Two Economies, One Province: B.C.’s urban and rural areas are more connected than you might think

From software to spirits, from restaurant meals to building supplies, rural and urban residents are working together to make British Columbia stronger

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Urban and rural British Columbia aren’t separate worlds. As we learned from tapping the BC Chamber of Commerce network, they’re increasingly important to each other

Val Litwin enjoys telling a story about a meal he had this past summer in Tumbler Ridge in northeastern B.C. And no, it’s not to complain that his eggs were a little more over-easy than he would have liked. “I had breakfast with the president of a metallurgical coal mine and the facility manager of a wind farm,” recalls Litwin, president and CEO of BCBusiness partner the BC Chamber of Commerce. “And the wind farm guy said, ‘If only people understood I need a couple tonnes of his metallurgical coal to make each wind turbine I have.'”

Since Litwin took the helm at the BC Chamber in late 2016, he’s tried to foster harmony between the province’s technology-driven urban industries and its more traditional rural jobs. It hasn’t always been a simple task, given the perception that big cities such as Vancouver and Victoria function separately from the resource-based economy in the Interior and the north. 

“Where there’s a gap, and where the unhealthy narrative has unfolded, is that perhaps the average person on the street doesn’t understand how connected they are,” Litwin says. “If you’re at a five-star restaurant in Vancouver and your perfectly done medium-rare steak reaches your table, you may not know that the beef came from the Thompson-Okanagan region, or that the natural gas that flame-broiled it came from the northeast.”

Those who work in industries that depend on this rural-urban interplay know how much the two economies need each other. That’s a fairly new development. Just ask Dan Baxter, the BC Chamber’s director of policy development, government and stakeholder relations, who joined the advocacy group in 2013. “When I first started, the relationship felt more combative; it was us versus them,” Baxter says. “Some parts of the province don’t necessarily feel they get their fair share, and that’s obviously a fair conversation, but I think more and more people are coming at it from a point of view now of  ‘How do we grow together?'”

Bruce Anderson, chair of Ottawa-based Abacus Data Inc., oversaw a poll of some 870 BC Chamber members last November. “In the past, you could see some cleavages between people who live in the smaller and mid-sized communities in the northern and eastern parts of the province who would think that all of the benefits were skewing toward the Lower Mainland and parts of the Island,” the veteran pollster says of the annual Collective Perspective survey. “[Now] the numbers are pretty consistent in every region of the province.” 

For example, the proportion of respondents in northern B.C. who called their business outlook for the next three to five years good or very good (67 percent) closely tracked that in the Lower Mainland (78 percent).

To Anderson’s surprise, the poll numbers were much more uniform across regions than the results of last year’s provincial election, which returned the NDP to power after 16 years of BC Liberal rule: “If I were wondering if the election of a less business-oriented government would put a real damper on the expectations of businesses about their futures, you don’t see it in these results at all.”

In the next several days on our website, you’ll hear from 11 businesses and other organizations—many of them members of the BC Chamber network—that have embraced the urban-rural connection, from a Kamloops software company to a Dawson Creek grain co-op. In a global economy, as Ron Sangara, president of Delta-based Leslie Forest Products Ltd., likes to say, all British Columbians are neighbours.

Credit: Pooya Nabei

Bryan Cox, president and CEO of the mining association of BC, thinks that the province’s copper supply will come in handy 

As Canada’s top producer of copper, B.C. stands to gain from the electric car revolution

Elon Musk, co-founder and CEO of electric car maker Tesla Inc., rolled into Vancouver for a much-hyped TED Talk last April. But chances are everyone’s favourite entrepreneur hasn’t visited the areas of the province he may come to depend on. 

Since Tesla released its Model S in 2012, auto giants like BMW AG, General Motors Co. and Daimler AG have scrambled over each other to produce their own electric cars. To do so, they need plenty of copper; thanks to the circuitry in their motors, these vehicles require up to four times more of the metal than conventional four-wheelers. 

Last year worldwide sales of electric cars and plug-in hybrids surged about 50 per cent over 2016, to just below 1.2 million, according to the Electric Vehicle World Sales Database. Such vehicles now account for more than 2 per cent of all automobiles. In 2016, B.C. mined roughly 345,000 metric tonnes of copper, Statistics Canada reports. Ontario was the country’s second-largest producer, with just over 200,000 metric tonnes, while all other provinces were below 50,000. 

“We’re going to have a really big global demand for copper here,” predicts Bryan Cox, president and CEO of the Mining Association of BC, who stresses that copper is a key material in the production of everything from homes to electronic goods. “So we need to be able to plan for that well in advance, and ensure we have that supply on the market.” 

Today there are seven active major copper mines in the province, according to Cox: two in Williams Lake and one each in Campbell River, Dease Lake, Fort St. James, Kamloops and Princeton. Copper ores and concentrates were B.C.’s fourth-largest export in 2016, accounting for a combined total of more than $2.7 billion from countries like Japan, China and South Korea. 

“Each direct job at a copper mine in B.C. has at least two supplier jobs that are attached to it, and many of those jobs are located in the Lower Mainland,” Cox says. “Mining is a unique industry in B.C. natural resource–wise, because we truly do touch every single quarter of the province.”