How Fort St. John and Dawson Creek cracked the Top 5

Fort St. John | BCBusiness
Fort St. John.

Life in a boom town

To understand how dramatically fortunes have shifted in Peace River Country, consider the story of Lori Ackerman. Ackerman, acclaimed in November’s civic elections for a second term as Fort St. John’s mayor, moved to Dawson Creek—some 75 kilometres down the Alaska Highway—in the early ’80s to join her husband, who had found work in the construction business. He was one of the lucky few: when the couple arrived, it was a depressed time, with the dominant oil-and-gas industry suffering under Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program.

“I remember building a house at the time. I would go to the house in the morning to unlock the house for whatever contractor was coming in to do work, and there would be business cards wedged into the door jamb,” recalls the 54-year-old Manitoba native. “People were looking for work—they were that desperate to get any kind of work. The interest rates were skyrocketing. There was a lot of bartering going on—people who needed my husband’s skills but couldn’t pay. It was a tough time.”

Today, of course, it’s a different story. The oil-and-gas sector is booming and incomes are growing at an astonishing rate—up almost 20 per cent in the past five years in both Fort St. John and Dawson Creek. Ackerman, who’s lived in Fort St. John since 1988, points to a shift in policy by the provincial government for much of the current growth: the Summer Drilling Credit Program, a royalty program introduced in 2003 that encouraged year-round drilling. “That really turned around the community and the way the community worked.”

With rapid growth come big challenges. Boom times have drawn a younger, more transient population to the Peace, which has put a strain on city services. Ackerman rhymes off the problems: “The challenge lies in people making use of our health care and not contributing to it. And people who are having an impact on the roads, because: (a) there are more people on the roads, and (b) they don’t know how to drive in winter conditions.

“Also,” she continues, “people come up here and think they’re all-knowing, and they don’t realize that we have a very technically demanding industry. Coming up here without any skills is not the best thing to do. What we’re looking for are skilled workers.” What sort of jobs in particular? “I was told the other day that if you’re a welder, you’ve got a job,” she says. “And a Class-1 driver. And instrumentation technicians, machinists, power engineers. And I’ll take 10 doctors and at least that many nurses, thank you very much.”

One sign of encouragement for where things are headed, as far as Ackerman is concerned, is the growing presence of seniors in the community; the 65-plus demographic grew 15 per cent in the last census period, compared to overall growth of about five per cent. “What that is telling us is that people are building a life here—they’re building a social network here and they’re staying here. It’s important for parents and grandparents to have their children and their grandchildren around. Not everyone gets to stay in their home community and have that luxury.”

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