From the flames: Burns Lake seeks a stronger future in the ashes of its past
Robert Charlie speaks in slow, deliberate prose, as if people have always listened to the former Burns Lake Band chief, and he sees no need to rush. It’s hard to imagine this imposing figure ever being the target of racial insults. But the Burns Lake he grew up in was different than the one he knows today.
Charlie worked at Babine Forest Products when the mill first opened in the 1970s. “It wasn’t conducive to social growth—let’s just put it that way,” he says. Despite the mill’s location on reserve land, he describes an ingrained culture of racism against First Nations from other locals.
When the mill exploded on Jan. 20, 2012, killing two employees and injuring 19 others, it marked the beginning of a new chapter for an industry that’s been both a unifying and, at times, dividing factor in the community. As Burns Lake residents search through the rubble for a way to rebuild the local economic base, there is hope for new growth in a spirit of collaboration and cooperation.
According to Charlie, the land where Babine Forest Products sat was converted to industrial property 35 years ago without full consent from the band. By the late 1990s, it was at the heart of a conflict that nearly tore the aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities apart.
In 1990, BC passed the Indian Self Government Enabling Act, allowing the Burns Lake Band to begin taxing Babine Forest Products, diverting hundreds of thousands in revenue from Village of Burns Lake coffers. The village council of the day attempted to make up for the loss by charging the band $400,000—$20,000 per residence—for water and sewer.
When the band refused to pay, the village cut its water. The standoff ended a month later when council bowed to public pressure from both sides of the community.
“I think the mainstream in Burns Lake just had an attitude they could do anything they want. And they basically did until we started to kick sand back on their shoes,” Charlie says, adding that things are improving. “I don’t hold anybody to blame for the history. It’s time to create new history. If you’re too busy looking back, you’re going to walk into a tree. You have to look forward.”
Moving forward together When the mill burned down, three Burns Lake Band members were employed there. Although their families struggle without the employment, the greater cost to the band has been the loss of nearly $300,000 in annual tax revenue.
For most residents, employment insurance runs out in October. That, combined with the onset of winter and the financially and emotionally charged Christmas season, could mean the community’s biggest challenges still lie ahead.
“We sat down all together and made the commitment that as we move forward, we’re going to do it united,” says Burns Lake mayor Luke Strimbold. While Strimbold, who comes from three generations of foresters, admits that the industry is winding down, he adds that usually there’s a transition period. Burns Lake hasn’t had that opportunity.
The municipality is advocating for the mill’s rebuild, but it is also looking at ways of diversifying the economy through bioenergy production, tourism and, in particular, aboriginal tourism.
In mid-August, a report from the Special Committee on Timber Supply recommended increasing logging in the area around Burns Lake, which could bode well for the re-building of the mill. At the time, Hampton said it would make a decision within the month about whether to rebuild.
Norm Macdonald, deputy chair of the special committee, was mayor of Golden when its mill closed in 1996. He says the closure was an opportunity for government to evaluate the community’s future. The mill shifted from making plywood to producing more specialized laminated veneer beams; it also began using its resources more efficiently. Fifteen years later, it is still Golden’s main employer.
“That’s my experience, that it’s possible to adapt as realities change. In Burns Lake, the loss of one of the main employers has real ramifications, so the government obviously has an obligation to look at what’s possible,” he says. “There has been a tremendous human tragedy there, but in terms of the challenge going forward, that challenge was coming.”
Special committee chair and Nechako Lakes MLA John Rustad says he sees a move toward collaboration in the community’s future, with First Nations, the regional district and the municipality working together.
“Through this process, I’ve actually seen a unifying action. The First Nation and non-First Nation communities have really pulled together to try to make things work,” Rustad says.
Innovation and collaboration If ever a community knew what it meant to redefine itself, it’s the Cheslatta Carrier Band south of Burns Lake. The band’s story is one of tragedy, forgiveness and innovation.
In 1952, when Kenney Dam was built to create power for Alcan, the Cheslatta were abruptly moved from their traditional territory when the Nechako River flooded and scattered throughout the area.
Fifty years later, it put its differences with the non-native community aside to form Cheslatta Forest Products, a three-way joint venture between the nation, Ootsa Resources (made up of local non-native investors) and non-native Carrier Forest Products. The mill originally salvaged submerged timber from Ootsa Lake and soon shifted to milling pine beetle-killed wood.
While in operation, it processed 300,000 cubic metres of timber a year and employed 140 people from the surrounding area, contributing nearly $1.5 million per month to the regional economy. But it closed within the decade.
Ironically, Cheslatta Forest Products’ demise was not due to lack of timber supply, but lack of modern power. Because the community runs on single-phase hydro, the mill consumed 1.5 million litres of diesel a year. In 2008, when fuel prices skyrocketed and the housing market fell, the mill was no longer viable.
“Cheslatta Forest Products almost overnight became uneconomical,” Cheslatta senior policy advisor Mike Robertson says. “We were selling two-by-fours for less than the cost of production.”
At the time, bringing three-phase power to the nation would have cost $7 million, with the mill’s partners offering to pay one-third of the cost; however, Robertson says they couldn’t interest BC Hydro in the project.
“What we gave up as First Nations and citizens in the ’50s in the name of hydro-electricity, and here we’re living 60 years later with basically an extension cord running through the bush,” he says.
When Cheslatta Forest Products closed, it was left with 65 million board feet of lumber. One morning, Robertson saw a How It’s Made episode about paddles.
“By the end of the day, we had our first paddle,” he remembers. The band discovered that it could turn a $2 two-by-four into three paddles worth $90 apiece. The Chief Louie Paddle Company now makes salvaged spruce, aspen, beetle-killed and underwater wood paddles, sold around the globe. “Every dollar that Chief Louie makes stays in the community,” Robertson says.
Robertson advocates maximizing the fiber that comes out of the bush by finding uses for waste wood—such as bio-fuel and wood pellets—instead of burning it in slash piles. Most importantly, he says, make space for the little guy: the small mill or entrepreneur with a stake in the local community.
“If we, the residents of Lakes Forest District, held those licences and offered the commercial timber to Hampton, you would truly maximize the full benefit of that resource,” he says. “The reality is we’ve got to take back control of our land base.”
The untimely demise of Babine Forest Products not only had a tragic human toll, but has forced an examination of the community’s economic future. Through hardship and uncertainty, Burns Lake area residents are banding together and, while much is unknown, it seems certain that the future is in collaboration, innovation and diversification.