Stewart Muir: BC natural resources debate needs balance

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Exclusive to The Georgia Straight: Recently, a young man in Vancouver gained overnight notoriety with a crude video game enacting a massacre in the Main Street SkyTrain station. When television news caught up with him to find out why, he reeled off a list of frustrations he claimed led to him making the game. Among them: natural resource development and an inadequate transit system

 

For city dwellers who relate to this sentiment—if not the alarming and deplorable method chosen to vent it — there is a growing disconnect in there that should concern anyone who cares about green, sustainable jobs in the city

We hear a lot of talk these days about how the technology and green sectors are overtaking old-school natural resource jobs in this province. This claim is simply not true. As in its first 150 years, today British Columbia’s resource sector remains a significant economic driver — with an interesting twist.

It’s very good news that there are more technology and green jobs for city dwellers today, and the rejoicing we hear about that is justified.

But ask yourself: a young technologist uses advanced 3D software to figure out the best path for a natural gas pipeline to cross a stream, so the impact on the environment is minimized.

A First Nation wants to create jobs on its traditional lands so its people can choose to come home and make a decent living. The LNG project they are partnering to build will disturb the land, maybe burial sites too, so archeologists are called in to apply their advanced techniques to understand the situation.

What kind of jobs are these?

Green — tick. Technology — tick. Natural resource — tick.

It’s all three — that’s the twist. Labeling them green or tech jobs without acknowledging the resource dependencies creates confusion.

Similar things could be said of many other jobs in diverse, high-paying fields like geographic information systems, robotics, real estate, finance, and education. This includes many high-quality union jobs. In other words, the people using the SkyTrain every day.

Based on recent economic research by the non-profit Resource Works Society, some 160,000 Lower Mainland residents are in this kind of employment as well as direct natural resource jobs.

A resource-related job in British Columbia — whether you are talking about the iconic logger or someone who works in a downtown office — produces nearly double the value of other jobs.

Natural resources—forestry, mining, energy, fishing, agriculture — drive a widespread service economy and create direct government revenues used to pay for things we need.

The protest movement would be wise not to disregard where the general public stands on this. A recent Resource Works-Ipsos Reid poll found that 56 percent of Metro Vancouver residents disagree that natural resources will become less important to the economy over the next 10 to 20 years. Fully 75 percent told us they would be concerned if the sector were to go into decline.

But suppose the broad democratic will of the people was thwarted and through activist efforts, B.C.’s natural resources sector did wind down.

Today, people should be asking themselves this question: what am I prepared to give up if we give up on natural resources?

We heat our homes with natural gas, take our cars to go camping, and we enjoy our iPhones. The list goes on.

Ironically, if Canada is forced to significantly trim back its natural resource industries, no one has been able to show how we would be able to afford costly green investments like urban transit.

Many people have long had a sense that we have lost balance in this conversation. At the municipal level, resource projects on the drawing board are too often seen as consequence-free opportunities for politicians to capitalize on public anxiety.

There is strong public interest in the economic facts. We should retain skepticism about industry claims but also realize there are pros and cons to everything.

A starting point for moving forward is to ensure as many people as possible have access to good information. The result will be a more informed conversation about the future we invent.

 

Stewart Muir is executive director of the Resource Works Society, based in Vancouver. He is a co-author of The Sea Among Us, coming soon from Harbour Publishing.


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