John Les, parliamentary secretary to premier Christy Clark, was in Kitimat last Tuesday as part of a fact finding sweep of the Northwest.
Les explained the premier wants to put out a province-wide jobs strategy later this month and had asked him to “touch base” with communities “to see what the barriers are to job creation, where investments are going in the province and what the various needs are.”
He added Clark wanted the job strategy to reflect current conditions in the province and what government needed to pay attention to.
Asked how his meeting with the Chamber of Commerce had gone, Les pointed out “the mood has certainly changed (from his last visit). Now there is certainly a careful optimism with all the new investment that is coming into this region.”
The concern now was “where are we going to find all the people and all the housing? How are we going to be able to train all the people of these new skills we are going to need? Where are we going to find all the welders, for example?”
Les said in a way that was a good problem to have, but it challenged the provincial government in terms of figuring out how it is going to meet those needs.
“What it points out to me is Kitimat’s best days are probably ahead of it,” he said, citing the LNG plants that were going to provide long-term employment in the community.
Reminded that the RTA smelter modernisation would see 500 jobs disappear and that the closure of Eurocan had already cost the community more than that, Les said the LNG plants, “as one example”, would provide replacement jobs.
“What’s good about some of the new economic aspects coming along is it is going to broaden the economic base of the community,” he added.
And if the Enbridge Northern Gateway project went ahead that would bring other possibilities such as an upgrader which would treat the bitumen crude, stripping out other products which would drive other industries here.
“I think all of that is pretty darn exciting,” Les added.
As for whether the Enbridge project would get the go ahead, he said that depended who you talked to. “I don’t know which way that will go, but I certainly wouldn’t put a disproportionate number of eggs in the Enbridge basket.”
Asked what government can actually do to create jobs, he replied, “Government’s role in a healthy economy is to create the environment and create the possibilities. It’s not for government to actually do the job creation, that’s what the private sector does so well.”
Explaining that if there is a market opportunity, the private sector will go after it, he added, “there’s no better example than liquefied natural gas.”
Noting the development of fracking technology had turned BC into potentially a major gas exporter, Les said, “None of that was driven by government, all of that was driven by the private sector.”
That said, the government’s role was to ensure the required infrastructure – airports, highways, ports – were in place.
For example, the Kitimat-Terrace airport could be “an integral asset” in supplying the new economic boom that is coming. And restoring customs services there “has to be part of that equation”, he said.
While that was a federal responsibility, it was something the province has to push.
“At the end of the day, how can a few customs inspectors be the deal breaker,” he asked. “When you are talking about the billions of dollars of investment, you can’t let those picayune things stop the show.”
On the subject of a road down the west side of the Douglas Channel, Les said that had been raised by both the mayor in an earlier meeting that day and the Chamber.
“I think its critically important,” he agreed. “You’ve got this tremendous shipping channel here with very little access to it. We’re going to have to put our heads together and find a way to solve that one.”