The plight of people on the East Coast has been well documented over the past few years with the collapse of fish stocks and the mora-torium on cod fishing, but what’s much less known are the struggles of those who dwell on Canada’s West Coast.
For years, British Columbia was viewed as incredibly prosperous; an oasis of financial affluence owing to its vast forests, lucrative salmon runs and Asian investment.
But for the people of the Diocese of Caledonia, the dream of a never-ending boom has turned into a nightmare.
“We’re going through a hard time,” said Bishop John Hannen from his office in Prince Rupert, the biggest city in the sparsely populated diocese. He described the economy in the region as being in a “fairly desperate situation.”
The diocese makes up the northern three-fifths of the province. Its topography varies from prairie, Rocky Mountains, plateau, coastal mountains and rain forest.
With a seemingly endless supply of natural resources, one might think the area would never see an economic downturn – but it has, in a big way.
Bishop Hannen said the 17,000 people who live in Prince Rupert are suffering because of the collapse of the region’s two main industries, the local pulp mill and the fishery.
The forestry industry “is in tough shape” he said. The city’s pulp mill “is now owned by the bank because it went bankrupt.”
The provincial government has pumped some money into the operation, but not enough. The mill is still operating, but at a much reduced level.
“If it goes, 7,000 jobs go,” said the bishop, who’s as worried as any Prince Rupert citizen about the future of the mill.
“And that’s not just the people who work in the mill, but all the jobs that feed off the mill. Everyone from truckers to loggers to businesses that supply wood chips.”
The region’s other main source of jobs and money, the fishery, has also taking a beating.
For decades, thousands of people made a living off salmon, halibut, crab and shrimp, but like the East Coast, stocks are not what they once were.
“The fishing industry is in an economic slump because of a whole variety of things. There are fewer fish so quotas have been reduced,” said the bishop.
Recently, the signs of the economic downturn have become depressingly noticeable in Prince Rupert.
“There are houses that people have just left,” said Bishop Hannen. A number of stores, restaurants and other businesses have closed. Since September, the school district has reported a loss of about 200 students. Many people are moving to Alberta in search of jobs and a more promising future.
“Others are hoping to stick it out until the mill recovers,” said the bishop.
Not surprisingly, the city’s cathedral mirrors the region’s financial struggles.
St. Andrew’s Cathedral is in considerable debt. A few years ago, dry rot was found throughout the building. The repairs, although considerably less that the cost of a new building, meant the cathedral ended up with a debt of more than $600,000.
“We had a debt load that was so great that the cathedral has not been able to handle it plus pay a priest,” said the bishop.
Sunday services last year were performed by the bishop and the diocese’s secretary-treasurer, who is a priest.
Last month, Revs. Bill Anderson and John Martinson began sharing the responsibility for Sunday services.
In an attempt to raise money, the diocese appealed to fellow Canadians last October to make a donation to the cathedral. Bishop Hannen said the one-time collection on Sunday, Oct. 4 netted $55,000.
“The response is still going on,” said the bishop. “Some places felt able to do something. Others could not. Some dioceses were fairly generous.
“We’re certainly grateful and have been encouraged by those dioceses that were able to help.”
The cathedral now has two mortgages with the bank, one for $392,000, the other for $116,000. The smaller mortgage will soon be paid off, thanks to an interest-free loan from the diocese.
Not long ago, the debt problem was looking so severe, some thought it threatened the future of Anglican ministry in the diocese.
“I would say the crisis is less. It hasn’t gone away,” said the bishop.
On a more positive note, Anglicans in the region have something to celebrate.
The Nisga’a, whose traditional homelands fall within the boundaries of the diocese, recently ratified a land claim deal.
“It’s cause for great rejoicing in the diocese,” said the bishop. “An injustice that has existed here for more than 130 years is being dealt with.”
There are four Native nations with significant Anglican populations in the diocese: Nisga’a, Haida, Tsimshian and Gitksan.
Bishop Hannen said the Nisga’a are the furthest along in their negotiations for a land settlement with the federal and provincial governments, but he said, “I think the other three have cases in the works.”
The diocese has made inroads in attracting Native people to the priesthood.
There are Native clergy and deacons in almost all Native communities except the Gitksan.
The bishop said another active group in the diocese is the Anglican Church Women.
“It’s a very significant part of the diocese … . The ACW would be referred to as the mother of the village in many communities,” active in fundraising for community projects and co-ordinating most church and social activities.
Despite the challenges the diocese faces, the bishop says hope will prevail.
“I think there’s probably been a history in the North of greater co-operation,” he said.