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The Price of De-Industrialization in Canada | Op-Ed

In 2018, General Motors announced its intent to shutter its Oshawa Car Assembly plant in Oshawa Ontario. The plant employed more than 2,600 unionized workers, all of which would lose their jobs if GM followed through.

When the final car rolled off the Oshawa assembly line in 2019, Canada watched as a community was forced to ask itself a difficult question: what next?

The Big Picture

This process – the flight of heavy industry from a community – is called de-industrialization. When industry leaves town, so do jobs, taxes, and people. The result of de-industrialization isn’t just a radical economic transformation, but also drastic changes to the fabric of the community itself.

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A Story About Squamish

I grew up in Squamish, BC, a town in the process of de-industrialization.

  • When I was born, Squamish had a pulp mill, a log sort, a number of sawmills, a timber engineering facility, a gravel pit, a heavy rail yard, a deep water break-bulk and bulk goods port, and many, many cut blocks.

When I left my community to attend university, BC Rail had been sold to the Canadian National Railway and the mainline through Squamish was only a few years from being almost completely shuttered.

  • All but one of the sawmills closed, as did the pulp mill.
  • The log sort has scaled back its operations as the volume of logs coming out of the hills around Howe Sound has diminished in accordance with sustainable forestry practices.

But, unlike many other communities that have undergone or are undergoing de-industrialization, the flight of industry from our community has not resulted in the flight of people from our community.

In fact, the opposite has largely been true as Squamish is now one of the fastest growing and youngest communities in BC.

  • Between my birth and my – hopefully temporary – departure, Squamish grew from a community of just over 14,000 people to one of over 20,000 people.
  • Much of this growth has occurred in the past decade and a half, as Squamish’s population was 14,949 in 2006 – when the Woodfibre Pulp mill shut down – and is projected to have been about 20,400 in 2019.

The numbers here tell a story that is at odds with the more familiar narrative of de-industrialization proceeding population decline. Why? Well, in my experience the answer is, in part, because of gentrification.

Gentrification in Post-Industrial Communities Outside the Metropolis

The traditional image of gentrification is of a neighbourhood like New York’s East Village, where poor, often racialized, people are pushed out of a densely urbanized community by an influx of more affluent, often white, folks looking for a trendy or cheap neighbourhood.

  • This can be spurred by transit-oriented development or the addition of a new, high skilled employer to the region.

Regardless, the effect is the same: rents rise, the cost of living rises, property values rise as new developments begin to cater to a wealthier demographic, and the cultural fabric of the neighbourhood shifts as its original residents can no longer afford to live there.

For a primer on urban gentrification and its effects, urbanist Justin Rozniak has an excellent video explaining the subject here.

The same process is happening right now in Squamish and I would attribute the continued and surprisingly rapid growth of the town to an influx of new residents moving up from Metro Vancouver.

  • Squamish is about an hour north of the city, even less if traffic is good. Prior to upgrades to Highway 99, the highway that connects the Lower Mainland to Squamish, for the 2010 Olympics, accidents – often fatal ones – were common along the serpentine mountain highway.
  • Today, the commute is notably safer, which means that commuting is a lot more tenable for those employed in Vancouver or on the North Shore.
  • Moreover, the astronomically high cost of housing in Metro Vancouver has made the comparatively lower housing costs in Squamish much more appealing.
  • Finally, Squamish is a gorgeous place to live and raise a family, especially if one likes to ski, mountain bike, rock climb, or hike on the weekends.

For those with well-paying jobs who are willing to tolerate the commute in exchange for cheaper housing, beautiful scenery, and a small-town environment, there is a very strong case for moving up the Sound.

But this rosy outlook is not shared by those for whom Squamish has been home for decades. For us, it means uncertainty.

Some changes are obvious, others more subtle. The noticeable changes include an increases in new and denser developments, especially condos, apartments, and townhouses. It’s noticeable in things like the increased number of Audis, BMWs, and Teslas on our roads and an increased number of craft breweries and distilleries, vegan cafes, and artisanal restaurants opening in town. It’s also noticeable in the vacancy rate, which has hovered around 0% since at least 2016.

“Because they came and they stayed, Squamish gets to stay”

The Squamish of my youth – the Squamish of aging lumber jacks, of knowing everyone at the grocery store, and that proudly proclaimed itself ‘the outdoor recreation capital of Canada’ – isn’t necessarily the Squamish that newcomers recognize.

  • Many will no doubt be aware of that Squamish – it’s rugged Sea-to-Sky mystique might even have been what lured them here – but that’s not their Squamish.
  • They arrived in a Squamish that’s mostly completed its deindustrialization, one that might have faced the same fate of many other mill towns in BC had they not arrived.

Without them – without their property taxes and their social capital – Squamish might have suffered that far more depressing fate. But because they came and they stayed, Squamish gets to stay. Which is something to celebrate.

I am thrilled that, in part, as a consequence of this gentrification, we now have a more visible and proud queer community in Squamish. There are also a lot of great new businesses and amenities that gentrification has brought us.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not blind to the downsides too.

The Price we Pay to Stay

  • Rent and property taxes are artificially high right now, buoyed by the toxic Metro Vancouver housing market, which acts in conjunction with the low vacancy rate to ensure the cost of living is untenably high.
  • The issue of semi-nomadic ‘van lifers’ has caused something of a rift in our community.
  • Existing neighbourhoods feel the fabric of their communities threatened by new housing developments that are nonetheless badly need to alleviate the housing shortage.
  • Local schools are rapidly running out of space for the influx of new students.

While this is arguably a better fate than becoming a ghost town, it’s still a challenge for me to reconcile the Squamish that is with the Squamish that I remember. I’m left to wonder how those a generation or two older than me must feel.

Is gentrification the cost of surviving de-industrialisation? In writing this piece, I’m reminded of the Ship of Theseus, the ship that is rebuilt piece by piece until no more of the original pieces remain.

  • Demographic and economic transition are made inevitable by time and no community will remain the same as it always will be in rose tinted memories.

But surely, we can do better by our post-industrial towns than leave them to the whims of the market, to either embrace change, or, more commonly, simply disappear slowly and quietly.

Even with the hard questions about community identity that gentrification raise, Squamish will survive. But, can the same be said for communities that are too remote to benefit from refugees of the Vancouver housing bubble?

  • Communities like Mackenzie, BC, face not only an identity crisis, but also a full blown existential one when their sole major employer pulls up stakes.

The Final Word

Communities like Oshawa and Squamish will ultimately transition from being industrial communities to being post-industrial ones. But many industrial communities will not.

  • Some of these communities are remote, or their booms have finally gone bust for good, or environmental concerns have caused reduced investment in their particular industry, or automation and cheap offshore labour have outcompeted them.

In the end, the result is the same: gentrify or perish. And if gentrification is simply not possible? Well, good luck.

Investment in communities – and more vitally – their residents can help ease the transition, but, ultimately, I don’t think you can put a price on losing a community.