Kitimat ticks over thanks to volunteers

Kitimat ticks over thanks to volunteers

Ex-Northern Sentinel publisher Sandra Dugdale cried every day for two weeks when she arrived in Kitimat from the United Kingdom in 1976.

Living in a trailer park looking after her two children while her husband Bob started his career as an electrician at Alcan, everything seemed hopeless.

“I phoned my mum and told her I wanted to go home. I cried every time I put the phone down after speaking with her,” said Sandra.

Bob had seen an advert calling for tradesmen to come to Canada to work at Alcan, and he signed a two-year contract and was promptly paid a $1,000 relocation fee to move Sandra, his seven-year-old son Robert and his three-year old daughter Emma to Canada.

Nearly 42 years later, Sandra and Bob are still in Kitimat, with no plans to leave.

“Kitimat gets into your blood. You get settled quickly here if you want to be,” said Sandra.

“At first you go stir crazy when you get to Kitimat, but when you go away for any length of time all you want to do is get back.

“I don’t feel threatened when I walk around town on my own. You can’t say that about many other communities in B.C.”

A book keeper by trade, Sandra landed her first job at the then Kitimat Hotel and the couple moved out of the trailer park into Haisla apartments. Bob had quickly adjusted to work, and took up fishing and hunting in his spare time.

“Kitimat was a very different town in 1976 – nobody walked and everybody who retired left town.”

Sandra started working at the golf club, where she also started playing golf, a sport which she played until recently when she smashed her shoulder, effectively ending her golfing.

Her entry to newspapers came in 1986 when a friend saw an advert in the Sentinel for an accountant to work in the front office at the newspaper.

“I met Miss McDonald, then owner Howard Mitchell’s sister-in-law. She told me I had to straighten out the books,” said Sandra.

At the time the Sentinel had its own press in the back of the building, printing the newspaper and commercial printing as well.

After getting the ship back onto an even keel, Sandra settled into a lengthy career at the Sentinel, becoming the newspaper’s first general manager in 1990.

Black Press, the newspaper’s current owner, made numerous offers to purchase the Sentinel, which were rebuffed by Mitchell, until 1995 when he finally sold the newspaper.

“Black Press wanted me to stay on after the sale went through, and they offered me the position of publisher. The newspaper had never had a publisher before,” said Sandra.

She said the Sentinel kept plodding along, growing and contracting along with Kitimat, until the newspaper was downsized, with printing of the newspaper moved to Williams Lake.

Kitimat was undergoing downsizing as well, with the loss of Methanex and Eurocan, a shrinking tax base and a dwindling community.

“All of a sudden, we were a one-industry town, and the importance of the symbiotic relationship between Kitimat and Alcan became even more apparent,” said Sandra. “Alcan has been the town’s backbone – even though a lot of people don’t like hearing it, without them we wouldn’t exist.”

She said it also became very apparent how important it was for residents and businesses to spend their money in Kitimat, to keep the money in the town.

When Alcan automated the Kemano power station, closing down the town in 2000, 176 families were suddenly left without a source of income.

“Everyone in Kitimat realized that what had happened in Kemano could also happen here,” said Sandra. “The saddest part of the bust was seeing two schools closing down in the community.”

Eventually, in 2010 when she’d had enough, she retired from the Sentinel and began volunteering. Tragedy stuck a year later when her daughter Emma died six months after having given birth to her daughter.

Even though her son-in-law and granddaughter moved out of Kitimat, she still regularly video chats with her granddaughter.

She now focuses on volunteering, something she says is vital for the town.

“Volunteers keep everything ticking over in Kitimat, even though there is a very small group of people who do all the work,” said Sandra.

“The expression goes: if you want something done, give it to someone to do who’s already busy.”

She said she tries not to do too much volunteering, in case she becomes jaded.