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Commerce in the BC interior

If you haven't lived in a small town, it's extremely difficult to understand the economic - let alone the personal - impact of an event such as the explosion and fire that destroyed the Babine Forest Products sawmill in Burns Lake, British Columbia on January 20, 2012. About 250 of the town's 3,600 residents or 6.9 percent of the population work there. Two lives were lost. At both the personal and the corporate level, citizens are asking who was responsible for this life-altering tragedy?

The mill is 90-percent owned by Hampton Affiliates, a family-owned forest products company headquartered in Oregon, the rest by the Burns Lake Native Development Corporation. Everyone is concerned the mill will not be rebuilt. The company says it needs assurances from the provincial government that it will continue to have a supply of trees to harvest. In British Columbia, trees are like blood.

The lifesblood of nearby Smithers, in addition to the forestry industry, is tourism. People who come from outside the area find it hard to believe that you could actually live in a home right on a mountain. Back to the economic aspect, one of the first things to impress me when I moved to the interior of British Columbia, was how a relatively small population could attract businesses and services you would see only in a much larger community in central Canada or the U.S.

I believe this was one of the things that caught the attention of actor Liam Neeson during the filming of "The Grey", a movie shot largely in the snow on Hudson Bay Mountain. While on a promotional tour supporting release of the movie, it was ear-catching to note that almost his entire interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show was spent raving about the geographical beauty of the place (to be expected) but also, with the exception of the cold, how comfortable - in a societal way - it was to be in Smithers. Indeed, actor Raymond Burr ("Perry Mason", "Ironside") once told me that he regularly made such trips to the Central Interior.

Smithers' population of about 6,000 and the 3,600 in Burns Lake - not to mention the remarkable community of Prince Rupert on the Pacific coast - have attracted banks, hotels, pubs and many peripheral businesses in addition to the hunting and fishing. And they should be seen once in your life. I'll never forget standing next to Fraser Lake and realizing it looked exactly as Simon Fraser must have seen it when he established the first commerce in the region - a fur-trading post at Fort Fraser in 1806.


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