Nation building takes bold policy action

Bold action over 100 years ago paved the way for success today in places like Prince Rupert. 


The economic revival of Prince Rupert on the North Coast of British Columbia that began in 2007, soon after a near collapse in 2001, was spectacular. The revival continues today.   

Notably, the foundation for this success was a bold nation-building decision made 100 years prior. Hopefully, leaders today will have the courage and foresight to take similar nation-building steps while building an abundant electricity supply. 

Prince Rupert and Port Edward were the regional retail, commercial and transportation business hubs and manufacturing centres on the North Coast for most of the 20th century. 

They provided services for North Coast Indigenous Communities, fishing fleets, fish-buying stations and logging camps. They built and repaired fishing vessels and built deep-sea commercial and navy vessels during the early to mid-20th century.   

By 2000, the Indigenous communities remained vibrant, but there were very few logging camps, and only a handful of sports fishing lodges remained. Large-scale shipping-building had turned into aluminum sports fishing and work boats. The fishing fleet declined in numbers, and many were relocated to the south coast as fish catches shrank.  Most vessel repair facilities are gone. 

The decline escalated during the 1970s and 80s. Ultimately, the pulp mill closed in 2001 and the last salmon cannery closed in 2015 - signifying the end of an era – the end of manufacturing in Prince Rupert and Port Edward. 

The transportation sector suffered as well. There was no pulp and lumber to ship from Watson Island. Grain and coal volumes fell off a cliff. Prince Rupert Port Authority records show that volumes fell from a high of 13,390,355 tonnes in 1994 to a low of 4,257,260 tonnes in 2003.  

The fall led to unemployment and the relocation of assets at CN Rail.     

One statistic speaks the loudest: The population of Prince Rupert and Port Edward declined by 27 percent between 1996 and 2016    

There was a desperate need for a new economic strategy.   

Don Krusel, then President and CEO of the Prince Rupert Port Authority, led the effort behind a bold vision. Together, they set out to grow the Port of Prince Rupert into a world-class seaport and logistic centre.   

The Port Authority launched the vision with the Northland Cruise Terminal and Fairview Container Terminal. 

The era of intermodal shipping was well underway. Containers facilitated the globalization of supply chains.   

Container terminals in Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, and Vancouver expanded, and the city streets and rail lines could not keep up with the volume.   

The Prince Rupert Port Authority recognized that Prince Rupert had three significant advantages over other West Coast ports.   

  • There are only 12,000 people to move the containers through, not millions, guaranteeing no congestion.  
  • CN Rail’s west coast terminus in Prince Rupert provided shorter sailing times to Asia, faster rail transit time to the US mid-west and central Canada and easy access to western Canada’s natural resources and agricultural products. 
  • Most importantly, CN Rail had the most surplus capacity of any Class 1 railway in North America and was committed to the project. 

Undeniable success. 

Port of Prince Rupert volumes in 2019 were 29,512,243 tonnes, a 593% increase over the lowest year 2003 of 4,257,260 tonnes. And a 120% increase over the previous historic record in 1994.  source: Prince Rupert Port Authority 

The numbers were also outstanding for workers.  Prince Rupert’s population has remained stable at around 13,000. However, according to the Bank of Canada Inflation Calculator, the median annual household income adjusted for inflation has risen from $82,493 in 2000 to $122,000 in 2020, in equivalent dollars.  (Actual 2000 income $57,250) 

The container terminal’s success attracted the attention of the broader international maritime logistics industry, including the LNG industry. Fairview Container Terminal played a part in the nearly complete LNG Canada project in Kitimat and, hopefully, the success of the Haisla Cedar LNG and the Nisga’a KSI Lisims LNG 

Two propane export facilities are operating in Prince Rupert—one operated by Pembina and one operated by Altagas in partnership with Trigon Terminals. 

All this activity has been a boon for local construction, civil works, hospitality, off-site tradespersons, air travel and professional services and many other businesses. And there is much more expansion yet to come 

The most significant impact is the integration of Indigenous-owned businesses in all aspects of the local economy. 

None of this could have happened had it not been for the decision 110 years ago to build the Great Trunk Pacific Railway link from Winnipeg to Prince Rupert, now CN Rail.   

Even though the rail line had operated for 110 years, it had never run at total capacity.  We should be proud of the foresight to build it and the commitment to keep it operating.  CN Rail was there at critical times. 

During WW2, it served in the supply and maintenance of critical joint Canada/US defences and the building of the Alaskan Highway. As western farmers increased yields and markets opened in Asia, the grain terminal in Prince Rupert ensured access to those markets. The same holds for being available for the new metallurgical coal mines developed in Northeast BC in the 1980s.   

Foresight and commitment positioned Canada to be a legitimate competitor in global trade. 

The Grand Trunk Railway made Northern BC and Canada what they are today. The politicians of the past set bold policies, acted, and stuck with the plan. They didn’t worry about building, only what was needed immediately.  Not when it came to infrastructure and utilities.   

Past leaders taught us to build for the future and prepare for the unknown. Today’s politicians, infrastructure managers, and utility regulators must take note.   

Growth is the foundation of Canada and BC’s current nation-building strategy: population, economy, incomes, diversification of markets and trade and electrification.  

The key to this strategy is energy, particularly electricity. Why would governments and regulators worry about too much electricity? Given our goals, even if we could build too much electricity, it would not be too much for too long, and we don’t know what we don’t know. 

Take a lesson from the past leaders who built more than enough rail lines to secure Canada’s place in the world a hundred years ago and today.  An abundance of a vital asset means it is there when you need it.    

Anything less than abundance creates scarcity.  Scarcity leads to rationing. Rationing leads to failure and discontent.   

Jim Rushton is a 46-year veteran of BC's resource and transportation sectors, with experience in union representation, economic development, and terminal management.





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