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Premier Clark boasts about B.C.’s overall low jobless rate, but rural areas struggle

VICTORIA — Premier Christy Clark often highlights the fact British Columbia has the lowest jobless rate in Canada, but rural and remote areas in the province are struggling with major industry downturns and job losses.

The power of jobs to support families and build strong communities is a major theme in the Liberal leader's bid for re-election on May 9, but some mayors say high unemployment is tearing at the fabric of their communities.

"I would challenge this government to really open its eyes and look at what's going on in our small community," said Shirley Ackland, the mayor of Port McNeill in northern Vancouver Island. "You can't live in the north island if there are no jobs here."

She said sawmill closures have hurt Port McNeill, where 80 per cent of residents are dependent on the forest industry for work.

Merritt Mayor Neil Menard said a sawmill closure and layoffs at another lumber mill resulted in the loss of about 350 jobs in the past 18 months.

"The situation here in this particular area as far as employment is concerned is not good," he said. "I don't think we have the best economy in the country. In the Interior, we've got a lot of struggles going on."

Last month, Clark was in Merritt to introduce the government's rural economic development strategy, which included $40 million to expand high-speed Internet service and build infrastructure in rural B.C.

Steve Thomson, forests, lands and natural resource operations minister, said the government's strategy recognizes the significance of rural communities to B.C.'s economy, mentioning the Site C dam, potential liquefied natural gas projects and the emergence of a technology sector as job creators.

"Every community benefits when our rural communities are strong," he said.

Thomson said the strategy is focused on building, strengthening and diversifying rural economies, which is especially the case with the forest industry and B.C.'s attempts to develop new lumber markets in Asia. A renewed Canada-United States softwood lumber agreement is another top priority, Thomson said.  

The government's 2017-18 budget, which was not passed by the legislature, also included an extension to 2020 of an annual $25 million dividend fund for rural community projects.

But Fort Nelson Mayor Bill Streeper said the rural strategy failed to recognize the prolonged downturn in the oil and gas industry, which is causing people to leave town to look for work.

He said the council of the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality recently introduced severe austerity measures to curtail community spending, including offering its summer student jobs to unemployed local residents. 

Since January, when BC Stats pegged the jobless rate in the northeast at 10.5 per cent, the picture has brightened with an upswing in the oil and gas industry. The most recent numbers for March set the jobless rate in the region at 6.5 per cent.

But the rate jumped to 10 per cent in the Cariboo region. The North Coast-Nechako, Thompson-Okanagan and Kootenay regions all registered slight dips, but still range between 6.4 per cent and 8.3 per cent.

The provincewide rate was 5.4 per cent in March. It's five per cent in the Lower Mainland and southwest B.C., and 5.6 per cent on Vancouver Island and the central coast.

Quesnel Mayor Bob Simpson said average four-bedroom homes in his Cariboo community can be bought for $170,000, but few people can afford to buy.

The former NDP member of the legislature and forest company executive said the government provided infrastructure funding for Quesnel but the area's pulp mills and sawmills are hurting.

"The jobs aren't here. That's what our struggle is," he said. "Where's the plan to help us with our core economy so that people can get meaningful employment?"

Simpson said the government chose to pursue the LNG industry at the expense of forestry.

Clark touted 18 potential LNG export plants as an economic bonanza during the 2013 election campaign, but cooling natural gas markets have resulted in only a woodfibre LNG plant at Squamish proceeding to the start-up phase. A proposed $36-billion Pacific NorthWest project near Prince Rupert is waiting for a final investment decision.

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

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