Many Rupertites attended the Watson Island open house to learn more about the propane terminal porject. (Keili Bartlett / The Northern View)

LETTER: The next generation of Watson Island

Councillor Blair Mirau reflects on Prince Rupert’s past and moving forward into the future

I was born in November 1989, the beginning of the end of the “heydeys” of Prince Rupert, so I’m not lucky enough to have a memory of “the good ‘ol days” that I’ve heard so many stories about.

I was raised in the 1990s, when major decline happened in our most important resource industries all at once: fishing, forestry, coal, and grain. Over the course of that decade, Prince Rupert’s population shrunk nearly in half, as families were forced to leave to find work.

Between 1951 and 1996, the old pulp mill on Watson Island was the largest single employer in Prince Rupert and contributed nearly 1/3 of the city’s tax revenues. But after the doors closed for good in 2001, nearly 700 direct jobs went with it, plus countless other spin-off businesses. Almost overnight, Prince Rupert went from being known as a resource boom-town to a “sleepy fishing village” as CBC called us.

When the mill closed, I was just about to start high school and was lucky that my parents had steady jobs that allowed us to stay. But I wasn’t old enough to notice how bad it was. Asking my parents why my friends had to move away, the answer was always the same: “because there aren’t enough jobs here for their parents”.

I also remember when the Dairy Queen closed and my dad tried to explain how a place with such good ice cream couldn’t make enough money to stay open. I just didn’t get it then.

READ MORE: Pembina’s Watson Island plans unveiled at open house

It wasn’t until reaching high school and realizing my soccer league had shrunk from 10 teams to two that I realized things weren’t normal. The new normal was high school grads either leaving to go to post-secondary and never coming back, or going to find work somewhere else and never coming back.

Over that short period of time, Watson Island had quickly turned from a symbol of resource wealth and jobs into a symbol of economic decline. The saga had begun: multiple failed restarts, unpaid taxes, tax sale, court cases, and offers for sale falling through. By the time the city became the unwilling owner in 2009, Watson Island was costing taxpayers about $90,000 per month. People were openly talking about the city being close to bankruptcy.

In the span of 10 years, Watson Island went from being our city’s largest economic generator to our single biggest liability. Even with a port-related rebound in the local economy, this city wouldn’t ever be able to fully recover without getting Watson Island back on the tax roll.

After countless legal issues, speculation, and rumours, I understand why some people can have the attitude of “I’ll believe it when I see it.” The announcement that Pembina will build a $270 million dollar propane export facility on Watson Island is the start of a new chapter.

When our council first saw the video footage of the demolition of the old pulp mill, we noticed a distinct contrast between generations. The mayor and I celebrated as explosions rang out and the symbol of our city’s decline was falling down. But others had tears in their eyes, reminding us of the need to grieve for a place that had provided thousands of people with their first job.

As we reflect on what the next chapter has for Prince Rupert, it is important to recognize how many chapters had to be written to get us here.

So to all the former mayors, councillors, and city staff who were involved in Watson Island over the years, we appreciate your time and efforts.

READ MORE: A brief look at decomissioned Watson Island

To the city’s past and present legal teams, thank you for your expertise. To Port Ed residents, thank you for being understanding neighbours.

To all former mill employees, small businesses and families connected to the old mill, let’s celebrate your memories.

And to all the residents of Prince Rupert, to everyone who endured the hard times, let’s honour our resiliency as we look forward to renewed prosperity.

Blair Mirau

Prince Rupert

Watson Island

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Provincial COVID-19 data can now be used for B.C. to prepare for a second wave

In the past week, B.C. has seen a slight spike in daily test-positive case counts

Four air ambulance flights out of Terrace delayed or cancelled

Pandemic precautions caused nighttime closure of service station providing weather data to pilots

Skeena Resources, Tahltan prez excited by purchase of Eskay Creek

Skeena gets full control of mine, Barrick gets 12 per cent of Skeena and a one per cent royalty

CityWest announces new CEO

Stefan Woloszyn will start Aug. 17 to head up Prince Rupert, Kitimat, Terrace and Smithers region

CityWest announces new CEO

Stefan Woloszyn will start Aug. 17 to head up Prince Rupert, Kitimat, Terrace and Smithers region

Islanders want BC Ferries to follow order that lets residents board before tourists

For ferry-dependent communities, ferries are often the sole practical lifeline to work, school or medical appointments.

Beverly Hills 90210 star’s family selling Vancouver Island Beach Resort

You can own Jason Priestley’s Terrace Beach Resort in Ucluelet for less than $5 million

Genetic detectives begin work to trace spread of COVID-19 in Canada

The kinds of genetic technology being used for this project did not exist when SARS hit Canada in 2003

Sports fishers protest Fraser River Chinook closures

Public Fishery Alliance wants hatchery fish open for harvest

Amber Alert for two Quebec girls cancelled after bodies found

Romy Carpentier, 6, Norah Carpentier, 11, and their father, Martin Carpentier, missing since Wednesday

B.C. man prepares to be first to receive double-hand transplant in Canada

After the surgery, transplant patients face a long recovery

Grocers appear before MPs to explain decision to cut pandemic pay

Executives from three of Canada’s largest grocery chains have defended their decision to end temporary wage increases

Bringing support to Indigenous students and communities, while fulfilling a dream

Mitacs is a nonprofit organization that operates research and training programs

Most Read