East Kootenay

Columbia wetlands overview
Photo by Eternalsleeper (CC BY-SA 3.0). Image has been cropped.

By Andra Louie, Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy

Learners Need Flexible, Affordable Childcare

The geography of the East Kootenay region of south eastern British Columbia is stunning and dynamic. Home to the Ktunaxa and Sepwepemc peoples, the forested lake lands are unique and rugged. Explorers, settlers and pioneers began steadily arriving throughout the 1800s mapping the river systems, trading with First Nations and staking claims in hopes of striking it rich during gold rush times.

Much has changed in two centuries, yet the landscape continues to attract those seeking adventure, beauty and prosperity.

Modest small and mid-size towns dot the mountain valleys. The local economies are mostly dependent on tourism, forestry, mining and agriculture; however, bigger centres have more robust economies that include the public sector, construction and transportation. Cranbrook (population 21 000+) serves as the leading distribution and service centre for the mining industry in the area.  Local manufacturing primarily focuses on lumber and wood products, machinery, equipment, fabricating, and food and beverage products.

Housing prices in the East Kootenays can range depending on how desirable the locale is for second homeowners. City dwellers love to retire in the Rocky and Purcell mountains, close to golf courses and serene lakes; young families are drawn to the small communities for a fresh start, affordability, and safety. Recently, newcomers have brought their jobs with them as they work remotely and only rely on a strong Wi-Fi signal and a flight from the Cranbrook airport to Calgary, Kelowna, or Vancouver. Young people move to the area for seasonal jobs, usually at the golf courses, resorts, and ski hills. Many stay in hopes of establishing themselves, starting businesses and finding bigger opportunities. It is quite common to meet people who juggle two or three part-time jobs to make ends meet. For some who have lived in the region their entire lives, ensuring full time employment has meant adapting, re-training and even remote working to ensure that bills get paid and their families needs are met. It’s also common to meet people who live passionate lives and are dedicated to a mountain lifestyle that includes time in the backcountry with secret and hard to access camping sites and fishing holes.

In 2015, the Canfor saw mill in Canal Flats closed because of lack of fibre supply combined with depressed market conditions in the oil and gas and lumber markets that left 74 workers unemployed. As Canfor was the town’s main employer, this greatly affected the community both financially and socially. The workers were offered opportunities to transfer to other operations, the closest being 62km away. Re-training and upgrading programs were provided by College of the Rockies in partnership with WorkBC.

In the 2016 Census, the East Kootenay population was 60,439. Since 2015, job losses in the East Kootenays have been in response to mill closures, industry slow downs, forest fires and tourism decline because of COVID-19 in 2020. The region has sufficient medical services and a reputable college in Cranbrook with satellite campuses in five smaller communities.

I grew up in the scenic East Kootenay town of Invermere. This attractive and sunlit community is set on Lake Windermere between the Rocky and Purcell Mountain ranges. Many people, such as my parents, earned a living working in the mining and forestry industries in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. As a teenager, I began noticing how divisions in the community emerged: those who wanted to keep the tourists out and preserve our resources and small town way of life versus others who earned a living from tourism, second home construction and business development and fought to create greater amenities and opportunities to cater to tourists and vacation home owners. It was difficult to merge the two ideologies without creating a lot of animosity.

As a child, I fully intended to move away when I became an adult to gain a bigger perspective on life.  I sought bright lights, busy streets, tall buildings, and greater diversity — I craved adventure and excitement. However, during my travels overseas I loved describing my quaint hometown to people and feeling nostalgic. When I was a university student and later started my career in Calgary, then Edmonton and finally Vancouver, I craved the quiet time of being in the mountains and fresh air. Fortunately, husband and I were able to move from metro Vancouver to Kimberley, BC in January 2014 when our daughter was three years old. My husband had a full-time position, while I worked part-time, juggled jobs, searched for reliable childcare options and persevered amidst all the surmounting hurdles. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. We now both have gainful employment and enjoy our neighborhood, community and region immensely. We are now those folks who are tight-lipped about our camping spots and fishing holes.

My husband works for BC Hydro in the role of Vegetation Maintenance Coordinator and oversees BC Hydro’s tree removal and pruning program in the East Kootenays. He is hopeful that he will be promoted into a management position in the next five-eight years. I work for the Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy (CBAL) as the East Kootenay Regional Program Manager and I support seven Community Literacy Coordinators and their staff in their communities. My organization and my position fulfill me greatly and I intend to continue working for CBAL for many years. At some point there may be an opportunity to move into another management role or even the Executive Director role.

CBAL is a recognized and valued non-profit organization in southeast BC in the Columbia Basin and Boundary region.  The organization focuses on strengthening partnerships and connections in the region through community literacy and settlement programs that are offered at no cost to participants and clients. There are 16 Community Literacy Coordinators who work in 77 communities throughout the region.

Through my job, I was introduced to Monique Gagne (not her real name) at the Kimberley CBAL office in 2018 on one of the occasions when she was meeting with a volunteer English tutor.  In subsequent conversations, I learned that Monique moved from Quebec to Kimberley in 2004 as she sought a lifestyle change in the beautiful Rocky Mountains.  Back home in Quebec, she worked full time in the service industry as a bartender and banquet server; she did not have any formal education or training and got by working as a server. After she moved across Canada to Kimberley, she found work as a landscaper which was easier for her because her first language is French, and she only learned beginner English in school.

Monique settled into Kimberley, got married and has a child now; her husband works a 9-5 job in Cranbrook which is less than 30 minutes away. Monique likes that he is home for dinner and doesn’t have to work up north or far enough out of town to not come home at night. Monique continues to work at a local golf course in Kimberley as a landscaper from April to October, however this year she didn’t start in the spring on account of the pandemic. She had been unemployed since October when the golf season closed in 2019. When she was called back to work at the end of July 2020, her hours were reduced, and she worked part time until the middle of October.

Monique also lost her English tutor at CBAL in spring 2020 as the tutor moved away to Edmonton to be closer to family on account of concerns over COVID-19. Monique does not have a replacement tutor yet. She has gained the confidence to speak English frequently now but recognizes that her reading and writing both need greater practice. She admits that she defaults to using Google for spelling assistance.

Since having her child five years ago, Monique has not worked in the winter off-seasons because she couldn’t find any part-time spots open in the local daycares. Over the years, Monique and her young daughter attended many free community-based children’s programs together, such as StrongStart, an early years program funded by the Ministry of Education, where they learned English songs, talked about parenting, and made connections with other moms.

Monique has been working to become fluent in English and told me that she wanted to learn English so that she could read to her daughter, be able to talk to her teachers and support her daughter once she entered the public school system. In September 2020, her daughter started kindergarten, and Monique joyfully told me that, “She’s loving it!”

Like many people I meet these days, Monique has not thought about making any winter plans yet. She has considered looking into enrolling in an Early Childhood Education (ECE) program and is interested in working at StrongStart and offering some of the programming in French. Monique likes the hours as it coincides with her child’s school schedule. She has Googled ECE programs, but only checked into it once because she was distracted by her parenting obligations. Monique also admits that the tuition cost, doing it online, and needing a tutor are all barriers to overcome. She told me that, “If I was a super Mommy I could do it.” As she and her husband are living off of one income currently and additional home improvement and vehicle maintenance expenses are looming, she feels that it’s probably not going to happen in the near future. Monique says that she is happy to watch their daughter grow and enjoy Kindergarten this year noting, “Everything is about her; she is my life. As long as we are together, everything is happy.”

Monique shared with me that her ultimate dream is to open a French-speaking daycare in Kimberley. This is a service not currently offered in the community but is one that parents have expressed interest and excitement about.

Unfortunately, Monique’s challenges are far too common; women forsake their career ambitions and personal goals while they are raising young children and then sacrifice their dreams further when childcare and daycare options are limited. Communities need affordable, flexible, and convenient childcare options available outside of regular business hours. Parents work multiple jobs and have an overwhelming amount of responsibilities once they start a family and incur debt. Post secondary education, re-training and upskilling can be lofty goals when systems are not in place to support people and their families to be successful. By providing post-secondary grants, reasonable childcare options, living allowances for post-secondary students and small business start-up funding, the chances of achieving dreams would actually have a shot. There are many people like Monique and her family in the Kootenays and across the country who deserve a chance to succeed. This would be good for all of us.


East Kootenay river with snow and ice
Photo by Rod Lafond (CC BY 3.0). Image has been cropped.


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