Anybody can have a boom —but B.C.’s got three

ALEXANDER ROSS May 1 1965

Anybody can have a boom —but B.C.’s got three

ALEXANDER ROSS May 1 1965

Anybody can have a boom —but B.C.’s got three

Two mighty rivers, a flock of new mines and a billion or so trees are making British Columbia the fast-buck centre of Canada. But the most wondrous natural resources of all are Mr. Bennett, who runs the place, and the array of coaststyle go-getters who have learned to prosper without the blessing of eastern financiers

ALEXANDER ROSS

THERE WAS A TIME when the residents of Prince George, British Columbia, hardly looked twice when a moose wandered out of the surrounding bushland and down the main street. But times have changed, and the moose that ventured within the city limits on a freezing Sunday morning last January proved it.

She frightened housewives and small children when she wandered through the back yards and barbecue pits of a brand-new subdivision. She worried a downtown motel owner when she trotted onto his property; he tried to chase her away by ramming her rump with a shopping cart. She attracted scores of sightseers when she spent the afternoon grazing in the back yard of a firm that sells logging machinery. And she drowned on Monday afternoon, when two boys chased her into the ice-choked Nechako River.

For old-time residents, it was a poignant reminder that Prince George, which in 1908 consisted of one farmer, one Hudson's Bay factor, one bootlegger and a few Indians, is growing at an almost unimaginable rate. The area's population, clustered on both sides of the city limits, has jumped to about thirty-seven thousand in the last four years, and may double before 1970. The city is now

big enough to support about fifteen finance companies, seven beer parlors, several instant suburbs, an equally instant junior college, one teenage nightclub, a resident multi-millionaire named Ben Ginter, one $350-per-month penthouse apartment, a thriving choral society, several touring opera productions every year, a battalion or so of prostitutes, eleven churches, three fire trucks and an uncounted number of little-league hockey teams.

Prince George, clearly, is no longer a place where moose can wander with impunity.

This is no isolated phenomenon, for the whole of the interior of British Columbia is rapidly becoming less hospitable to moose and more hospitable to people. In the Okanagan, such places as Kelowna. Penticton and Vernon are becoming a sort of mainland Hawaii for tourists from Alberta, thanks to a new road through the Rockies. Kamloops used to boast mainly about how its high dry climate was ideal for tubercular cases; now, with a fifteenmillion-dollar pulp mill and several important mines opening nearby, it's becoming one of the fastest-growing towns in Canada. Prince Rupert is becoming a major port. The town of Stewart, at the tip of the Alaska panhandle, is bracing itself for similar developments when the accident-prone Granduc mine, thirty miles away, goes into production. Even Kitimat, B.C.’s Cinderella city of the 1950s, is hoping for a second chance. The vast aluminum markets that gave the town birth never quite materialized; but / continued overleaf

continued / now there’s talk of a new pulp mill nearby, and the Aluminum Company of Canada is increasing its generating capacity.

Statistically, everything is up. up, up, in British Columbia. Capital investment last year was about $1.6 billion—more than nine hundred dollars worth of investment for every British Columbian, compared to a national average of around seven hundred dollars. Housing starts were up fifty percent over 1963. Tourists, mostly from the prairies and the U. S., left $167 million behind them in B. C., despite the worst summer weather in years. Chopping down trees, and turning them into everything from shopping bags to ski cabins, earned B. C. an estimated $900 million last year — a seven percent increase over 1963. Retail sales were up by about ten percent, personal income by almost as much, unemployment at the lowest level in five years. All this happened in a province that is still largely deserted; at last count, B. C. was home to 1,738,000 people.

Many of them are making, and spending, an astonishing amount of money; a favorite B. C. talking point these days is gossip about people who have Hit It Big. There’s Albert Jones, an Indian from Skidegate Mission, who sold an iron claim he’d staked a dozen or so years ago for two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. There’s a twenty-two-year-old hairdresser from Vancouver who listened carefully when her clients talked about stocks while they were under the hair dryers; today she’s on a world tour financed by a seven-thousanddollar stock-market killing she made as a result. H. H. (Spud) Huestis, who’s spent his life looking for mines and found a big one when he hit Bethlehem Copper, suddenly became a millionaire. But he’s still a bush-bound prospector at heart, and spends much of his day playing hookey from his Burrard Street office in Vancouver, chatting with his

old cronies who hang around the Chamber of Mines office waiting for jobs. There’s at least one young real-estate man in Prince George who plans, with a fair certainty of success, to retire before he’s forty. And there’s a confidential secretary in Vancouver who’s already retired on the proceeds of a one-hundred-thousand-dollar market coup.

But the man who’s hit it biggest is William Andrew Cecil Bennett, British Columbia’s premier since 1952, Canada’s wiliest politician since Duplessis and the man who takes most of the credit, rightly or wrongly, for all the good things that are happening in B. C. Through a series of fairly hair-raising gambles (such as leaving the Tory party in 1951 to join a band of powerless political amateurs known as the Social Credit League), he’s managed to transform the style of westcoast politics and create one of North America’s least orthodox and most effective governments.

His achievements (such as $672 million worth of new bridges and highways) are always highly visible. But their cost is usually concealed by clouds of statistical ballyhoo. While standing foursquare for free enterprise, he has confiscated his province’s biggest utility, built up a thirty-one-million-dollar ferry fleet, transformed Canada’s third-largest railroad, the all-but-defunct Pacific Great Eastern, into an operating property, launched one billion dollars’ worth of publicly financed power projects and tried to start his own bank. All these enterprises have helped to create an investment climate that inspires some wildly patriotic outbursts. “B. C. is sitting on a gold mine,” said Ralph Loffmark, provincial minister of industrial development, trade and commerce, in a recent speech.

The same can be said, of course, of several other provinces. B. C. has no monopoly on prosperity, and is not the only area in the country to enjoy boom conditions. But what makes the west coast’s boom so noteworthy is that it is advancing so strongly and on so many different fronts all at once.

Newfoundland, for instance, is currently rejoicing over recently announced plans for three new pulp mills, bringing the province’s total to five. In B. C., people have become blasé about such announcements; five mills are already under construction, seven more have obtained timber permits from the government, and eight more

proposals for new mills, some of them nebulous, have been made. Optimists say that this could mean spending at least half a billion — and perhaps close to a billion dollars in B. C. within the next five years — a sum sufficient to fuel a fair-sized provincial boom all by itself. But pessimists say many of these bids are little more than chips in a gigantic poker game to obtain forest licences.

Even if British Columbians get fewer mills than they're being led to expect, the province’s economy has a lot more going for it than pulp and paper. It is also in the middle of a mining boom which has created, fairly suddenly, an industry that produced S262 million worth of minerals last year. The mining boom has also created something almost as significant as money: a speculative climate that has convinced tens of thousands of British Columbians that something unusual, something glamorous, something big, is now afoot in

their province — something that might make them effortlessly rich.

This realization has made the Vancouver Stock Exchange one of the largest markets on the continent — only four others traded more shares last year — and easily one of the hottest. In the view of some brokers, the west-coast market sometimes gets too hot; when small investors bought and sold more than twelve million low-priced shares in a single week last November. VSE authorities issued cautionary statements. “People are buying chalk marks on a board,” said one broker, “and that always leads to trouble.”

There are far fewer reservations concerning power development, the third element in B. C.'s triple-decker boom. After at least a decade of private bickering and public acrimony, British Columbia is finally going ahead with two of the largest hydroelectric developments in North America, on the Peace and Columbia Rivers. The debate over whether, when, how and in what sequence to dam these two rivers was one of the most tiresome, lengthy, incomprehensible disputes in Canadian history. It was also one of the most important, and now that it is finally over, there is an almost tangible feeling of relief.

The dispute revolved around Premier Bennett’s plan to dam the Peace River — a northern vision that has obsessed him for years — and, at the same time, build three dams on the Columbia River and sell the resultant extra power to the Americans.

There were several obstacles to Bennett’s scheme. First, the privately-owned B.C. Electric, which sold power throughout most of British Columbia, wasn’t keen on buying power from the Peace: BCE management thought the idea was uneconomic. So Bennett seized the company, under highly traumatic circumstances. Second, Ottawa was unwilling to permit export of the power that Bennett wanted to sell in the U. S. Third, the Americans didn’t seem to need all that extra power, especially at B. C.’s five-mill price.

Bennett got his way. of course. After years of haggling, Ottawa agreed to allow power export and the Americans agreed to pay the equivalent of Bennett’s five-mill price — S344 million in advance. How did he do it? Simply by a single-minded insistence that unless the Columbia were developed his way, there would be no Columbia River Treaty. The agreement that finally emerged was unquestionably a better deal for B. C. and for Canada than the original treaty, and the credit belongs to Bennett alone.

A few experts still insist that the premier’s two-river policy is a piece of grandiose folly, but most of the opponents have given up worrying about what might have been. Instead, the notion has taken root that B. C. is at last making use of a vast / continued overleaf

continued / and inexhaustible resource, a thought which many British Columbians find deeply reassuring. “B. C. reminds me of a millionaire who goes to bed knowing that his money will be earning interest while he sleeps,” says University of British Columbia anthropologist Dr. Lionel Tiger. “With all those turbines turning day and night, it’s like a year-round harvest festival.”

IF HYDROELECTRIC DEVELOPMENT has become a sort of west-coast fertility symbol, the man who made it possible should be of equal interest to anthropologists. British Columbians have known for years that Premier Bennett is no mere politician; his favorite campaign slogan, after all, is “Progress, Not Politics.” But now that he’s outfinessed two federal governments to win the gigantic Columbia River poker game, and successfully defied Wall Street, Bay Street, St. James Street and the City of London by seizing the B.C. Electric, he’s regarded as a combination of Shaman, Rain-King and Father of the Village.

Until Bennett won his two-river gamble — and it was a gamble, since there was always a possibility of the Americans picking up their chips and going home — it was difficult to find anyone in Vancouver who admitted to voting Social Credit. Today, even the urban Establishment is beginning to acknowledge, in the words of one businessman, that “you’ve got to go along with the smart soandso.” Vancouver Alderman Tom Campbell gives a typical assessment of That Man’s achievements: “He’s built roads, kept the public happy, stamped out all opposition — and, for twelve and a half years, he’s smiled.”

Last February, to mark the fact that Bennett has become the most durable premier in B. C.’s history, his supporters and PR men sponsored a ten-dollars-a-plate testimonial banquet in the Hotel Vancouver. Many of his old enemies were there to hear him eulogized by two of Vancouver’s arch-Establishment figures, Hon. H. H.

Stevens and Senator J. W. de B. Farris; and Vancouver city council, which has frequently deplored the premier’s municipal policies, made him a freeman of the city.

All in all, the occasion resembled one of Napoleon’s grander levees, when half the monarchs of Europe would assemble to pay homage to their upstart emperor.

Many people, in fact, are referring to British Columbia’s current affluence as “Bennett’s boom,” a designation that gives the premier rather more credit than he deserves. It’s true that his smile, his style, his smug assurance that B. C. is the greatest, richest, most wonderful place in the whole world, have stamped the boom with Bennett’s image. It is also true that his government has provided what businessmen like to call “a favorable investment climate,” notably by keeping the New Democratic Party out of power, reducing the mining tax and managing B. C.’s forest resources with considerable solicitude for the interests of large corporations.

But it wasn’t Bennett who sent world base-metal prices to record levels, thus permitting development of mines that were marginal properties only a few years ago.

Nor was it Bennett who created a worldwide demand for forest products, which B. C. is now scrambling to help supply. But these things are happening under a Social Credit administration, and it would be a

rare politician who would insist that he had nothing at all to do with it.

Although Bennett didn’t exactly create the boom, he has infused it with a peculiarly western rationale. His uncanny ability to defy establishments, especially eastern ones, goes down very well in a province that feels that eastern Canada has had it too good for too long. You can glimpse this attitude in the statements of various provincial politicians, who have complained that British Columbia’s external trade has been hampered by made-in-Ottawa tariff policies that were shaped largely for the convenience of eastern manufacturers.

The attitude is also reflected in the current drive to establish Vancouver-based banks; west-coast businessmen are convinced that eastern financiers don’t understand them. “For Toronto people,” says Vancouver Stock Exchange president Jack Van Luven, “Canada ends somewhere around Hamilton.”

Vancouver itself is open to the same charge; for most of the city’s inhabitants, B. C. ends somewhere around Chilliwack. Although it is the biggest city in one of the boomingest regions on earth, Vancouver somehow isn’t participating in the developments that are changing the face of a province almost twice the size of France. Business in Vancouver is ticking over nicely, /

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there is a lemminglike seasonal exodus to Hawaii, and people are spending lots of money. But there is no really spectacular growth in Vancouver, no Place Ville Maries (as suburbs sprout, downtown, property values are actually declining), and astonishingly little excitement. Most of the big initiatives are coming from Victoria; Vancouver’s best hope for downtown redevelopment is the fifty-story skyscraper which Bennett proposes to build as headquarters for the Bank of British Columbia (despite Ottawa’s disapproval, he still wants his own bank —■ and he’ll probably get it). And most of the action that is making Vancouver rich is taking place hundreds of miles to the north, a region that to most Vancouverites is as remote as Toronto.

The centre of it all is Prince George. It is the archetypical boom town, because it stands almost exactly in the middle of the province. Every new wave of B. C. prosperity causes at least a ripple in the city. Nearly everything that happens in B. C. seems to enrich, enlarge or excite Prince George in a direct and exhilarating way that Vancouverites can scarcely understand.

No other B. C. city is profiting so vastly from the forest boom. Six miles outside the city, two pulp-and-paper mills are being built at a total cost of $140 million, and plans for a third $65-million mill received government approval in March. If Newfoundland is exultant over the construction of three new mills worth $100 million, Prince George is almost manic over its acquisition of three mills worth twice that much.

The city also has a considerable stake in the power boom. Two hundred miles north, work on the $700 million Peace River project, a construction job roughly on the scale of the pyramids, is moving into its fifth season. Workmen have already diverted the river’s course, and will spend this summer, with the aid of the world’s biggest conveyor belt, pouring a mountain of gravel and cement into the dry riverbed. By the time they’re finished in 1968, the Portage Mountain dam will be six hundred feet high and behind it will rise the province’s largest lake — a reservoir covering nearly seven hundred square miles. As part of its stake in the job, Prince George has already acquired a $10 million cement plant, plus a weekly influx of thirsty construction workers. The city also takes its cut from the mining boom; one of the province’s biggest mines, the $20 million Endako molybdenite property, goes into production later this year at a new townsite one hundred and twenty-five miles west of Prince George.

The result is a classic boom-town atmosphere, with much less danger of a soggy bust than Elliot Lake or Barkerville ever faced. The hotels are full even in midwinter—last January was Prince George’s snowiest in fortyfive years—and the pubs are full from late in the afternoon until closing time. What the customers talk about around those crowded tables usually involves something that's be-

ing built, and the money to be made thereby.

There are recent high-school dropouts in this town making one thousand dollars a month on double-time construction jobs. Some bricklayers are doing better than some senior executives, by working on contract jobs all day and on free-lance bricklaying chores every evening. Downtown property prices are doubling and tripling in the space of a few months. One auto dealer expects business to triple within two or three years. (“Triple,’’ not “double,’’ is the multiplier you usually hear in Prince George.) The only man in town who views business prospects with anything approaching reserve is Allan Dann, who works for the town’s only funeral director and who complains that Prince George residents usually contrive to die somewhere else. Thanks to a boom in highway construction, however, traffic deaths are showing a small but encouraging increase.

Because of all this galloping expansion, Prince George is currently suffering from a form of civic schizophrenia. On the one hand, the city cherishes its roistering frontier image, which is typified by the local legend that the city hall was originally used as a brothel. On the other hand. Prince George residents are at pains to stress the city's other aspect—that of a stable, prosperous and comfortable place to earn a living and raise a family.

The frontier image

To visitors, the frontier image is the one that presents itself most forcibly. George Street on a Saturday night is awash with visiting bushworkers, many of them still in hard hats or cork hoots, toting cases of beer from one destination to another. On one payday weekend in January, the RCMP arrested twenty-two men on drunk charges. “Barroom fights were common,’’ reported The Citizen, “and many patrons were seen walking the streets with blood on their faces.”

There are rumored to be at least six after - hours speakeasies around town and an indeterminate number of brothels. A moving man even told me he’d transferred the household effects of one nine-bed establishment from Vancouver to Prince George last year. According to local health authorities, the district has the country’s highest VD rate. Its birthrate is also one of Canada’s highest and, as one resident observed, “many of them are legitimate.”

But it is unfair to dwell on such statistics. One of the city’s difficulties is that it has no skid-row district per se; so most of the picturesque manifestations of vice take place in full view ol the city’s respectable citizens, instead of being hidden away in pockets, as in most cities. Also, as Mayor Garvin Dezell points out, there’s very little that can be done about the situation. “We have six thousand transients coming in here every weekend. Those boys have been out in the bush for mayhe three months. What are you going to do? Put gates up on the highway?”

The skid-row merriment can't last forever. When the construction work-

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ers have moved on to other jobs and the city has resumed something approaching a normal pace of growth, its public-image worries will be over. What remains, despite a rugged climate and a preponderance of heavy industry, will be a civilized, wellplanned, nice city. The pulp mills, to cite one example, are spending millions on odor control and are being built downwind from the city. And even if the city does smell sulphurous on windless days, no one seems alarmed at the prospect. “What the hell." says assistant city manager Peter Pattullo, “it’s a nice expensive smell.”

During Edmonton's boom years, the city laid out streets for miles in every direction, then stood aside while land promoters tried to fill them up. Prince George is avoiding that mistake. The Crown owns most of the undeveloped land within its limits, and the city is assembling it into serviced packages, with sewers and underground wiring, before selling it. This means that Prince George, which no one doubts will eventually he the size of Edmonton, will be spared the worst effects of urban sprawl.

Never offend a landlady

In the short run, unfortunately, it also means that decent housing is fearfully scarce. There is a waiting list for city-serviced lots, and finding something for rent is an exercise in high finance and Machiavellian guile. A six-by-eight cubbyhole in somebody's basement fetches thirty-five dollars a month. Anything not totally squalid is worth at least one hundred and fifty dollars, if you can find it. This has created an odd hierarchy of values in Prince George. No one is excessively deferential to millionaires or parsons or Mounties—but no one has ever dared offend a landlady.

The most deferred-to millionaire in the city — and there are probably twenty men in the district who could sell out for more than a million dollars—is a forty-year-old construction tycoon named Ben Ginter. If Prince George is Canada’s archetypical boom town, Ginter is the archetypical nouveau millionaire.

Ginter is not one of your corporate statesmen. He wears a crew cut, lumpy suits and elastic-sided cowboy boots, and would not look out of place on the winning side in a Saturday-night brawl on George Street. But he is one of the two or three biggest construction men in western Canada, and the town's gossip estimates his net worth at anywhere from ten to twenty million dollars. Ginter declines to clarify this point, but last year he bought five million dollars' worth of construction equipment — a purchase which, since he wholly owns nearly everything he’s concerned with, as good as came out of his own pocket.

There are two local legends about Ginter, both of them false. The first is that he started in Prince George with nothing in 1949. Actually, he started with nothing in Alberta the year before; by the time he moved west, he controlled equipment worth $250 thousand.

The second myth is summed up by a trinity that is constantly invoked in

Prince George: “Gaglardi, Ginter and God.” Phil Gaglardi, of course, is B. C.’s rootin', tootin’, Bible-thumpin' minister of highways, and the conventional wisdom is that, through a personal friendship between two ex-bulldozer drivers, Gaglardi helped Ginter on the way to what he is today.

It's true that Ginter has built a lot of highways. It is also true that he gets along famously with Gaglardi — “I admire the guy,” says Ginter. “I wish I had his ambition.”

But it is probably unfair to impute anything improper to this association. Among construction men, Ginter has a reputation for tough but honest dealings. And if he were ever guilty of fawning upon the men who control B. C.'s public money, it is not apparent today. Ginter claims to have lost contracts because he declines to contribute to the Social Credit Party’s provincial slush fund—“I don’t like having a gun held against my head," he explains—and he is currently mad at Victoria because they recently turned down his bid to build a $60 million pulp mill.

Ginter still intends to build a pulp mill somehow, as part of his evident plan to branch out from being a construction tycoon to becoming an everythin# tycoon. He now owns the city’s flourishing brewery, runs a finance company owned by his wife Grace, and is moving into mining ventures and trying to maintain a construction foothold in the Alaska panhandle. When he’s not working, he plays at raising Hereford cattle and prize-winning Arabian stallions on his ranch outside the city.

Unvarnished capitalists such as Ben Ginter arc not widely admired in this country. But he is an expert, effective builder in a country that badly needs to be built, and I would like to believe that such men as Ginter, and such places as Prince George, are not totally extinct in Canada.

On my last day in the city, a young businessman named Roy Shields showed me the city from the Prince George Flying Club’s four-seater Cessna. “If you could fly over this place two years from now,” said Shields, “you would be astounded.”

We dipped over the uncompleted skeleton of the city’s first pulp mill and across the vast site (cleared by Ginter’s company) of the second. We flew over hundreds of suburban bungalows that hadn’t been there the year before, and across the two-thousandacre site of Prince George College, a pioneering Catholic institution that was partially built by volunteer labor, and hadn’t been in full operation a year ago either. Then we nosed out beyond the city limits and along the wavering course of the ice-bound Fraser River. The city was behind us, and as far as you could see in any direction was mile upon mile of silent forest. Out there, the only things that moved were the moose.

We spotted two of them, a cow and her calf, browsing beside a frozen lake about five miles from the city we’d left behind. As our plane droned over you could see them look up. startled, then lope for cover across the ice in ungainly, stiff-legged strides, and disappear into the forest. Happily, there is plenty of room in booming B. C. for both people and moose. ★