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News from the Nisga’a

Mark Milke: BC needs its resource sector, and another multibillion dollar project is a welcome change.

The Nisga’a First Nation on the north BC coast has announced plans to construct a $10-billion liquified natural gas (LNG) facility, including pipelines to connect BC’s northeast natural gas wells to export markets in Asia. The announcement by the Nisga’a and its project partners made clear that this is in early stages, but if successful, the project forecasts $55 billion in benefits.

This announcement in BC was in obvious contrast to the Quebec government, which just turned down a $9 billion natural gas/LNG project, citing environmental concerns. (Quebec, it seems, is happy to take tens of billions of dollars annually in equalization payments that on a net basis, originate in British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario, but yet thumb its nose at a chance to become self-supporting in its finances but I digress.)

The Nisga’a announcement is fundamentally positive for British Columbia. That’s in part because it shows at least one government, somewhere in this vast country of ours, grasps that the resource sector matters. Also, if Canadians want a future in our high-cost country, it’s not going to happen without higher-paying jobs, such as those that exist in the resource sector, be it in natural gas, oil, forestry, or mining.

To wit, in the British Columbia I grew up in, most people understood this. When I was teenager in the 1980s, mining and forestry were a significant part of BC’s economy and to some degree still are: provincial resource revenues are forecast to be $2.2 billion this year including over $1.1 billion from forestry alone. Those are royalties and stumpage receipts and do not include corporate income taxes from resource companies or personal income taxes from those employed at the same. That $2.2 billion is just shy of $2.5 billion to be spent on child welfare this year.

For what it’s worth, it appears most British Columbians still support the resource sector even if resources are not top of mind—consider pipelines as an example, oil pipelines usually garnering the least sympathy: In 2019, 53% of British Columbians thought the lack of new oil pipeline capacity a “crisis.” In addition, Indigenous Canadians also overwhelmingly support resource development, 65% according to a June poll with only 23% opposed.

Still, it is also quite clear that for decades, necessary attention to resources as a great place to work with or without a university degree has been declining. Also, the resource future is less-than-bright if current BC government policy continues.

Problem 1: Urban detachment

Part of this attitudinal development is understandable. BC’s population has grown and with urban centres such as Metro Vancouver exploding in population, many new Canadians and those from other provinces, those who sip Chardonnay on a Vancouver patio overlooking English Bay are not likely to give much thought to BC’s resource sector, historic or now. Urban life is like that.

Problem 2: Anti-entrepreneurial politics

Still, such cultural developments aside, another reason BC’s resource sector is under-appreciated is because of ideological activism in and outside of politics. This has been a problem for decades. One left-wing labour economist recently bragged about how proud he was to leave academia in the 1970s to help out Dave Barrett, the NDP premier from 1972 to 1975. Andrew Jackson noted how Barrett’s government, including one of its ideological members, Bob Williams, saw no need to “excessively defer to ‘free enterprise’”.

Indeed, the 1970s NDP mimicked severely interventionist governments the world over. Jackson even describes Williams as a “public-sector entrepreneur par excellence.” Think about that: A Barrett-era cabinet minister who favoured nationalizing huge swaths of the economy, from forestry and mining to automobile insurance (the latter sector was in fact captured and turned into the inefficient government-owned ICBC) is described as an “entrepreneur.”

Williams, Barrett, and their colleagues were the first in BC politics to begin tarring  and feathering free enterprise at the expense of resource revenue and BC jobs.

Over the next few decades, such attacks continued, including today. That’s why over the decades, mining companies started to speak Spanish and invest in Chile. It is why more recently, forestry companies have largely invested outside British Columbia in locales such as the southern United States. (As for the reason, Vaughn Palmer recently noted one study from RBC that now puts BC costs for forestry companies at the “high end of the scale” compared with other provinces and with U.S. states.)

Problem 3: Decades of anti-resource activism

In addition to political ideologues, British Columbia has been beset by green purists, especially over the past 30 years. The last century’s conservationist-environmental movement was often beneficial for humanity, be it Teddy Roosevelt’s creation of the national park system in the United States, and earlier parallel park creations here in Canada, or just attention to ill-advised practices and reasonable calls for reform in various industries.

But any movement can become rigid and ideological, utopian and purist. Too many of BC’s activists are just that and there’s a long history of this problem.

For example, the late William Stanbury, in 2000 and while a business professor at the University of British Columbia, wrote, “Environmental Groups and the International Conflict Over the Forests of British Columbia, 1990 to 2000.”

Stanbury was the first to note deep-dive into the subject of foreign funding for BC’s green groups. He found that the “war in the woods” against BC’s forestry companies had plenty of American funding. Many of the names in his book would yet be familiar today, having migrated from opposing much forestry, then mining, then engaging in anti-fish-farm campaigns and then more recently engaging in anti-oil and gas activism.

The majority of British Columbians intuitively still grasp that the resource sector matters. The problem is that too often, the ideologues are in politics or the provincial bureaucracy, and thus wield the power to impede, or seem to have no job outside of protests and activism and thus can literally tie up even approved projects.

The Nisga’a announcement of a $10-billion LNG plant is fundamentally positive. It is also in line with what British Columbia has always been and should continue to be: A resource province that doesn’t chase away investment with high-cost, high-regulation diktats and instead becomes an investment magnet for the same.

Mark Milke wears many hats and one is that of an author. His most recent book is The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations.