Transformation of Vanderhoof now underway

Community representatives acknowledge population, environmental and social changes

At a meeting with university students and area officials on Oct. 26

At a meeting with university students and area officials on Oct. 26

Members of the education, agricultural, and natural resource sectors painted an unvarnished portrait of the state of the community last week.

At a meeting in the Vanderhoof library with geography students from the University of Northern British Columbia, the group reviewed land management issues and various social challenges that the community is dealing with.

The group also discussed how billions of dollars of industrial projects are expected to spur a massive migration of families, lone workers and immigrants to the area, potentially numbering in the thousands, said Jim Windsor, a geography professor and lecturer at UNBC who moderated the meeting.

To the north of Vanderhoof is Mount Milligan, a copper and gold-mining project owned by the Thompson Creek Metals Company that’s slated to enter production in 2013.

Two hours southwest of the town is the Blackwater Project, the proposed site of an open-pit mine with more than $10 billion and $775 million of gold and silver deposits respectively.

New Gold, the project’s owner, plans to start building the Blackwater mine in 2015, hiring 1,000 to 1,500 workers for construction. When complete, the mine will employ an average of 500 full-time workers until closure in 2034.

“That alone is a huge growth demand in our area. That’s not Mount Milligan, that’s not the pipelines, that’s just Blackwater,” said Erin Siemens, economic development officer for the District of Vanderhoof.

The town is bracing for a population surge of 500 people in the coming years, but a lack of housing and home rentals has added pressure to the need to develop new sub-divisions, build hotels and add community attractions like a YMCA and a $12 million aquatic facility.

Using tax dollars and grant money, the town has spent $487,358 on community trails, fitness equipment, park improvements and portable concert equipment, as well as $158,564 on upgrades to the Vanderhoof Municipal Arena this year.

“These are all pieces, not only for the people who live here now, but as a promotional thing for the people we expect are going to come here,” said Siemens.

Already, the school district is noticing changes in the demographics of its students as new families of various cultures move to Vanderhoof.

At W.L. McLeod School, the number of teachers who teach English as a second language has increased by 10 over as many years, said teacher Denise Doswell.

Five years ago teachers had difficulty finding a job in Vanderhoof, but today the school district is actively pursuing new staff and is offering time in the classroom to even uncertified teachers, Doswell explained.

“We’re recruiting people. This is a community that is employing people in all different sectors,” she said.

Mayor Gerry Thiessen, who was born and raised in Vanderhoof, said that the town’s biggest need at the moment is trained workers.

“If there’s ever going to be a crunch, it’s this one issue,” he said.

Kathie LaForge, community manager for New Gold, acknowledged that the Blackwater Project, now in an advanced exploration phase, could experience difficulties with worker shortages in the run-up to mine construction and production.

To make matters more challenging, as the TransCanada and Apache Canada Ltd. pipeline projects advance through the area, and Mount Milligan prepares for production in late 2013, and Rio Tinto Alcan expands its aluminum smelting operations in Kitimat, Blackwater will have to compete with other companies to hire trained workers.

However, competitive salaries and benefits packages may not be enough, and more creative incentives, such as offering flexible work schedules or assisting with the cost of education, may be required in order to forge long-term commitments from workers, explained LaForge.

“I think, too, industry is recognizing that you can’t sit back and wait for government to fund all of the training that needs to happen, so we’re probably going to have to get in there, not only with job opportunities, but with dollars to support some of the training,” she said.

Meanwhile, the town is strengthening its partnership with the College of New Calledonia (CNC), not only to create new programs that train workers for jobs with local industries, but to expand the population base with permanent residents.

“The questions from new people relocating are: what is the school system like, what kind of health care system do you have, are their jobs for my partners and is there post-secondary if my kids want to continue studying?” said Maureen Mallais, regional director for CNC.

With an annual budget of just $4.5 million, the college requires supplementary funding and a critical mass of students to run programs like the minerals processing certificate, which was partially funded and designed by the Thompson Creek Metals Company to help mobilize a workforce for mining operations at Mount Milligan, explained Mallais.

“Without that funding, we would not be able to offer the programming,” she said.

Sustainability is an issue for CNC as well, and the college, now located in the old hospital building, desperately needs a fully equipped multi-use facility to offer the same programs each year, said Mallais.

As the mining boom continues, agriculture, long one of the area’s most profitable industries, has fallen behind for a number of reasons, explained Richard Martens, a seasoned area farmer who helps finish 3,000 to 4,000 cattle per year.

Firstly, the current workforce is aging and next-generation farmers are increasingly being lured away by more profitable mining, oil and gas projects.

Woes also stem from the 2002 Canadian outbreak of mad cow disease, or Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the subsequent U.S. embargo of Canadian beef and the decline of cattle prices by 35 per cent.

“Far too often I’ve seen farmers and ranchers having to subsidize their businesses by working off their farms,” said Martens.

In addition, as fuel and freight prices rise, so have the costs of getting product to markets, distributors and processing facilities, which are becoming more centralized.

“We’ve had some real challenging times during these years, for our producers especially,” said Martens.

Thiessen said commodity prices need to rise in order for farms and ranches to remain viable. He also said that, in the wake of dairy farms and meat processors moving out of the area, more investment is needed by the provincial government, which “doesn’t see the value in building capacity in northern rural B.C.”

To cope, some area farmers have started diversifying their crops, experimenting with alfalfa and malt barley, the main ingredient of beer.

When yielding one ton per acre, malt barley grossed a profitable $850 per acre this year, with an input cost of just $144, said Marten.

Calf prices too have increased, by some 30 to 50 per cent, or about $1.50 per pound, said Marten.

“Things are happening right now that I haven’t seen in my lifetime, so I’m really becoming positive,” he said.

Marten said the local production of Hay, a classic crop that hardly requires any irrigation, could quadruple if markets continue to improve and farmers start utilizing their land to the fullest extent.

“All of these things are sure to become profitable in our operations” he said.

Traditions have also changed for the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, the guardian of the district’s timber supply, a vast range of 1.4 million hectares that encompasses Prince George, Vanderhoof and Fort St. James.

The onslaught of the mountain pine beetle, which mainly targets mature lodgepole pine, has killed millions of cubic metres of timber, forcing the forestry industry to change its business model.

“Fifty years ago we weren’t even targeting lodge pole pine to harvest, the mills weren’t set up for it,” said Lori Borth, a resource manager for the ministry.

For the past 10 years, the ministry’s Forest Health Program has largely focused on dealing with the epidemic. But as of late, a Douglas-fir beetle has emerged as another threat in the local area.

“That’s our emergency management area right now, to keep that in check,” said Borth.

The ministry, which historically was concerned with managing forest ranges, has taken on new land management responsibilities that involve consulting with resource development companies and assisting with research for major industrial projects, such as the Blackwater mine and the Pacific Trails natural gas pipeline.

Ministry staff are also involved with watershed initiatives, such as rehabilitating the endangered Nechako white sturgeon.

“It’s now more diverse,” Borth said of the ministry’s new duties.

Thiessen, whose first job was in a lumber mill, has familiarized himself with the workings of the forestry industry and has witnessed major technological innovations take place in the last several years.

“Forestry is the meat and potatoes of Vanderhoof,” he said.