Though the City of Fort St. John hasn’t assumed a position on the Site C dam project, the mayor and council are in the process of community consultations.
“I’ve heard from a lot of people that they’re very pleased we’re taking a proactive approach,” said Mayor Lori Ackerman at a community consultation session late last week.
She said it’s “wonderful” that many individuals have made their own decisions about the project, but these consultations are about how to “protect” the community’s existing assets.
“How do we ensure that if this project is approved that the community comes out a better place than they found us?” said Ackerman.
She said that a “$7-billion mega project, seven kilometres from our boundaries” is bound to have an “impact” on Fort St. John.
“Our children don’t need to bare the brunt of that,” she explained.
The City has taken several steps in engaging the public.
Last month, a website was launched to encourage public input; there are also daily Site C related questions that have been posted on the City’s Facebook page, in addition to public sessions at coffee shops, in parks and more.
At last week’s public coffee shop session, one of the main issues presented was overextending the RCMP.
One resident said she was “terrified.”
“The RCMP, and they’ll tell you, when you have that many people coming in and they don’t have community ties, they aren’t going to care about our community; they’re not going to care about what they destroy,” she said.
BC Hydro has said that Site C is estimated to employ 7,000 people during the dam’s seven-year construction phase.
“At our last conversation with BC Hydro, we had seven RCMP staff there,” said Ackerman. “We’ve discovered that the south side of the river is in the Fort St. John detachment area, but we’ve never sent officers over there because we don’t care if the moose are fighting.”
If Site C moves forward, BC Hydro has proposed that a work camp is built on that location.
“When you put a camp over there, that’s a different story,” she continued.
Ackerman said that the City currently finances three quarters of the general duty officers in the Fort St. John detachment.
“The rest are for the region,” she noted.
She said that she wants the Province to “step up their complement.”
“It’s going to be difficult and we need to be putting our foot down when it comes to negotiating,” she said.
“That’s why I need people to get on to PlaceSpeak.com and I need for their voices to be heard because if we don’t, if we cannot prove to the joint review panel that BC Hydro cannot do this in an insulated fashion, then they will move forward and do it the way they think (is appropriate).”
In addition to concerns over crime, residents were also concerned over the already-low unemployment rate.
“(It’s a) huge problem of too many job openings with not enough bodies to fill them,” one resident said.
Ackerman said that if a “long-term contractor” comes for six or seven years, they may stay forever.
Councillor Trevor Bolin said his grandfather came for just a few months in 1929, and his family has been here ever since.
“This community has a lot to offer,” said Ackerman. “What we need to do as a community is step up to the plate, be an attractive community and provide the experiences that are going to keep people here.”
She noted that attracting a workforce is related to the retention of businesses.
“It’s all interconnected,” she said. “Council felt that it was so important that we have made it part of our Official Community Plan.
“If businesses can’t thrive, then families won’t,” she said. “It’s a three-legged stool – social, economic and environmental, and if one of them is shorter than the rest of them, there’s no farmer around that’s going to use it.”
She explained that “infrastructure” is going to be “stressed” during the period of construction.
“It’s already stressed,” one woman pointed out.
Ackerman said that these consultations are about laying out what Fort St. John will accept and what will not be accepted in terms of this proposed project.
“We’ve told them (BC Hydro) their previous consultants don’t live and don’t work here,” said Ackerman. “We have a community that has a life.”
One mother at the consultation pointed out that she believes Fort St. John needs a larger pool.
Ackerman explained that she believes the region needs to come up with a “master recreation” plan.
“Anymore rec facilities will be regional facilities,” said Ackerman.
Another concern was whether the schools would be prepared for the influx of students.
“School District 60 is one of the organizations that we’re meeting with separately because we think it’s integral to have that conversation with them,” said Ackerman.
She noted that the district has already taken steps to prepare, including implementing “school site acquisition charges.”
These are charges that the school district collects each time new development is created in the area, which is put into a reserve for new school sites.
“(The Ministry of Education) will not assist a school district with the capital cost of building a new school unless that is in place,” said Ackerman. “The regional district and the City of Fort St. John already approved that through resolution.”
She also noted that the Province, in conjunction with BC Hydro, should, if they’re going to put this kind of “stress” on a community, leave behind a “legacy.”
“One of the legacy’s I see is a university campus,” said the mayor.
“We’re growing whether Site C comes or not,” Ackerman said. “It’s really a case, if you just leave us alone, we’ll be fine, but if you throw this at us, here’s what you have to do to step up to the plate.”
BC Hydro’s community relations manager for the Site C project Dave Conway said they “welcome the input from the City and the community.”
He noted that this information will assist with the “environmental impact statement.”
Site C is currently undergoing a joint federal and provincial environmental assessment.
Ackerman said her responsibility, as mayor, is to “take every comment that comes through on a survey and take it down to the Province.”
“When I get all of that together, then I can go down with that, the influence of what my community is saying, and this is how it’s going to be impacted,” she said.
“British Columbians may benefit from the building of the Site C dam, but we are going to be impacted and this is how we’re going to mitigate that impact.”