BC’s Two Solitudes

THE LONG READ

The rough-and-tumble city of Terrace began as a crossroads carved out of the bush by George Little, a white land speculator, as the Grand Trunk Pacific railroad pushed through in 1914, effectively ending the days of the riverboat.

Since the name Littleton already belonged to a town in Ontario, the BC town was named Terrace instead, for the steep geology etched out in the last Ice Age that forms the banks of the Skeena River, part of one of British Columbia’s most spectacular river systems.

Today, non-aboriginals living here are individualistic, tough-minded people. Many come to start a new life, arriving from across Canada and other parts of the province. Living alone in the bush, some develop extreme philosophies similar to those of libertarians in the United States. According to Terrace Standard publisher and editor Rod Link, there are also a few religious zealots, gun nuts and New Age communitarians.

In a deadpan, ironic delivery, Link describes Terrace as a rough-and ready former lumber town. But with the long and steady decline of the forest industry, the city and the region lost significant numbers of workers who fled to jobs elsewhere. The city plunged into a deep recession for a decade and a half and, during the past few years, has been trying to reinvent itself as a service and transportation hub.

Link, 60, and wife Dina, an instructor at Northwest Community College, have raised two daughters here. The oldest is entering second year university at UBC this fall and the youngest is attending the middle school in Terrace. Both are products of the local school district's French immersion program.

Few have watched the interactions of the white and First Nations communities here more closely than Link. Throughout the 1990s, his newspaper covered the controversial story of the Nisga’a treaty. More recently he has covered business partnerships between the Tsimshian communities in the area and the white businesses. Lately, his paper reported, the Chinese have become economic players as well.

A tall man with glasses and shoulder-length hair, Link, is a “show-me” skeptic when it comes to reporting on what he describes as “BC’s two solitudes.” The veteran newsman has been reporting in Northern BC for more than 30 years.

Long ago rejecting the dewy-eyed romanticism of some environmentalists and writers from urban centres, Link is a shrewd observer perched on the frontlines of Indian Country, where naïve apotheosizing on the relationship between nature and aboriginal peoples has little currency. To a hardened newsman, this kind of nonsense makes it that much harder for the “two solitudes” to communicate with each other in a meaningful way.

Today, well over a decade after the Nisga’a treaty was ratified, Link documents the treaty-making efforts of both the Kitselas and Kitsumkalum First Nations, whose territory, once a deal is signed, will encircle a significant chunk of the city of Terrace. As a local joke goes: “The Indians will surround the white guys.”

Link is well aware that these new relationships will, over time, define both the city and the Skeena River corridor, west to Prince Rupert.

But here on the muddy streets of Terrace, a visitor can see for himself.

A baby boom is under way on aboriginal reserves, a “population time-bomb” as it has been described. In Canada, as in most of the “first-world” economies, the general population is getting older, and fast. The one anomaly is on aboriginal reserves, where on average, more than half the population is under 25.

Aboriginals, it appears, are undergoing a spirited revival after a century of repression, depression and marginalization. More likely than not, the photo adorning the front page of the newspaper every year, the one celebrating the first born in January, will be that of a beaming aboriginal baby.

The baby boom seen on the streets of Terrace is but one part of a Canada-wide phenomenon. According to a study released by the National Household Survey in May 2013, Canada’s aboriginal population increased by 20.1 per cent between 2006 and 2011, compared to an increase of 5.2 per cent in the non-aboriginal population.

The data paint a grim picture of the challenges facing aboriginal youth in this country.

***

Like its coastal neighbor, Prince Rupert, Terrace is “Ground Zero” for several powerful tribal groups: the Kitselas and Kitsumalum; the Nisga’a to the north; the Tsimshian to the west; and surrounding Terrace, the Gitksan upriver to the east; the Haisla at Kitamat; Lax Kwa’laams and Metlakatla near Prince Rupert.

The Skeena River, the second-longest river entirely within BC, is an important transportation artery in the region, especially for the Tsimshian and Gitksan peoples. The Kitselas reserves and Skeena River run parallel to Highway 16, the main and only, roadway connecting communities to the Pacific Ocean and to larger centres to the east. Part of the Trans-Canada highway system, Highway 16 also stretches approximately 3,000 kms across the four western Canadian provinces.

White settlers first began to trickle into the area in the late 1880s, although the population remained skimpy until the railroad was completed. In those days the upriver town of Hazelton was an important hub, the last town on the riverboat route up the Skeena River.

In the late 1800s, the Omenica Gold Rush east of Terrace brought gold-seekers and miners to the region to stake their claims. Geologists and geographers came to survey possible routes for railway lines and to establish the telegraph system.

  Interactions between aboriginals and non-aboriginals began long before the late 20th and early 21st centuries. People worked together to survive. If one looks at a map of the area, travelling from Prince Rupert inland, the first place one can make a choice of which direction to travel further is in Prince George — 600 kms inland.

In 1914, when the Grand Trunk Railway was completed, Terrace was finally linked up to Prince Rupert and points east. The early days are reflected in pictures of small sawmills and tiny antique trucks hauling massive logs to be turned into lumber.

Terrace was called the pole capital of the world in the Roaring ‘20s when cedar poles were in demand. It was known as the pole capital of the world in another sense too: an astonishing number of totem poles made it distinct from other parts of the province.

Documented accounts describing relationships between Rod Link’s “two solitudes” exist as early as the last half of the 18th century. At that time, it was not only the fur traders seeking to exchange European goods for animal furs, but Russian missionaries coming across the Bering Sea and down the coast to proselytize about the Russian-Orthodox faith.

The arrival of permanent settlers in the mid-19th century on the North Coast and an increase in resource exploitation marked the first major industrial developments for the region. The clearest example is the salmon fishing industry, based in Port Essington on the coast, now a ghost town. It saw aboriginal, Japanese, Finnish and other European fishermen working together. Men worked the boats; women processed the fish.

Anthropologist Lidia Jendzjowsky documents this in her Masters thesis We Remember Where We Come From. Kitselas elders describe places on the coast where, as children, they would go to school, and later help their mothers working in the canneries.

Jendzjowsky notes in particular an area known as Spokeshute, which later came to be known as Port Essington, so named by founder and local entrepreneur Robert Cunningham who made an arrangement with the Kitsumkalum and Kitselas people to earmark the area as a joint-reserve. This agreement continues to this day.

After the Second World War, a wave of Dutch immigrants arrived to clear the bush, and start farms and small companies. Many were devout members of the Christian Reformed Church, its strict authoritarianism married to a conservative humanism.

Sympathetic to the plight of the local aboriginal people, often deeply committed to community initiatives and “good works,” some of the flock were critical of what they perceived as aboriginal apathy and aggressive dependency.

Over time, the two groups — neighbours who lived side-by-side — withdrew from each other, creating a tension and mistrust that is played out on the streets of Terrace today.

  White teens play eight-ball at a pool hall on Lakelse Avenue, the main street in town, while down by the railroad tracks aboriginal teens play the same game at Gus’s pool hall.

The region has become a cultural and economic hub for aboriginal people who frequent the Walmart, Canadian Tire and Real Canadian Wholesale Club. They test drive new pickups at one of five car dealerships and have their babies at Mills Memorial Hospital.

***

Editor Rod Link muses in his newspaper office, a squat, one-storey building just blocks from the railway line. He is in philosophical mode, puzzling the future of his town in the light of two dramatic new developments: new treaties by local First Nations and an unprecedented number of skilled jobs going begging.

The veteran newsman well knows that, seen one way, a treaty is simply a document that may help aboriginals and non-aboriginals live and work side by side. And, while it’s indisputably true an older generation of aboriginals saw treaty-making as their holy grail, economic development and the highly skilled, highly paid jobs that can go with it, has become the rallying cry for a younger generation.

In September 2012, aluminum maker Rio Tinto Alcan announced it was short 1,500 skilled workers for its $3.3-billion Kitimat smelter project, 60 kms south of Terrace. To address this critical human resources deficit, the company launched a Western Canada-wide ad campaign to woo people to the Pacific Northwest.

“Great jobs in the great outdoors,” read the ad that appeared in the Terrace Standard and other media outlets across B.C. and Alberta. The company’s 16 unions also put out the call among their affiliates for workers interested in heading north.

At peak construction, and depending on world demand for aluminum products, Rio Tinto Alcan will require an estimated 2,500 workers. By spring of 2013, it had about 1,000, with 500 of them living in what was described as a five-star construction camp.

To clear-headed observers like Rod Link, the Rio Tinto Alcan plea raises the critical issue of a “skills mismatch.”

Nowhere is that phenomenon more in evidence than here on the streets of Terrace, where unemployment remains stubbornly high, one of the worst in the province. But unemployment rates for aboriginals are far worse, claims Link. And, despite an endless litany of political promises, high-minded rhetoric and blizzards of news releases and talking points, few aboriginals here have the engineering and technical skills to work at high-paying jobs literally on their doorstep.

Truck drivers here make $100,000 a year, welders considerably more. Most of these workers are non-aboriginal, flown in from Denver, Houston, Edmonton and Vancouver.

From time to time, Link hears versions of a story known locally as the “Indian fade,” wherein aboriginal people hired to work at good pay soon lose interest in their new employment and, in the weeks or months that follow, begin showing up at the work site late or intermittently, until one day they simply don’t show.

As recounted by one local skills trainer who insisted on anonymity, some aboriginals in isolated communities do not have access to the transportation that most non-aboriginals take for granted. And others, living in isolated communities where inter-generational welfare dependency is a way of life, may find the world of work daunting.

Link dismisses such stories out of hand: old news, heard it all before. Most of the aboriginals he knows, and writes about in his paper, are tough, hard-driving business people.

Here on the frontline, aboriginals have made it clear: they insist on being major players in the new energy-driven economy. Stepping out of the shadows, evoking the great trading prowess of their ancestors centuries ago, they are taking their rightful place in the economic mainstream, entering the modern world.

“If this region is going to survive — no, make that thrive — wealth creation can only come about by finding and developing new markets — and ensuring we have the skills to serve them,” Link says.

“By ‘we’ I mean all of us. Aboriginals. Non-aboriginals. We’re in this together. We all live here — and we’re not going anywhere.”

 

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