Is it possible to create quality, respectful conversations about natural resource issues – even when tempers are running hot? Resource Works offers some ideas to help municipal leaders navigate this challenging area.
This is from the text of a report submitted to the District of Squamish Council in early 2015 following a Community Conversations on Natural Resources event held there. Squamish is an energetic, growing place that has plenty of natural charm yet is located just a short drive from the concrete jungle of downtown Vancouver. This is particularly relevant for municipal leaders gathered in Vancouver for the Union of British Columbia Municipalities.
There is an energetic debate today in Squamish that can be roughly characterized by the following question: Is Squamish a “resource town” or isn’t it? In this short report, we argue that this question presents a false choice. No community should have to choose between different economic sectors. In fact, embracing diverse industries is one of the best strategies for ensuring long-term economic security.
Wrestling with the concept of a “resource town”
Perhaps more than any other municipality in BC, Squamish has been forced to wrestle with its relationship to natural resource industries. Forestry has played an important role in the history of Squamish, but the district’s identity has shifted in its recent years, most notably after the closing of the Woodfibre Pulp Mill in 2006. The district has displayed remarkable economic resilience, growing an impressive consumer-oriented local economy focused on tourism, recreation and real estate.
And now, with a proposal to build an LNG export facility at the site of the old Woodfibre mill, an opportunity has arrived to once again strengthen Squamish’s resource economy. In response to this opportunity, many Squamish residents are asking valid questions about what this means for their community. Is this still who we are? Are we – and do we want to be – a “resource town”?
Resource Works has played a small role in this conversation, visiting Squamish in October 2014 to host an open dialogue session with Squamish residents to explore their ideas about resource development. Based on what we heard from Squamish residents in that session, we offer a few perspective that we hope Council will find helpful as it considers the District’s future economic development.
The role of natural resources in a diversified economy
According to the most recent available analysis of the Squamish regional economy, 9.3 percent of jobs in the region depend on natural resources, either directly or indirectly. This puts the region very close to the provincial average in terms of resource-dependent workers. According to recent research by Resource Works, 9.7 percent of workers in BC have jobs that depend on natural resources, either directly or indirectly. Looking at employment numbers alone will therefore not help resolve the question of whether Squamish is a “resource town.” Resource jobs are a significant part of the Squamish labour force, but they do not dominate the local economy to the extent seen in other BC communities. Squamish stands in a middle ground, with one foot in the resource sector and one foot in consumer-focused industries.
It is worth noting that the impact of the resource sector is not always well represented by its share of local employment. As shown in the tables below, jobs in the natural resource sector produce higher than average spin-off jobs in other areas of the economy and pay some of the highest wages in the province.
Much can be said about the economic benefits of resource industries, but it is important to recognize that highly resource-dependent communities bear many risks. As a trade-dependent region, BC is vulnerable to changes in economic conditions outside our control. Squamish has certainly experienced the effects of instability in the forestry sector, just as many Canadian communities are now experiencing the impacts of the recent drop in oil prices.
Squamish has prospered in recent years in large part due to its economic diversity. As forestry declined, tourism and real estate grew. Of course, trends can swing both ways. Tourism and real estate can be as vulnerable to market swings as natural resource industries. As many BC communities have learned, economic diversity is ultimately the best source of long-term economic security.
Residents were looking for balance and facts
Resource Works hosted a community dialogue session as part of an eight-part series called Community Conversations on Natural Resources. Twenty-four Squamish residents joined us at the Squamish Seniors’ Centre to share their perspectives on resource development. The two-hour event was designed to address two key questions: How would you describe responsible resource development? And how do we build productive public dialogue?
We recorded what we heard at that event and afterward performed methodical content analysis to identify the key ideas expressed by our participants. (Results from all eight of our sessions are available in the Community Conversations report at resourceworks.com)
Responsible resource development: Community, environment and innovation
When asked to describe what “responsible resource development” meant to them, our Squamish participants emphasized three major themes: community involvement, environmental protection and innovation.
Participants emphasized that responsible resource development must involve community input and provide community benefits. Residents said that they expect resource proponents to engage in meaningful consultation that addresses the concerns of community members, with special consideration for the concerns of First Nations communities.
As well, participants said that responsible resource development must be mutually beneficial, with affected communities benefiting from jobs, training and other economic impacts.
Environmental protection was another key theme in these discussions. Participants emphasized that resource development must not negatively impact local environments, with a focus on preserving the quality of affected areas’ air and water quality and preserving local ecosystems.
The third major theme that emerged is that responsible resource development entails innovation, particularly developing methods to better protect the environment. Some participants emphasized the need for industry to support a global transition to low-carbon energy.
All participants were also asked to describe responsible resource development by selecting concepts from a list of broad values.
Productive public dialogue: Information, inclusion, flexibility
The second part of our conversation session focused on how British Columbians can help build a more productive public dialogue on natural resource issues. The most prominent themes in this discussion were: reliable information, inclusion and flexibility.
The most commonly identified factor required for productive dialogue was reliable information. Many Squamish participants said they find it difficult to know who to trust in public discussions about natural resources, and many expressed a desire for neutral, credible information with which to reach decisions. Many expressed dissatisfaction with public dialogue characterized by misinformation, incomplete information and emotionally manipulative messaging.
Inclusion was another major these in this conversation, with participants emphasizing that a broad segment of the community should be encouraged to participate in public dialogue on resource decisions. Many participants said that it’s important for industry proponents, government leaders, regulators and citizens themselves to hear a broad range of voices.
The third main theme is that people engaged in dialogue must be prepared to change their thinking and their behaviour based on what they hear. Participants in our conversation sessions said they wanted more flexibility and open-mindedness and less behaviour characterized by narrow self-interest and ideology.
Conclusion: Pursuing a balanced, diversified regional economy
This report shows that the role of natural resource industries in Squamish need not be an all-or-nothing, either-or question. The economic data shows that Squamish is a diverse region that benefits from both resource industries and consumer-focused industries. And recent history shows that Squamish has benefitted greatly from this diversity.
Our conversations with Squamish residents also show a rejection of absolutist yes-or-no attitudes toward resource development. Even participants who came into the room with very different attitudes on resource issues were able to agree on certain fundamental values that should guide resource development. They expressed a desire to have a better public dialogue on resource development, one that includes more community participation, better information and more willingness to incorporate community values into project planning.
And so, is Squamish a “resource town” or isn’t it? We argue that this question presents a false choice. Squamish has an inspiring story where it has created a diverse regional economy that includes both resource and non-resource industries, something many municipalities in BC still struggle to accomplish.
Our recommendation is that Squamish Council not limit its economic development goals to be either resource-based or non-resource-based. Rather, we recommend pursuing a diversified regional economy, which we argue is the best way to ensure long-term economic stability in face of uncertain global markets. Based on our conversations with Squamish residents, there is an appetite for an inclusive, credible conversation on how to achieve responsible resource development that reflects their values. We encourage Squamish Council to support that worthwhile process.