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Mayor Lori Ackerman of Fort St. John

The mayor of oil-and-gas boom town Fort St. John on B.C.’s northern job market and the mega-dam next door

For a city of just 30,000 residents, Fort St. John punches above its weight. The northeastern town is B.C.’s oil-and-gas heartland, along with neighbouring Dawson Creek, and home to some of the highest incomes in the province; it is also, according to this magazine’s 2015 Best Cities for Work list, the top place in B.C. to find a job. Now, the biggest infrastructure project in provincial history, the $8.8-billion Site C dam, is moving in next door, with construction having kicked off this summer. At the centre of it all: Mayor Lori Ackerman, who has been serving her municipalityfor a decade (four years as mayor, six on council)and last winter was named chair of the Peace River Regional District—or, as she calls it, B.C.’s prairies.

Fort St. John depends so heavily on the oil-and-gas sector. With falling oil prices ravaging Alberta’s economy, is there concern about the fallout locally?
Most of our economy is in servicing the oil-and-gas sector, so while there is a downturn for those in new production, the servicing companies remain busy. Unfortunately, because we don’t have an export market, natural gas is still linked to oil prices. We are definitely seeing the unemployment rate increasing. When I talk to our industry people here, it is slowing down, but things have not come to a halt.

FACTOID | Established in 1794 as Rocky Mountain Fort, Fort St. John is the oldest European settlement in B.C.
 

Unemployment in Fort St. John
4.2% March | 6.4% July

Unemployment in B.C.
6.3% March | 6.1% July


Source: Statistics Canada, Labour Force Survey


Former forestry boom towns now have some of the highest unemployment rates and lowest incomes in the province. What happens to Fort St. John if the world shifts away from oil and gas?
There will be a downturn in the economy, absolutely, but there are still going to be the existing facilities to manage. Oil and
gas is not something you can mirror with forestry.

And there’s still an impetus—especially with Site C—to recruit new workers to the Peace.
Absolutely.

What does the Site C project mean for Fort St. John?
We had a robust conversation with our community about how Site C would impact us. We want to be left better off. We have a desire to work with any proponent who is going to ensure our community is not knocked off the compass bearing we have set for developing the community.

And yet there has been a lot of pushback from First Nations and farmers whose land Site C threatens. Is consensus possible?
This is a divisive conversation in the community still—and as far as local government is concerned, we really do not have the mandate or authority to affect whether or not this project happens; the First Nations have a much greater ability to effect change. Our council took the approach that Noah may not have been in favour of the flood, but he built an ark—and so, through a “Let’s Talk Site C” conversation with the community, we’ve developed a robust foundation for a Community Measures Agreement to be negotiated with BC Hydro.

Speaking of long-term planning, you’ve been serving your city for a decade. What has that experience been like?
Unfortunately, just by virtue of our DNA, government moves at the speed of sloth. We can’t afford that in Fort St. John, so we look for ideas. We seek partnerships and open the door to suggestions. We go and learn from those who have been there. For example, I’ve been over to Fort McMurray and had conversations with my colleague over there, Mayor Melissa Blake. We bring that information home and look at it through the lens of Fort St. John.

You were born in Manitoba and have lived in all four Western provinces. What is it about Fort St. John that you find so appealing?
The open sky of the prairies. And Northeast B.C., if you haven’t been here, we are the northern prairies of Canada. We’re Canada’s most northern agricultural area.

Tell us something about Fort St. John that only a local would know.
There’s always a second set of hands available if you need them. I’ve never had to change a tire that I didn’t want to change. Your tire goes flat on the side of the road, and someone pulls over and changes it for you. It’s a growing small city that still
has that hometown feel to it, where the kids can still walk to school if they want to, but it’s offering opportunities. There are opportunities here to kick-start your career—if you aren’t afraid of a snowflake.

 


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Site C: By the Numbers

COST* $8.8 billion
COMPLETION* 2025
NO. OF HOMES IT COULD POWER* 450,000
LAND FLOODED* 55 square kilometres
*estimates