How Vancouver's economy became alienated from the rest of British Columbia

Despite diversification, British Columbia’s economy remains heavily reliant on resource industries for prosperity, with hopes of rebuilding urban-rural connections through Indigenous-led initiatives.


Since the 1970s, British Columbia’s economy has diversified. However, resource industries are still the most essential and beneficial sector. Simply put, investment in resource industries delivers more bang for the buck – higher incomes, taxes, exports, spinoffs – just broader prosperity.

Diversification is good and should be pursued.  But not at the expense and neglect of resources, manufacturing and utilities.   

Diversification in industries like tourism, accommodation, food services, entertainment, films, TV, and culture have fewer benefits, produce lower incomes and lower tax revenues. Technology and professional services generate better value but are not on par with the resource and industrial sectors. The path to a larger and healthier service sector is through a larger and healthier resource sector.    

It is not surprising the resource sectors have little support outside rural BC and increasingly Indigenous  Communities. Seventy percent of BC’s population lives in Vancouver, the Fraser Valley and Greater Victoria, where the people have little to no personal, political or cultural association with people who live and work in the resource communities.  

This disassociation has not always been so. When I lived and worked as a logger in Campbell River in the early 1970s, rural and urban folk were cut from the same fabric.   When I moved to Metro Vancouver in 1977, it was evident the fabric was fraying.  

At that time, resource harvesting, processing and manufacturing went on throughout the province in large cities, small cities, towns, villages and camps.

In fact, Metro Vancouver was home to the province’s heaviest concentration of resource processing, manufacturing and export facilities. Paper mills, pulp mills, sawmills, fish plants, boatyards, shipyards, steel and iron works, and marine terminals that exported grain, coal, ore concentrates, lumber, pulp and paper lined the shores of Burrard Inlet, Howe Sound, False Creek and the Fraser River.   

Thousands of Metro Vancouverites supported their families by working remotely. They flew and sailed into logging, mining and fishing camps. Millwrights, welders, machinists, and construction workers regularly travelled into rural and remote BC to build and provide maintenance for processing and manufacturing plants. 

Many thousands of Metro Vancouver residents were like me, very recent migrants from rural BC. Many more had relatives living in the upcountry and upcoast.   

Urban residents could see, hear, and smell the province’s natural resource economy from their doorstep. The connection was more intimate than that; it was social and psychological. 

The trade union movement was the most potent substance that cemented the connection between the rural and urban workers.   

The bulk of the labour movement post-WW2 were workers who harvested resources, who processed and manufactured goods from those resources, and who transported both resources and manufactured goods. Public sector and service industry workers were an emerging group within the trade union movement during the 50s, 60s, and 70s. 

The big industrial unions were the driving force within the labour movement.

Unions like the International Woodworkers of America, United Steelworkers of America, United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union, Canadian Paperworkers Union, Pulp and Papers Workers of Canada, Canadian Boilermakers Union, the Building Trades, International Longshore and Warehouse Union and Seafarers International Union had a province-wide membership and impact.   

There was a weakness. There were only isolated instances of broad Indigenous  participation in the unions. The United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union had a large Indigenous  membership, particularly on the North Coast. The UFAWU worked alongside the Native Brotherhood of BC on several sets of negotiations and campaigns. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union had Indigenous  significant participation in Port Alberni and Lax Kw’alaams.    

At the community level, these unions were organized into Labour Councils. That provided a platform for political, civic, and cultural activities within each community.  There was hardly a town that did not have a Union Hall or two. Union Halls predated community civic centres, hosting meetings, weddings, children’s Christmas parties, dances, memorials and much more.   

Provincially, the BC Federation of Labour moulded the Labour Councils into a powerful entity. The annual convention was a star-studded event.  All eyes were on it: governments, media, and corporations, large segments of the 6 o’clock news were dedicated to the convention every day for a week. Decisions taken were felt throughout the year.  

Political parties, the Labour Movement, and civil society agreed that the resource industries led the economy. Change was on the way as the 1970s ended, as domestic and global events strained the consensus.   

The surge in resource extraction and manufacturing employment, consumerism and professional services following the end of WW2 in Western Europe, Canada and the United States was challenged throughout the 1970s. The decade became known as the end of the “the Golden Age of Capitalism.”   

Capitalism didn’t come to an end; it grew. Countries devastated by the Second World War, particularly Germany and Japan had been reconstructed.

Industrialization took root in predominantly agricultural countries, such as South Korea, China, Greece, Belgium, Italy, and other emerging nations following the war. These countries had an advantage. They were industrializing from a modern, more productive and lower cost baseline.   

Meanwhile, much of the productive capacity of Great Britain, France, the United States and Canada was built prior to the Great Depression, during the war, or shortly thereafter. They had higher costs, less productivity and now lower rates of investment.       

The 1970s, in Canada was a decade of “stagflation” - high inflation, high unemployment, heavy-handed government intervention in the economy, and labour unrest. The decade was framed by the 1973 – 75 Recession and Wage and Price Controls in Canada and the United States.   

In BC, forest product facilities were aging and competing against modern plants, less expensive wood fibre, lower wages in Scandinavian countries, Asia and South America.   

Declining investment, productivity, and market share resulted in industry consolidation and job loss. Metro Vancouver effectively deindustrialized, except for the marine, rail, trucking, light manufacturing and warehousing industries.  

The impact on the Trade Union Movement, particularly the industrial trade unions, was devastating.    

Statistics Canada reports that between 1981 and 2022, trade union participation as a percentage of the workforce fell from 38 percent to 29 percent. Two-thirds of this decline took place before 1997.  All new growth was in services, technology and cultural sectors. 

The report draws this conclusion on resource workers: 

“The decline in unionization observed among men was partly driven by employment shifts away from manufacturing, a sector with traditionally high unionization rates.  However, declines in union membership within goods-producing industries also played a role.  

For example, the percentage of union members fell between 13 and 19 percentage points from the early 1980s to the late 1990s among men employed in forestry, mining, manufacturing, and construction (Morissette, Schellenberg and Johnson 2005).” 

The decline in unionization was greater in British Columbia than Canada as a whole, with 14.7 percent compared to 9 percent.   

The 1970s saw the physical, social, and psychological association between Metro Vancouver, Greater Victoria, the Fraser Valley and rural British Columbia severed despite the resource sector remaining the top contributor to the economy to this day.  

There is hope today that the physical, social and psychological association between the people working in public administration, service, technology and cultural industries and people working in the resource, industrial and transportation industries can be reconstructed.       

The foundation blocks of this hope are the great strides being taken by Indigenous-led and owned companies and organizations in the direct ownership of significant real estate developments, resource projects, utilities, and local enterprises in communities in every corner of the province.   

This time with the full-on participation and leadership from Indigenous communities. 


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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