Boom, Bust, and No-Go – Development on BC’s North Coast
Vancouver is blanketed in signs advertising new condominiums – new and better lifestyles! – and on city blocks where they have not yet been erected, placards proclaiming a site’s application for development are common. This is especially true in the Downtown Eastside, where developer-friendly municipal policies have made a humanitarian crisis worse. Housing for the most vulnerable, who are being displaced from their homes onto the street, is treated as an afterthought.
But unchecked development and skyrocketing housing prices aren’t just a “Vancouver Special.” Last summer, in the middle of Prince Rupert’s quaint Cow Bay tourist district, I saw a sign that proclaimed to the world: DEVELOPMENT OPPORTUNITY – For Comprehensive Development. “Qualified parties” who were interested in the three large lots were directed to contact City Hall, whose logo appeared in the sign’s bottom corner. It is likely that today that sign has been replaced with fencing and construction equipment. Prince Rupert, along with north coast urban centers Kitimat and Terrace, has seen a resource extraction related economic “recovery” with a high human cost, whose results include a massive increase in the price of housing, and a dire shortage in its availability.
Over the last century, the populations of these towns have fluctuated wildly, buffeted by the boom and bust cycles of extractive industry. Today, with the provincial government aggressively courting investors in “Liquefied Natural Gas” – extracted using the destructive process of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in northeastern BC – on the surface it seems as though these towns have been given a new lease on life. But their future is extremely uncertain: the government has not secured investment commitments for any of the plants that would liquefy the fracked gas; and the combination of high production costs and fierce competition with other producers present large obstacles. Moreover, the determined and principled resistance of Indigenous groups such as Unist’ot’en Camp (Wet’suwet’en) and Madii ’Lii Camp (Gitxsan) to pipelines that would supply fracked gas to the unfinished terminals on the coast, has provided leadership and inspiration to those trying to forge a more respectful approach to living.
The trouble is, industry has continued to build anyway. Pipeline rights-of-way are clear-cut before the pipeline is approved; mountains are blasted to lay the foundation for LNG plants that don’t have investors; neighbourhoods are rezoned for condos against the wishes of those who live there. These examples share a similar pattern of operation that can be (generously) summed up as “better to ask forgiveness than permission.” The lust to extract resources regardless of the human and environmental impact has been the engine of Canadian history, powering colonial land grabs, and creating a labour force that is constantly displaced while following the boom-bust cycle of resource extraction capitalism.
On the other side of Cow Bay, the Prince Rupert Port Authority operates a museum of sorts. It consists almost entirely of panels with texts proclaiming to investors (and anyone else who wanders in) Prince Rupert’s virtues as a port, as well as the odd interactive video. The tone – even the font! – of the display will be familiar to anyone who has walked around the Downtown Eastside. First, in big print, a succession of adjectives to whet desire; then smaller print with a few details. In the background a video showing caterpillars on a slag heap runs continuously, as if to say, “Look at what we reduced this place to! Isn’t it great?”