Rural Communities in BC: Do we need to diversify economy away from our heavy reliance on natural resources?

Throughout 2016, the average number of employed people in urban communities in B.C.’s southwest has climbed. But, in almost every other region in the province the average number has declined. Why?

The next provincial election is less than two months away, and the B.C. government recently revamped its jobs plan to acknowledge that employment in forestry, mining and liquefied natural gas (LNG) has not taken off as it had hoped. Rural communities that are largely dependent on resource markets are struggling to cope with the economic downturn, which lays further evidence that the province must take steps to ensure that more is done to diversify its rural economic drivers.

“It’s infrastructure investments we need to make to grow our economy,” said Premier Clark. “Let’s spend that money now and put people to work in rural B.C. while the commodities market is very low.”

The province has launched a B.C. Rural Economic Strategy which is intended to improve B.C.’s business-friendly climate by cutting red-tape and attracting new investment, thereby making it easier to start and grow small businesses. The strategy largely focuses on ways to encourage development of new technology and innovation in rural communities. One of the most prominent initiatives to come out of the strategy is the Rural Dividend which supports the wellness, sustainability and liability of B.C. communities with a population of 25,000 or less. It will see an investment of $100 million over four years to respond to local needs of B.C.’s small rural communities and reinvigorate and diversify their local economies. For example, the Kwadacha Nation received $500,000 to help it install a bioenergy system in the remote northern community of Fort Ware that will use local wood biomass instead of diesel and propane.

The purpose of these efforts is to diversify these economies beyond natural resources. Already there are emerging industries such as tourism, agriculture and tech that with the right boost could provide these communities with significant and sustainable job growth.

Although it is the mandate of the provincial government to look for ways to diversify rural B.C.’s economies away from resource dependence, it’s also worth thinking of ways to reimagine how we export current materials. For example, Arnold Bercov, President of Private Workers of Canada Union, argues that there is a huge forgone employment opportunity with exporting raw logs from B.C. Through new investment in innovative infrastructure, we can look at ways to add value to our products rather than exporting unprocessed materials like raw logs which drains our forest resources. “Thousands of good-paying jobs in rural communities are at risk every day that the government fails to act,” says Bercov.

With that being said, it’s important to ensure that the lens of environmental sustainability is not only taken into consideration, but also a crucial piece of the strategy. Initiatives to combat climate change can also be a real driving force for economic growth. Just recently, B.C. announced that it will spend $150 million to plant tens of millions trees which will help repopulate our forests as well as create over 3,000 jobs in rural B.C. A way to help fight climate change and create jobs means that over the next 10 years an investment of $800 million in B.C.’s forests will also create 20,000 jobs.

One major sector that is gaining attention with its booming growth in areas outside the Lower Mainland is the tech sector. Investment in innovation and technology is something that has been cemented in B.C.’s economic direction and is an industry that can be expanded to remote areas due to its ease of mobility and outsourcing. The next step is laying the foundation for rural areas to join in the growth. A major step down this path is the province’s $40 million investment to extend high-speed internet access to rural and remote communities to create new opportunities and establish an attractive environment for new investment and jobs. “Tech jobs can happen anywhere where there’s high speed internet,” said Premier Clark. “And those tech jobs should be just as available for people in communities like Merritt and Ashcroft as they are in places like Kelowna and Victoria.”

Although economic diversification is something that requires immediate action in B.C.’s rural areas, continued support for more resource projects must also remain at the forefront of B.C.’s strategy. Changing the direction of an economy cannot happen overnight, and there are communities in B.C. that require immediate help during the commodity market slump. Supporting resource projects in mining and natural gas will provide these hard-hit communities with some temporary relief, however, according to Brian Smith, Associate Director of Community Futures Sunshine Coast, “each small town is unique, and many province-wide construction projects, like building pipelines, only provide jobs in the short term construction phase.” Perhaps towns would benefit from a dialogue between municipal and provincial governments that seek creative ways to develop emerging local industries like farming, tourism, and technology.

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British Columbians for Prosperity is an independent group of concerned British Columbians. We are committed to establishing an economic, environmental and social climate where all British Columbians and our children will prosper.
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