There are stages to the growth Kitimat, and the whole Northwest, will feel beginning with expected major construction projects in the next few years.
Greg Halseth, a UNBC professor and UNBC’s Canada research chair in rural and small town studies and director of UNBC’s Community Development Institute, outlined those phases to the Sentinel, following a webinar on work camps held on May 30.
Halseth was joined in that webinar by Kitimat’s Chief Administrative Officer Ron Poole, and Northern Lights College’s Connie Kaweesi, an instructor in their social services program.
“We are just at the front end of a pretty significant transformation in Northern BC,” he said. “Probably the most significant change we’ve had since the 50s and 60s.”
In short, preparation is key for communities, he said.
But that preparation goes both ways.
“Also if projects don’t happen you also have to be ready for that consequence.”
Work camps come in three varieties, he said: a remote camp, which doesn’t have a major impact to a community; a proximate camp, such as the Rio Tinto Alcan camp for their modernization, which is near a community; and, a camp that’s “not really a camp” in the community.
That last one refers to contractors, for example, on a project who have been told to find their own accommodation in town, so those people find housing options in a community.
That was a situation faced in the Peace region not long ago, he said.
That scenario is typically the most challenging to a community as there is no professional management and it puts pressure on housing and services.
Poole says that planning for worker accommodation, specifically with the PTI Group’s plan for an up to 2,100 occupancy facility, has been a huge challenge to the administration.
He points to challenges in traffic and health care as some of the issues the town faces in light of worker accommodations, but there are also benefits.
“Having the temporary work camps is…ensuring they do leave when those things are built, because you want those people now living in the community,” he said.
He said preparing the town is a big game of catch up compared to how the community saw itself less than five years ago.
“Nobody projected in three short years we were sud
denly going to have to review all our services, and can they [handle] 2,000 guys in a camp.”
He said learning from places like the Peace region is important to Kitimat’s own planning.
Connie Kaweesi is based in the Peace area, at the Fort St. John Northern Lights College campus, and has been watching closely the issues raised by megaprojects like the Site C dam.
From a social services perspective, work camps can strain even things like day care, at least from her perspective in Fort St. John.
“Anyone with child care cannot stay in camps for extended periods,” she said. “It is a little bit of a dichotomy where you have very good paying jobs but they’re not really that accessible to women.”
The potential for substance abuse also grows with a concentration of high paid employees. That combined with housing shortages have already caused issues in her community.
“One woman had taken a transient worker into her home and he assaulted her,” said Kaweesi, saying Fort St. John’s family violence is currently substantial.
As for her opinion on camps themselves, she admits there are pros and cons to either side of the coin. One thing she does say is that camps should at least provide medical services, while the companies investing in large projects in the region should work to provide social services like day care for its employees.
She said it’s good to see a lot of young people and families in Fort St. John right now, “but with the housing shortage and the current pressures and recent cutbacks to the social and health services, I’m not sure the community has the ability to meet the capacity if families started to move in on a large scale basis.”
She said work camps proposed for her area are expected to be about five kilometres away from the town.