British Columbia

'A Hail Mary pass': how the Port of Prince Rupert became a player in the world of global trade

Ten years after welcoming its first container ship, the Port of Prince Rupert has rapidly expanded its efforts to become a key link between Asian manufacturers and American consumers.

In just 10 years, the small B.C. city has remade itself as a key link between Asia and the United States

The expansion of the Fairview container terminal at the Port of Prince Rupert makes it the second-largest container handling facility in Canada, trailing only Delta, B.C. (Prince Rupert Port Authority)

Don Krusel likes to tell newcomers to Prince Rupert just how dire things were for the north coast B.C. city 10 years ago.

"The unemployment rate... was over 13 per cent," he recalled. "The pulp mill, which was the mainstay of the economy, had just gone into receivership. Down on the waterfront, the longshore labour, there were less than 80 people working here." 

Today, he boasts, there are over 900 of those jobs, and the city's new economic mainstay is the port itself.

That's in no small part thanks to Krusel who, as CEO and president of the Prince Rupert Port Authority, has been a major driver of "Project Silk": a plan to create a world-class container port on Prince Rupert's waterfront, welcoming goods from overseas markets destined for consumers in Canada and the United States.

"The container strategy was a Hail Mary pass for the port," Krusel said. "It was a Hail Mary pass for the community."

After containers arrive in Prince Rupert, they are shipped by rail and truck to destinations throughout North America, creating spin-off jobs throughout the north. (Prince Rupert Port Authority)

As an indication of how well the strategy has paid off, on Tuesday the port hosted a celebration marking 10 years since the first container ship arrived in the community of 11,000, and the completion of a major upgrade expanding the port's handling capacity by over 50 per cent — for a total 1.3 million containers a year, making it the second-largest container handling facility in Canada.

A 'sleeping fishing village' Disney can count on

Mark Szakonyi, editor of the ocean shipping publication Journal of Commerce, says Prince Rupert's success is something few predicted a decade ago.

"It was a sleeping fishing village that was known for bulk cargo," he explained. "There were a lot naysayers saying it doesn't make any sense ... Rupert's so small."

Szakonyi said two key factors that have helped Prince Rupert succeed. One is its proximity to Asia, compared to other North American ports.

CEO Don Krusel cuts the ribbon at a celebration marking the expansion of the Port of Prince Rupert. (Prince Rupert Port Authority)

However, he said, a reputation for reliability is even more important.

"An importer, whether they're Microsoft or another big retailer, they're less concerned about the actual distance travelled as long as the goods get there in time," he said.

"Rupert has been able to provide that reliability and that's why they're seeing more cargo, not just from Canadian shippers but U.S. ones as well."

That point was driven home during a 2015 labour dispute that led to slowdowns at ports in the United States.

Some companies, including Disney, redirected shipments destined for American stores through Prince Rupert in order to keep products on shelves.

Growing pains

There have, however, been growing pains. Earlier this year, festival goers at Prince Rupert's ocean celebration Seafest were unable to access the water, in part because of increased activity and security from the port, and opponents of an LNG export terminal have come into conflict with the authority over ownership and use of a local island.

There have also been concerns about impacts increased ocean activity could have on the environment.

Krusel, though, believes Prince Rupert's location makes it the ideal place for growth.

"This is one of the safest and widest and deepest harbours in North America," he said.

"This is probably the best place to have increased vessel traffic."

Listen to a full discussion of the Port's impact on northern B.C.

To that end, he's already looking ahead to another major expansion, and wants to increase the number of exports, such as Canadian grain and lumber, leaving Prince Rupert for other markets. 

On Tuesday, though, he was happy to reflect back on how far the port had come over the past decade.

"It is such a feeling of gratitude," he said. 


About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

CBC Prince George | @akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is an award-winning journalist covering Northern British Columbia for CBC Radio and cbc.ca, situated in unceded Lheidli T'enneh territory in Prince George. You can email him at andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca.

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