British Columbia

Broadband, LNG and government jobs: how the B.C. Liberals and NDP plan to help shrinking communities

B.C.'s population is growing, but not every community is getting bigger.

Premier Christy Clark and Opposition leader John Horgan share their plans for rural B.C.

Of Canadian communities with more than 5,000 people in 2011, Fort Nelson saw the second-fastest decline in the country. (Fort Nelson Chamber of Commerce)

British Columbia's population is increasing, but growth isn't happening across the board.

Metro Vancouver continues to gain people, but increases are much slower in the rest of B.C. — or in some cases, non-existent.

The census tracks the population of 69 separate metropolitan areas in B.C. with a population under 10,000. Of those, 28 lost population — and the ten largest were outside the Vancouver/Victoria area.

The Northern Rockies Regional Municipality, which includes Fort Nelson, lost 8.7 per cent of its population in the last five years, the second highest drop for a designated municipality in Canada. 

​When it comes to distributing population growth, Premier Christy Clark and NDP leader John Horgan agree on some strategies and disagree on others.

Forestry or LNG?

"When I think of forestry I think of opportunity lost," Horgan said when asked about communities facing decline.

"Why are we shipping out raw logs? ... We need to make sure we're looking at our foundational industry like forestry and mines and make sure that we're adding value."

NDP leader John Horgan says the provincial Liberals should have focused on value-added forestry jobs over LNG over the past five years. (The Canadian Press)

Speaking in Prince George last week, Clark said her party is focused on supporting existing industries while creating new ones.

"As the commodity market improves, as we see the price of natural gas improve, we are going to see lots more growth," she said.

"[This] is a long-term plan ... fight for projects like Site C, fight for projects like LNG, support projects like Kinder Morgan that are going to be bring jobs in the longer term for communities."

Horgan said Clark's strategy isn't working. 

"I think if we put a fraction of the energy that the government's put into LNG into revitalizing and giving new hope to forestry, we'd be in a better position today." 

Rural broadband key for both parties

Clark and Horgan agreed on the need to connect rural B.C. to faster internet. 

Open Media campaign director Josh Tabish says the gap between internet service quality in rural and urban areas is creating “digital divide” among Canadians. (iStock)

"We're going to talk about expanding broadband to rural British Columbia so that the jobs of the future and technology are available in every corner," Horgan said.

Clark said her government is already investing in a rural broadband strategy to help diversify rural economies.

"Many small towns with the very attractive lifestyle that you have outside the urban areas are really attracting a lot of tech. We just need to make sure that the infrastructure is there."

Government jobs in small towns

One area the party leaders diverge on is the role government jobs can play in smaller communities.

Horgan said the Liberals had taken public sector jobs away from rural B.C.

In August 2016, B.C. Jobs Minister Shirley Bond said the province was leading the country in job and economic growth. New research indicates those jobs are mainly centred in the Lower Mainland. (Christer Waara/CBC)

"One of the challenges that was brought upon B.C. by ... the B.C. Liberals was the doing away of biologists, agrologists, ecologists on the ground," he said.

"You think of McBride and the forest department just disappearing from that town. Those are high-paying, family-supporting jobs that are no longer there. So how can we replace those jobs?"

He suggested using technology to distribute computer or desk-based government jobs to rural communities.

"We need to transfer some of those jobs that could be done anywhere into communities that are suffering right now now."

When asked about the strategy, Clark said she wasn't convinced.

"I am just not a believer that a government job is the best job in a community," she said

"I think private sector jobs are better jobs to have. It creates a stronger economy, and we sure don't want to see a British Columbia where everybody is dependant on the government for work."