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.
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.
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.