What do B.C.’s small-towners think of Northern Gateway?

Bentley’s Family Restaurant | BCBusiness
Bentley’s Family Restaurant in Mayerthorpe.

The proposed Northern Gateway pipeline has brought issues of politics, economics, the environment and social development to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. A team of BCBusiness and Alberta Venture journalists travelled the length of the proposed route and met with the people most directly affected

Bruderheim, Alberta | 56 km northeast of Edmonton
Mayor Karl Hauch sees a lot about his town in relation to a better past. “Back in the day, things looked a lot different around here,” he says. Economic and population growth opportunities are limited today, he says, despite the town’s proximity to booming Fort Saskatchewan. That’s pressuring basic services. “There are big needs in our community.” The town’s curling rink closed years ago, and the ice-surfacing machine at the arena is on its last legs. Bruderheim raised partial funding to fix it through the Kraft Hockeyville contest, which residents desperately bombarded with entries and won.

The saviour, lately, has not been government but instead the energy industry, whose pipelines surround the town. Calgary’s Inter Pipeline gave Bruderheim $50,000 this year so it could buy a new school bus. Shell donated $80,000 to buy a diesel generator to ensure the fire hall has uninterrupted electricity. “Those kinds of things are key building blocks of our community,” Hauch says.

It’s not surprising, then, that Hauch says there are few detractors to Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project in Bruderheim. “Anything that you come up with, there’s always going to be someone opposed to it. I can’t say there wouldn’t be anyone, but I haven’t talked to any folks here that are opposed,” he says.

Instead, there seems to be an accepting indifference. “People hear a bit about it in the news but, to be honest, it’s not really an issue for most folks,” Hauch says. “The more business we can get in town, that’s positive. In our area, knock on wood, we haven’t seen pipelines leak.”

Mayerthorpe, Alberta | 163 km northwest of Bruderheim
Morning traffic outside of Bentley’s stops as a cat crosses the main street. Inside the popular greasy spoon, the television news reports that local Shawn Hennessey—convicted of manslaughter for his role in the killing of four RCMP officers here in 2005—is being granted day parole. Mitch Neaves, his partner Sally Mathieu and their former apprentice Dave Webb are debating as they wait on their orders of eggs, bacon and hash browns. When Gateway comes up, Webb, 40, raises his voice. “I don’t like spills and we can’t be CNing this oil across the country,” he says, referring to shipping oil by rail. “We’re going to have more Lac-Mégantics. It’s just not good.”

Webb has lived in Mayerthorpe his entire life. He was 18 when he started working at the local UFA co-operative, which Neaves and Mathieu ran at the time. When Neaves and Mathieu decided to retire, moving to Lac Isle, Webb took it over.

As Webb talks about Lac-Mégantic, Neaves and Mathieu nod in agreement. The three go on to list numerous oil-by-rail spills in the area in the past few months—spills so small they aren’t reported on the news but that nonetheless worry them. “There’s [a spill on the railway] all the time,” Mathieu says. “When a train goes off a track, until somebody tells the news, no one hears about it; they just come out and clean it up.” Neaves and Webb rack their brains to list all of the spills. There was a spill in Gainford, Wabamun (where the lake was contaminated), Fox Creek, Mitsue, they say. “If you’re for safety and the environment, you’d want a pipeline,” Mathieu says. “Yes, we’re in the oil and gas industry, but because we are, we see the safety aspect.”

The worry is shared at the nearby Mayerthorpe Town Office. Inside, Mayor Kate Patrick, 70, is clear about her personal stakes in Gateway. She owns and farms 4.5 square kilometres of land bisected by pipelines and can’t understand the kerfuffle. She says five other pipelines are planned for the same right of way as Gateway.

The big concern for Patrick is the oil currently coming through Mayerthorpe by rail. The tracks run right through the town, and trains cross two small trestle bridges. Patrick and the town council asked CN to come to Mayerthorpe earlier this spring and answer questions, which they did. “They assured us they’d reduce their speed [through town] to 10 miles per hour,” Patrick says.

In February, before Gateway received federal approval, Mayerthorpe’s town council issued a statement supporting the project. Still, Patrick says the pipe is planned to route 3.5 kilometres outside the town’s corporate limits, meaning there will be no direct tax revenues. Instead, she says, Gateway would mean temporary and permanent jobs, and the diversification of the economy.

Prince George, B.C. | 668 km northwest of mayerthorpe
The Prince George Chamber of Commerce is staffed exclusively by women. It’s proof that Christy Ray, the Chamber’s CEO, is onto something when she says northern B.C. offers opportunities that aren’t readily available elsewhere.

Ray, 38, is originally from Smithers, though she’s lived all over the country. Despite the movement, she says her stakes in the Gateway project are personal. “I’m raising my family here and intend to have a very long history in Prince George,” Ray says. “What I would like to see is new industry and economic development [come] into the region, balanced with environmental safety and respect for aboriginal issues. I think it’s a really common attitude.”

Prince George sits over the Rocky Mountains from Mayerthorpe. It’s the largest community on the B.C. side that’s close to the proposed Gateway route. Still, unlike Bruderheim or Mayerthorpe, the pipe will be relatively far from Prince George, meaning a spill wouldn’t directly affect the town.

Prince George is a key battleground for Enbridge. It’s a resource town filled with people who’ve moved here from elsewhere, who are supportive of the project. But it’s also home to a strong contingent of aboriginal groups and environmentalists dead set against the pipeline.

Most of B.C. is untreatied territory. As a result, Enbridge has invested more resources in winning support here—the Aboriginal Benefits Package offers First Nations 10 per cent ownership in the project, working out to about a quarter-million dollars per year per community over 30 years. As a result of dozens of open houses, Enbridge redesigned the pipe itself, increasing its wall thickness to respond to concerns. And recently, the company opened a community engagement office right downtown.

The efforts are meaningless to Vincent Prince. Prince, 51, is from the Nak’azdli Band, north of Prince George. He bucks any potential anti-business aboriginal stereotype. In the late 1990s, after stints as a construction worker and teacher, he founded the Aboriginal Business and Community Development Centre. As director, Prince works with small aboriginal companies to cash in on the resource development in the region, helping them register on contractor databases and incorporate their businesses to become more attractive to industry.

“I understand the economic component of [Gateway]—I’m right in the middle of it,” Prince says. “I help aboriginal people start businesses, run businesses, expand businesses. I do it day in, day out.” But, he continues, “I really don’t understand the large support, and even the marginal support, of the Gateway pipeline. The short-term benefits are just not worth the risk.”

Burns Lake, B.C. | 230 km west of Prince George
The Boer Mountain trails are Dave Sandsmark’s pride and joy. “The original pipeline route would have gone right through the middle of our trails,” he says, before dropping into a machine-built trail that winds down from the top of Boer Mountain.

Sandsmark, a resident of Burns Lake for 15 years, is a sought-after cabinetmaker and mountain biking fanatic who also owns the local bike store. In 2003, he helped launch the Burns Lake Mountain Biking Association, and since then the group has tapped various government economic development funds to the tune of more than $1 million to build an extensive network of trails that is a growing tourist draw and an integral part of the local recreation infrastructure. Gateway would pass through a pumping station five kilometres from this resource-based town. Sandsmark’s views on Gateway are no secret: a small blue sign outside his store, which he operates spring-to-fall (before trading bike wrenches for carpentry tools), reads United Against Enbridge.

Sandsmark admits his attitude toward the bitumen pipeline is a mix of NIMBYism and a feeling that it carries a dirty product that offers up environmental risk without much reward for northwest B.C. “I’m not against industry. I support mining if it’s the right project, and I support logging. I just don’t see a lot of local benefit from a crude oil pipeline, just risk,” Sandsmark says. “I’d say the No side is in the minority here but it’s a vocal minority.”

But you don’t have to go far to find people with another view. Burns Lake is an industry town. The Huckleberry copper mine and the Endako molybdenum mine provide the foundation for the local economy. So too does logging. Now, despite an obvious glut of vacant buildings on the town’s main drag, Burns Lake is humming with a new recreation centre and hospital. Business is also booming at Industrial Transformers, a year-old heavy-duty mechanic operation in the Burns Lake Industrial Park. The company is unequivocally pro-Gateway. All the company trucks bear the same bumper sticker: a check mark next to the word pipeline. “I don’t care if a single job is created in Burns Lake from the pipeline. It’s bigger than that. All those programs on the government teat—health care, EI [employment insurance]—depend on what’s happening in Alberta right now,” says Doug Waters, a former logger who co-owns Industrial Transformers with three other partners.

Smithers, B.C. | 143 km northwest of Burns Lake
Dennis MacKay admits he was the only person to speak in support of Gateway when the Joint Review Panel (JRP) of the National Energy Board came through town. “I just think people have to stop saying no to everything,” says the retired RCMP member, ex-coroner and two-term Liberal MLA. “We need jobs, and nothing comes without some risk.”

As a provincial government centre and regional hub for mining and forestry, Smithers attracts a well-educated professional class drawn by the skiing, hiking, biking and proximity to world-class paddling and steelhead fishing rivers. However, its population also includes a deeply conservative element—an element that formed MacKay’s base for eight years as MLA. Today, as a volunteer activist, MacKay says he’s not afraid to stand up and support Enbridge and spend time erecting homemade “Yes to Jobs” signs.

And yet, in terms of political representation, Smithers is pretty green these days. In September, federal MP Nathan Cullen, the NDP’s finance critic, introduced a private member’s bill aiming to ban supertanker traffic on B.C.’s north coast. B.C. NDP Doug Donaldson, the provincial MLA for Stikine (which includes Smithers and was part of Dennis MacKay’s old riding), told the JRP that risks to his constituents outweigh the benefits of the pipeline, the same view held by Mayor Taylor Bachrach. “The pipeline would cross the Morice River, and the Morice flows into the Bulkley,” Bachrach says, referring to the river that meanders through Smithers and is a lure for paddlers and anglers.

And Enbridge’s relationship is fractious at best with the Wet’suwet’en, a nation whose sprawling traditional territory encompasses Smithers and is divided among five clans. A subset of one of these clans, the Unist’ot’en, has established a permanent camp smack in the path of Gateway near where it would cross the Morice River, forbidding access to all commercial, industrial and non-aboriginal interests. “We will take every avenue available, whether it’s provincial, federal or our own laws, to prevent this pipeline,” says John Ridsdale, also called Chief Na’Moks, hereditary leader of the Beaver Clan, from the Office of the Wet’suwet’en in Smithers.

Kitimat, B.C. | 260 km southwest of Smithers
Numerous awards line the walls of realtor Shannon Dos Santos’s office in downtown Kitimat, near where Gateway would reach its western terminus. She sold more than 180 houses in each of 2012 and 2013—that’s a transaction every one and a half days, on average. “I was sometimes doing two or three deals a day and working until three in the morning,” she says. As a resident of Kitimat for three decades, Dos Santos’s switch from banking into real estate five years ago couldn’t have been better timed. But things have since slowed dramatically: in April there were fewer than 15 listings; today there are 95. A seller’s market has become a buyer’s market again.

Kitimat, situated on the traditional territory of the Haisla Nation at the head of Douglas Channel, was built on the fortunes of the Alcan aluminum smelter. Its carefully planned streets of boxy two-storey 1970s-era homes looped around the City Centre Mall create the feel of the consummate company town.

Rio Tinto Alcan’s $4.8-billion modernization, which will increase capacity by 48 per cent to 420,000 tonnes per year, has swelled workers’ camps and rental accommodations with 1,500 skilled tradesmen, engineers and labourers. Three LNG plants, one crude oil refinery and three natural gas pipelines, each with terminals in Kitimat, are on the drawing board, carrying a combined capital investment of more than $30 billion. Yet Alcan’s upgrade will be complete in 2015, and not a single LNG plant or pipeline is poised to break ground. That’s why Dos Santos cautiously holds out hope that Gateway will be able to meet the 209 conditions set out by the JRP, win over stakeholders and start work in the near future. “We need a project approved. We need some development,” Dos Santos says, worried that Kitimat could be relegated back to an all too familiar boom-and-bust cycle.

Despite its industrial roots, Kitimat remains skeptical of Gateway and its benefits. Last April, mayor Joanne Monaghan surprised outside observers when she announced the results of a non-binding plebiscite that asked whether or not citizens support the JRP’s recommendation to the federal government that Gateway be approved: 58.4 per cent voted No. But for many locals, the vote was anything but a surprise: both freshwater angling in the rivers of the northwest and saltwater fishing out in misty Douglas Channel are a big part of life around here.