural resource economies in the past 25 years;
- tech change and its impact on the number of men and women working;
- and the impact of amenity migration and tourism;
- the capacity for communities to re-imagine their futures.
Most rural areas in the province are hurting because of bad commodity markets. Every industry that once employed many workers now puts more money into the efficiencies of machinery. But some rural and small town areas have maintained jobs (even if siginficantly lower-paying) and economic activity because they're within reasonable commuting distance from urban centres OR because they are so attractive (climate, geography, environmental features generally) that people will invest the place even if it's not so easy to get to.
Living the life of Riley... coasting on amenity migration
I live in the Comox Valley. This used to be a forest industry community. Today, with the exception of Mike Hamilton's shop on the Dyke Road, and few pickup trucks around town, the industry is invisible. What's driving our economy today is our beautiful vistas, our pleasant and safe residential areas, recreational amenities and services that make us a retirement and tourism destination. It helps that the local airstrip is big and that WestJet has regular flights.
The Comox Valley isn't alone on the Island: from Tofino to Qualicum Beach, from Campbell River to Cobble Hill – "pretty" places are experiencing the dynamic: urban folk with enough cash or equity (and time to travel) to invest in "nice" places to visit or live, without necessarily having to worry about making a living in these places.
North of Campbell River...
As I drove out of Campbell River, however, things got a lot less pretty. I've been visiting Sayward since the late 70s. The recently completed road through to Port Hardy had meant that Kelsey Bay was no longer the southern terminus for the Prince Rupert. That was a relatively small setback: the town still hosted a couple of very big logging operations; people were building big houses; they were still clearing land and investing in farming; the commercial fishery was still thriving. In the late 70s the Sayward Valley was intimate, beautiful, prosperous. By some it was seen as a kind "Comox Valley North." Wetter, but agricultural, with a strong forest industry foundation. It was a place with a sense of future.
30 years haven't treated Sayward - or the rest of the north Island - very kindly. The forest industry jobs are largely gone, along with the most accessible and profitable big stands of first growth timber. The fishing industry is in the tank. People have, by and large, been pulling their investments out of the region. This became even more evident as we drove north.
The 95km Nimpkish Valley is the "largest watershed on Vancouver Island." It still boasts a logging railway, but 30 years ago the Nimpkish Valley was also home to a handful of large logging camps, with attendant communities tacked on to them: Woss, Vernon, and Nimpkish.
Image by hanspetermeyer.ca via Flickr
Of the three, Woss still retains some presence. It's still a small town surrounded by the forest. But the industry doesn't need men the way it once did (it'll be another 25-50 years before the 2nd growth is harvested), and so young families aren't attracted to the place. The Woss school only just made the minimum number of students to stay open this coming year. As for Vernon and Nimpkish, over the years they've shrunk to chainlink compounds with an office and machine shops and a fleet of pickup trucks at the centre.
Further north, Port McNeill still hosts two "motor hotels," a handful of restaurants, a clutch of retail and commercial outlets. There is still enough logging going on that at least one house was being built in the local subdivision. Evidently it remains a place with enough frontier energy and enough promise that some people are prepared to sink roots.
But that bit of hopefulness evaporated as I drove into Port Hardy. With the end of mining and the shift in the fishing industry, Port Hardy has been hit very hard. The waterfront I knew as thriving was now derelict. It was hard to imagine the distance between this harbour and the one's I'd only just left in Campbell River and Comox.
The north Island wasn't without it's bright spots. We did take in the reinvention of picturesque Telegraph Cove, from logging and fishing post to eco-tourist destination.
Visions of being the "next" Tofino
Does Zeballos have the kind of transportation linkages that even a relatively remote place like Tofino offers, ie. a paved road, needed to be that much of a draw? I don't know. What I do know is that that someone in Zeballos, like some folks in Telegraph Cove, has identified a new natural resource: it can capitalize on it's environment and its picturesque setting, and perhaps enjoy some limited kind of amenity migration - even if that's only of the short term tourist variety, to sustain itself.
The imaginary divide
And having said that, it seems there's another rural divide. Not just between those communities that are part of the current amenity migration/tourism economy (on Vancouver Island, communities south of Campbell River on the east coast and Tofino on the west coast), but between those that are already re-imagining themselves as part of a post-resource-extraction economy and those that are still firmly inside the remnant coastal forest industry. The trees and ocean are what bring us our wealth in our coastal communities. For the post-extraction communities, the wealth now comes from hosting visitors or attracting new residents, investors, and retirees who come to see the trees still standing, the whales and fishes still swimming - or caught and released to swim again. It's a different way of looking at the woods we live in.
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