British Columbia·Metro Matters

Why work camps in northern B.C. don't always work for local economies

The one community where work camps lie within municipal boundaries is the District of Chetwynd — but last month its council voted against allowing one of them to expand following protests from local hotel operators.

Balancing influx of people with worker safety, convenience a 'tricky' balance, officials admit

Work camps are advertised in the North Peace Regional Airport, the major transportation hub for people coming in and out of B.C.'s Peace River region. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

In northeast B.C., one of the biggest symbols of economic boom or bust cycles can be somewhat detached from local municipalities.

Work camps are usually built to house employees for various pipeline, hydro, mining and natural gas projects. Many workers come from outside of the region and head back home when a project is done.

The one community where work camps lie within municipal boundaries is the District of Chetwynd, but last month its council voted against allowing one of them to expand. 

"Our hotels and motels, they expressed their opinion that they were losing business," said Chetwynd Mayor Allen Courtoreille, explaining the vote against allowing a new camp that would hold 166 people. 

Courtoreille added that he expected council would probably revisit the issue later this year. But the district's debate highlights the delicate balance Peace Region municipalities face in ensuring all of its citizens benefit from a strong economy. 

Chetwynd's many wood carvings pay tribute to its forestry history, but its central location in the South Peace region makes it an attractive hub for work camps in various industries. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

Bigger and fancier camps

Brad Sperling, chair of the Peace River Regional District, admits "it's very tricky" to find an ideal balance. 

"We want our workers staying in our communities, but when you have to travel distances like one or two hours to get to the job site, you don't want 500 to 600 people on highways. The camps at times become a necessity," he said. 

Sperling has lived in the Peace Region for all of his 64 years, and has seen work camps evolve from simple solutions for specific projects to being the industry standard, often with sprawling amenities including pools, theatres, gyms — and in the case of the massive Site C camp, a tanning and hair salon.

"The biggest change is the technology in the industry," he said.

"It's not you've drilled one hole here, and then you get up and move. Now, they're doing this in clusters, where they're putting 15 to 20 well sites in one [area], and also because industry is moving further out, so the transportation part, you don't want them on the road all the time."

The work camp for the Site C hydroelectric dam houses approximately 1,200 workers, with amenities including a hair salon and movie theatre. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

'Showcase your community' 

In Chetwynd's case, part of the reason they approved two work camps for 566 employees in 2017 was because of a desire to benefit traditional retail businesses in town. 

"If you're in town, you could just go over to the 7-Eleven or IGA or theatre, it was convenient for them," said Courtoreille. 

Joel McKay is the CEO of the Northern Development Initiative Trust, a government-created corporation that assists municipalities in northern B.C. He says that communities without camps can focus on the unique tourism and lifestyle opportunities available for workers, so they consider sticking around after a project is completed. 

"They have days off, they're not necessarily flying back home ... there's an opportunity there to actually showcase your community, and get them out experiencing things," he said.

"It certainly does help with another challenge we have in the north which is reputation, that this is a cold place to live and there's not a lot to do … if we can show them a good time while they're here, then they're more likely to go back to whatever city they're from and say, 'Hey, you know what, it was pretty awesome.'"

Still, most believe there's little chance of the current dynamic changing. 

"Work camps are very useful, closer to the working area, so that you take away that traffic on highway systems, and it definitely brings a safety factor increase. But there does need to be some kind of economic impact for the community as well," said Tumbler Ridge Mayor Keith Bertrand. 

In many ways, Tumbler Ridge is the last vestige of the old system of natural resource development in B.C.: a community specifically built to service the surrounding mines

There hasn't been another municipality like Tumbler Ridge built since. And Bertrand believes there won't be again. 

"I would assume mega-work camps," he says, when asked what the future holds.

"I think it's definitely more feasible for companies, especially because a lot of the projects are short term. They're definitely more cost efficient." 

Metro Matters: On The Road is exploring how new city governments throughout B.C. are approaching age-old issues (some political, some not) in their communities.

About the Author

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.

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