by Seanah Roper, Fort Nelson Community Literacy Society
Holistic Approach to Learning in Remote Northern Community
Fort Nelson is a small, remote community in the Northeast corner of British Columbia. The population has traditionally hovered around 5000 but has now decreased as a direct result of ongoing economic decline. The 2016 census placed Fort Nelson’s population at 3500, and the coming census will likely indicate much lower.
Fort Nelson sits on the traditional territory of the Dene people and is home to many First Nations and Metis people and communities. There is a vibrant and rich Indigenous culture in the area. The arbour at Fort Nelson First Nation often hosts beautiful evening tea dances with drummers, an annual Hand Games Tournament where people come from all over to participate, and wonderful cultural events throughout the year. With COVID-19, these things have mostly paused.
The town experiences long, cold winters. Winter usually begins in mid-October and will stretch into March. The winters can be challenging for many who struggle with the limited daylight and the isolating cold. Despite its darkness and biting temperatures though, the winter holds a quiet beauty, where the Northern Lights often light the sky to dance in their green and purple grace.
Fort Nelson has limited health and medical services. There are no maternity services in Fort Nelson and families must travel to other communities at least one month prior to their due dates and live elsewhere at their own expense while waiting for their babies to come. Fort Nelson does however have excellent general practitioners. It is easy to obtain a family doctor and if one needs to get in to see a doctor, they may do so in the same day, sometimes within the same hour that they call. The doctors are caring and rooted in the community and have personal and emotional investments in the work they do.
It is important to note that Fort Nelson is 370 kilometres north of Fort St. John, the next urban centre. This equates to about a four-hour drive which in the winter can be dangerous. Central Mountain Air offers flights in and out of Fort Nelson. Flights are significantly more expensive than air travel elsewhere. The BC bus offers service one day per week in Fort Nelson.
We are often lumped into the category of “Northern BC” which includes Prince George (a ten-hour drive away) and up. It is notable to say that many people do not understand the distances involved when looking at our region. Even the city of Fort St. John is difficult to access during certain times of the year due to our remoteness.
Despite the difficulties faced in recent years, Fort Nelson is a caring and vibrant community. Many love Fort Nelson for the simplicity of lifestyle – there is no commute to and from work, there is little traffic. Families can use this time to spend more quality moments together. The Northern Rockies offers beautiful nature in near proximity. Many enjoy outdoor lifestyles and engage in hunting, hiking and camping in the vast area of the Northern Rockies and Muskwa Ketchika. The town prides itself on being close and connected, a place where folks take care of each other, where people know each other and watch out for one another. It retains a kind of old fashioned sentiment that seems to have disappeared from many places, and usually cannot be found at all in larger centres.
Fort Nelson was once a thriving industrial town. It was known as a place “out west” where people could come and find work either in the oil and gas industry or the forestry industry and make a high income with little to no education or experience. Many people migrated from the eastern provinces and the Lower Mainland in the 80s-early 2000s to make a better life and raise families. During this time, local businesses did well and employed many temporary foreign workers.
In 2008, the two major mills closed down in Fort Nelson leaving hundreds of people out of work. The mills tended to employ family people, in many cases both parents in a household were employed with the same employer. During these closures, many families left town to move elsewhere for work, but many stayed, having set their roots down in the community and not wanting to leave their home.
Many of the mill employees had been working there since their teen years, having opted out of high school graduation to go directly into the labour market where they could make good money and start their lives early. When, the technology boom occurred with the explosion of the internet, personal devices and information became accessible only online. The unemployed mill workers found themselves suddenly without work, without a high school education, and facing the challenges of computer literacy. Many could not use a computer at all. They needed to create resumes, create email addresses to include on those resumes, and access online job boards. They could receive some services from WorkBC, but needed real support in their learning to adapt these skills so that they could function independently. Many returned to school to complete their GED hoping to increase their employability and to open up their career options, seeing an opportunity in the difficult times.
Many mill workers transitioned to the oil and gas industry. This was especially difficult for employees with families as they started working in remote camps where their schedules were three weeks in, one week off, and other similar arrangements. Families were now separated much of the time, parents at home were challenged with being single parents most of the time, and stress was felt throughout the entire family unit.
In 2014, the oil and gas industry began to decline, reaching a peak over the course of the next few years as companies began to make cuts. This impacted those working directly in oil and gas, and also those working in related fields (local businesses, hot shotting, etc). It eventually trickled out to all businesses in the community including restaurants and hotels. We saw an increasing demand at the Fort Nelson Learning Centre for these unemployed workers to receive support with computers to apply for Employment Insurance, and to receive other employment and literacy services. Computer skills were at the forefront of challenges, as well as other literacy skills.
In the subsequent years and leading up to today, the community has continued to struggle under depressed industries. The population has decreased by what some feel is nearly 50% now and the housing market has declined dramatically. Many had to claim bankruptcy and walk away from their homes, and many lost significant equity in their investments. Local businesses have faced devastating closures due to population decline and there are many empty and boarded up lots in the downtown area.
Doing literacy work in this climate
As literacy practitioners, we were able to watch the unraveling of our local economy through the learners and clients that came through our doors for technology help. The needs included help to learn how to use a computer to apply for Employment Insurance, to create resumes, to upgrade tech and other skills to enhance job market opportunities. At first, it was difficult to keep up with the demand for services. We have no Service Canada in the area, and our Learning Centre was forced fill in these service gaps. To handle the volume of people, we had to condense EI application support to small group sessions where many people could come at once and complete their applications instead of having a steady stream of learners coming all the time.
As things progressed, we came to know many community members. Some of them joined learning programs, but most used our drop-in services. We found that the Learning Centre was becoming somewhat of a neighbourhood house. People felt comfortable there. They would sometimes stop in for a coffee or just to chat and leave us small change as an act of gratitude for offering some help and some conversation.
We began to encounter learners who were struggling with mental health and addictions issues. We noticed small signs of deterioration each time they came in. The story was clear and simple: work had kept people out of trouble. As long as they could keep their employment, they could keep clear in their minds and keep addictions at bay. Many people worked in remote labour camps and during their two weeks in, lived very well. These camps had full services including kitchens that served excellent food, fitness facilities and other recreation. Most importantly, these were dry camps. There was no drinking, and certainly no drug use permitted. When workers came out of the camps for their one week off, they would often go on binges of alcohol and substances, spending the week this way. But at the end of the week, they would return to work, sober up and get healthy again. For many people, work was the reason they were staying alive.
Many community members moved away for work. The ones who stayed tended to be those who had deep family roots in the community, a property that they could not afford to leave, or those who were unable to obtain work elsewhere and who faced multiple personal and systemic barriers.
In the 2016 year, five of our regular learners passed away. We were shocked and heartbroken. Two passed away of medical reasons, one took his own life and two passed away as a result of alcohol related exposure, ultimately freezing to death after passing out on their way home. One learner had made it home, sat down on the front steps and had simply fallen asleep before she could get in the door. With temperatures dipping down to -40 at times, the winter can be a major threat to those with serious alcohol addictions.
As literacy practitioners, we were not prepared for the high needs we were seeing among our learner base. We have had to source out training in conflict management, dealing with secondary trauma and working with individuals who struggle with mental health and addictions issues. It has been a journey, but not one without hope.
- Employment keeps mental health and addictions issues at bay. We have seen this over and over again with our learners and through conducting the surveys. When people are out of work, these old ghosts take over and present difficult challenges.
- Bridging the digital divide is paramount. Nearly every single learner we have encountered struggled in some way with computers and technology. These struggles rendered them powerless in pursuing the tasks they needed to do, and led to feelings of helplessness, frustration, and low confidence.
- Displaced workers tend to be happy in the work they were previously doing, even if the pay is minimal and the labour is hard. We did not encounter many who wished to do training outside of their scope of work experience.
- Expired tickets and certifications are an issue for many. When these tickets expire, the individuals often cannot afford to renew them, and if they receive a call for work in the meantime, they cannot go because their tickets are expired.
- Stress and instability are common among all the workers we encountered. Even if individuals can find short-term work, it only provides temporary relief and they still must live with the uncertainty of what comes next.
- Cheap rent is changing the community. We are seeing new people arriving in Fort Nelson having caught onto the fact that rental units are inexpensive, as low as $425 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. People are migrating from the Lower Mainland and elsewhere and looking for work here. They are giving up their Starbucks’ and Walmarts for a simpler, more affordable lifestyle. Many who are arriving face other barriers as well, including disabilities and mental health issues. This is putting stress on local RCMP members who are tasked to respond to different situations and do not have many resources at their disposal.
As we move forward, I feel optimistic about the community and what may be in store for our region economically. There are several projects in the works that will help to restore the broken economy here. Fort Nelson First Nation (FNFN) is starting a large geothermal project which promises to create local employment, and a renewable energy company has signed a memorandum of understanding with FNFN to open a pellet plant in the coming year. I feel there is hope for people who are out of work right now.
That being said, I feel this is an opportune time for community members to do important work to help enhance their chances in the job market, and to ensure that they are better prepared to endure the unavoidable cyclic nature of northern industries. The issues facing displaced workers in our region are complex and we must approach them in a holistic way, looking at the whole person in their totality, and not just what they look like on a resume.
Literacy work for us has always looked different, especially in our approach to employment issues. We know that a one size fits all approach will not get us very far. Quantitative focuses that we see in funding streams that aim to get folks back to work often miss the mark completely. If we want to see real success in getting people back to work, we need to look beyond the technical requirements of obtaining a job and investigate the socio-emotional aspects that can be strengthened, and focus on this in tandem with technological literacy and skills training.