The Great Rush of '77

Suzanne Zwarun October 31 1977

The Great Rush of '77

Suzanne Zwarun October 31 1977

The Great Rush of '77


Suzanne Zwarun

CP Air’s flight 21 to Prince George, Fort St. John, Fort Nelson, Watson Lake and Whitehorse isn’t scheduled to leave for 15 minutes but the little throng of people, all with reservations, clustered around the Vancouver passenger gate won’t be on it. “I’m sorry, the plane’s full,” a tight-lipped clerk keeps repeating. The group trails away unhappily to find CP supervisor G.K. Ireland already closeted with an irate man who is complaining that the entire Fort Nelson school system will close down tomorrow unless he gets to Fort Nelson today. He doesn’t.

A lot of people heading north to the Alaska Highway are getting bumped off planes this fall despite extra flights. “It’s been like this for weeks,” Ireland sighs. “Every flight is full and most are overbooked. Everybody’s heading north with a one-way ticket and a dream in their pocket.”

The traffic and the dreams are fueling impossible fantasies about a pipeline rush to equal the Gold Rush of ’98. A Vancouver newspaper claims hundreds of people are sleeping in their cars in north-

ern British Columbia and police fear people will freeze to death. Northern realtors talk about a man supposedly wandering around with a four-million-dollar certified cheque in his pocket, looking for anything to buy. Rumors of multimilliondollar deals are traded over coffee and the stories are embellished spectacularly as they make their way along the Alaska Highway. Sifting fact from fiction has become the main preoccupation of government officials, tourism directors and business people.

At Fort St. John, bc—Mile 47 on the Alaska Highway—the northern lights are smeared across the early evening sky as if someone had dropped a celestial bottle of milk. The airport, as jsual, is jammed and regional tourist coordinator Don Ashley is in a quandary. It is still possible, with advance planning, to find an empty room among the north’s 2,000, but Ashley sent a press release south warning people not to arrive without confirmed accommodation. His advice got horribly distorted; a few people overnighting in their cars became hundreds stranded, the Peace River’s pop-

ulation of45,000 was somehow reported to have swelled to 80,000 in six weeks. Exciting things are happening in the North since the Alaska Highway pipeline became a reality, but the reality isn’t that exciting, Ashley warns.

The Alaska Highway, starting at Dawson Creek, BC, was punched north in the early 1940s as part of the war effort. The discovery of oil in 1951 cemented the future for communities at the southern end, or so thought the farmers who followed the oil and gas boom. In fact, it all flattened out a few years ago and looked to stay that way . . . until the energy crisis loomed and the BC government changed. Higher fuel prices once again made it profitable for oil companies to start explorations in areas that weren’t economically feasible two years ago, and the departure 23 months ago of the NDP government and its notions on royalties made exploration seem safer.

Then international attention centred on the pipeline,which will slice across the Yukon into northern BC. That combination equals, says an executive in the oil servicing field, “a boom that outdoes anything we saw here in the 1950s.”

While the drain to Alberta worries the rest of BC there seem to be as many vehicles from Alberta as from BC in Fort St. John. The posh Alexander Mackenzie Inn, where a swimming pool graces the lobby, turned away 80 people in 24 hours, BC Tel reports a 70% increase in northern business, CP Air traffic jumped 54%. Bush is being cleared, old buildings demolished, new subdivisions and apartment blocks are sprouting. Mayor Pat Walsh saw the price of one commercial property rise $ 10,000 overnight. A quarter section on the city’s outskirts was bush last year, he says, and concrete pourers and farmers are still working into the dusk every night, but every lot has been sold for industrial use and the developers are moving on to the next quarter section.

Talk about the gas pipeline has everyone excited, but northerners rightly point out that the basis of the current boom is the oil industry. This fall, 38 exploration crews descended on Fort St. John, population 10,000. In the next two years, Westcoast Transmission will spend $160 million on various pipelines in a 100-mile radius of Fort St. John. Northerners are hoping coal

development will go ahead at Sukunka, and BC Hydro wants to put a major dam three miles south of Fort St. John. “They haven’t started to move a piece of pipe yet for the Alaska Highway pipeline. Nothing is really firm yet, but people want to be where the action is,” says Ashley.

Bill Stark, a partner in C. C. Brooks Realty, gets calls like the one from a Torontonian willing to buy anything for sale. Stark admits: “The reasonably priced stuff is behind us now.” Torontonians purchased 40 industrial acres at $12,000 an acre and are negotiating for a pasture alongside the Alaska Highway. They’re willing to pay $1.15 million for 66 acres and are hoping to build a $38-million shopping centre. A Red Deer group bought 80 acres for condominiums, an Edmonton group cornered a commercial block. A 120-acre pasture, selling at $55,000 for years, changed hands for $750,000. “It’s amazing what big money is shuffling around,” says Stark. Realtors agree land prices have been depressed for years. But, in weeks, they climbed to normal levels, then kept going. A Fort St. John man who bought his home VA years ago has been offered $70,000 for it, double what he paid. “We simply ran out of houses to sell 10 days ago,” says AÍ Jones, owner of a realty and a construction firm. His worst problem is finding labor to build. He imports framing crews from Calgary, curbing crews

from Prince George. Bill Dyer, publisher of the daily Alaska Highway News— motto: “The only newspaper in the world that gives a tinker’s dam about the North Peace”—had to pack a would-be reporter back on a plane south. “He wanted the job but he couldn’t see where he would live.”

The BC Ministry of Economic Development claims Peace River, at 11.3%, has the second worst unemployment rate in the province. But the statistics are three months old and deemed “absurd” in Fort St. John. Canada Manpower, which was seeing 55 job seekers a day, now handles 125 to 150. No repeats, so they’re assumed to be getting work.

At Whitehorse, Mile 919 on the Alaska Highway, the mountains surrounding the city are crowned with snow and Yukoners have broken out their parkas for another year. That normally sends tourists fleeing in the opposite direction, but this year the tourists are lingering, combining a late holiday with the chance to look over future prospects when the Alaska Highway pipeline goes through. Companies are dispatching men north to inquire about Yukon registration, the post office is handling inquiries about mail delivery for companies that may be arriving soon. A few early birds arrive hoping to get jobs on the pipeline although posters have gone up in Canada Manpower offices across the country warning: “Look before you leap North.No Yukon gold rush. Contrary to rumors, jobs are not immediately available in the North with pipeline companies.”

What is happening is that Whitehorse is feverish with rumors fed mainly by land transactions. “At the right price, almost everything downtown is for sale but prices are astronomical,” says lawyer Allen Lueck, new owner of the Whitehorse Inn. A ramshackle, 100-room hotel with a skid row reputation, the inn reportedly sold for $685,000.

Stan Bendera just turned down a million-dollar offer for his Ben Elle Hotel, saying: “It’s appraised at a lot more than that.” There are rumors of a two-milliondollar deal for the Yukon Inn. A Whitehorse resident who missed his option on an airport area property that was selling last spring for $150,000 discovered that the price had jumped overnight to $225,000 from the $200,000 he had agreed on the day before.

There’s also a brisk business in residential property and prices are up, partly because servicing costs have leaped and partly because local people have been doing some speculating. Mayor lone Christensen is worried about the pipeline leaving Whitehorse with a housing glut. The city, population 14,500 now, is expected to increase by 8,000 at the peak of pipeline construction but, with the pipeline offering only 200 permanent jobs, population will skid again. Whitehorse’s 162 square miles makes it the third largest municipality in Canada but little of the land is developed and city council is wres-

tling with providing expensive servicing that will be needed only temporarily.

But the mayor, like everyone else in town, is finding it hard to discover exactly who is doing what to the city. The frustration was enough to bring together some bitter enemies. A mid-October meeting got everyone, from the Yukon Conservation Society to the Chamber of Mines, to agree on two urgent demands; immediate establishment of an Impact Information Centre and a single regulatory body to coordinate pipeline planning. Both were recommendations of the Lysyk inquiry and inquiry member Willard Phelps has been pushing hard this fall to get them started and staffed by northerners. He says 10 wildly disparate groups—everyone in the North but the Humane Society—can’t be wrong about the need. “I’m very concerned that unless we start soon there won’t be time to plan properly.”

The Impact Information Centre would have the chore of sifting through hundreds of rumors and publishing a weekly fact sheet of how many people were in the North and what they were doing. The regulatory agency, in turn, would plan what everyone should be doing “instead of just dealing with one crisis after another,” as Phelps put it. “For the next five or six years, every person in the Yukon is going to be completely overwhelmed. They’re going to have to cope daily with the effects of the pipeline project. They’re going to have to know what’s happening.”