Port Alice

View of a hillside from the water.
Photo by Trish Weatherall.

by Trish Weatherall, Mount Waddington Family Literacy Society

Remote Industry Towns Need Digital Literacy Programs 

I am both the daughter of pulp mill workers and the life partner of a pulp mill worker. I’ve lived in two remote Vancouver Island villages whose sole purpose was to house the pulp mill employees and their families. Those mills, in Gold River and Port Alice, are now permanently closed. These villages, like many in Canada’s resource industry towns, have fallen into an economic and social depression from which they will likely never recover.

In resource industries, like forestry, mining, and fishing, there is an inevitable boom and bust cycle. In a bust (strikes, layoffs, closures), the thousands of displaced resource industry workers in rural and remote ‘one-horse towns’ across BC are left with few employment or re-training alternatives.

Often multiple generations of a family are affected. Older workers preparing for retirement have a difficult time finding new employment. Younger workers with families are left with huge mortgages. The housing market crashes. Workers can’t relocate for a job because they can’t sell their house, and they can’t afford to carry two households. There are no local jobs to replace the ones they lost. In fact, more local businesses close in a ripple effect.

At the 100-year-old Port Alice Neucel Specialty Cellulose pulp mill, about two-thirds of the former workers do not have documented transferable skills, so their job prospects are bleak anywhere. The ‘lucky’ ones with trades certification now leave their families to work away at camps.

As with most of the forest industry, the Port Alice mill had an older workforce. The BC Council of Forest Industries says that 50% of their workforce will be retiring in the next decade, and WorkBC Statistics from 2016 Census show that 39% of labourers in wood, pulp and paper processing were between the ages of 45-64.

There is a noticeable digital literacy gap for these aging workers that hinders online training possibilities and makes job search more difficult.

There are no adult education programs in the village, and only a few at the North Island College branch in Port Hardy 45 minutes away. There is no consistent basic digital literacy programming available.

In this case study, I’ll give examples of several workers displaced from the Neucel Pulp Mill in Port Alice, how these layoffs affected their finances, families and lives, what helped them find new work, what was missing, and what their lives look like now.

The details are gathered from a displaced worker survey and telephone interviews conducted from June through September 2020, information gathered at a roundtable forum with local organization representatives, a 2018 community learning needs survey, as well as my personal experience working with locals to prepare their resumes, and informal conversations with friends and acquaintances throughout my life.


Port Alice background

Port Alice is a remote oceanside village on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, in the Regional District of Mount Waddington which covers a land area of 20, 244 km2. Known locally as ‘The North Island’, the region’s population in 2016 was 11,035 and has a 27% First Nations population, although only 1% in Port Alice. In the region of Mount Waddington, 24%, or one in four people, are unemployed. Port Alice’s unemployment rate is about 10%.

The population of Port Alice has fluctuated from between 2500 residents in the booming 1980s, to 1126 in 2001, to 664 in 2016.

Port Alice originated at the mill site in 1917, but was relocated in 1965 to what was known as Rumble Beach, to get out from under the shadow of the mill’s smoke stacks. The town had many amenities including a bowling alley, a dentist, and several shops.

The mill employed Port Alice residents and also many North Island residents from Port Hardy, Port McNeill, and even further south. Other major employers in the region include forestry (in Port Alice the Jeune Landing Logging Division and the Quatsino Dryland Sort employ 80 people, about half whom reside in Port Alice), aquaculture, a gravel pit operation, Island Health, and School District 85. Tourism is a growing industry, made more difficult by the COVID-19 pandemic. Port Alice struggles with wanting to invite tourists but not having the infrastructure (accommodations, food venues, entertainment) to support them.

As an example of its remoteness, Port Alice is approximately six hours from Victoria, almost three hours from the nearest Tim Hortons in Campbell River, and 45 minutes from its ‘Tri-port’ communities, Port Hardy to the northeast and Port McNeill to the southeast. At the base of Quatsino Sound on Vancouver Island’s west coast, it’s approximately 40 km from where survivalists were camped on the 2015 season of History TV’s Alone.

There wasn’t a paved road until 1976. Mudslides, road closures, power outages, bear and cougar encounters are to be expected in the region.

Lifestyles lean toward rugged outdoor activities like fishing, kayaking and hiking, and hockey is the king of indoor activities. Several NHL pros were made in North Island arenas.


Port Alice pulp mill

The century-old pulp mill, built in 1917 by Colonial Pulp & Paper, is 5 km south of the present-day Port Alice.

The mill went through multiple ownerships – Rayonier, Doman, LaPointe, Western Forest Products, Fulida — and multiple layoffs and shutdowns.

In 2008, the mill was renamed to Neucel Specialty Cellulose when it was acquired by Fulida, a company based in China. Local workers were rehired and some new workers moved into town. The housing market was refreshed, and local businesses and restaurants were able to keep their doors open.

Then, in February 2015, the Neucel mill went into a ‘production curtailment’, citing three years of unfavourable pulp prices, combined with the high cost of oil, energy consumption and operating chemicals, plus a low US/Canada$ exchange rate. By November 2015, the company announced temporary layoffs due to market conditions. As the months progressed, more employees were laid off and by March 2016 about 90% of employees were without work – but the mill was not considered shut down permanently.

This kept employees hopeful, and likely contributed to people staying in Port Alice for years to wait it out. Some salaried employees continued to work in the office and a handful of union employees were kept on to perform building and equipment maintenance.

The curtailment lasted almost four years, until in February 2019, Neucel announced it was officially permanently closed and laid off the last 20 employees.

Neucel Cellulose Pulp Mill, Port Alice, BC
The Neucel Cellulose Pulp Mill near Port Alice stopped producing pulp in 2015, laying off more than 400 employees over 4 years before finally closing forever in 2019. Photo by Trish Weatherall.

The mill workers’ demographics

Unifor Local 514, the union for mill employees, provided the following Neucel employee demographic estimates:

  • 430 employees – 100 salaried – 330 union
  • of 330 Union employees – 130 trades and skilled – 200 without job-related transferable skills
  • 35% women; 65% men
  • 75% older workers (age 40-65); 25% younger workers came from recruiting after the 2004 closure/ re-opening in 2006
  • approximately two-thirds have a digital literacy gap
  • education – most have a high school diploma or GED but includes “some % of low-level readers”

The main reason that 200 workers did not have transferrable skills is due to the 100-year-old mill’s ancient equipment. The mill had not been upgraded to new technologies, so these employees have no experience with the technology used in most modern mills. (One employee talked about seeing equipment – a pulp rewinder – in a museum in England, which was still being used in the Port Alice mill!) Operating a machine in the Port Alice mill does not qualify them to operate equipment in newer mills that use updated instrumentation such as programmable logic controllers and energy efficient motor control centres.


Other industry economic impacts

Compounding the economic suffering of the region were the shutdown of the island’s last logging train in 2017, an eight-month logging industry strike in 2019 and early 2020, new restrictions on the commercial fishing industry in 2019 that limits income for fishers and tour operators, and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.


My connection to Port Alice

I lived in Port Alice from September 2011 until March 2017, where my partner was a labourer (machine operator and service crew member) at the Neucel Mill since 2001. I had several work experiences that contributed to my knowledge and understanding of the townspeople, the mill, and the impact of its closure.

I worked part-time at the Scotiabank, at the Village of Port Alice municipal office, then as a literacy outreach coordinator for the Mount Waddington Family Literacy Society and a freelance writer covering North Vancouver Island businesses and lifestyles.

Shortly after the first round of mill layoffs in 2015, I started a side-business providing a resume service in town. I helped 27 former Neucel mill workers create their resumes and gained some valuable insight into the skills, mindset and needs of these people. More than half were over age 40, almost all have a high school diploma, and about two-thirds were classified as machine operators or labourers without transferable skills.

Lessons learned from resumes:  I spent on average two hours in-person with each worker as we discussed their work experience and future job goals in my living room. I saw a lack of self-confidence in many of them, who started our resume session saying: ‘There’s nothing else I can do.’ or ‘I have no other experience or skills.’

I asked questions that helped them see some of their skillsets. In most cases, once they were able to break down all of their experience, responsibilities and training and see it on paper, they felt more confident about the possibility of finding a new job.

The aging workforce face another barrier to re-employment. Based on these 27 resumes and eight displaced worker surveys and interviews there is a noticeable lack of digital literacy – the ability to use computers, internet and social media.

About 66% of the workers I spoke to are unable to create a resume, search for employment or submit an application or resume online.


Local agency services, supports and research

Currently, North Island Employment Foundations Society (NIEFS) is the provincial contractor for the Vancouver Island North region delivering WorkBC Employment Services. With offices in Port Hardy and a satellite office in Port McNeill along with a dedicated Outreach Coordinator, they connect clients and employers to a range of services including: job search tools, skills training, wage subsidy, labour market information, job postings and other workforce development services.

With nearly 35 years in operation as a non-profit registered charity, NIEFS has built extensive partnerships with businesses, other agencies, communities and individuals across the Vancouver Island North region. These partnerships are integral to their ability to assist people to build self-sufficiency through active and sustainable participation in the labour market and assist employers to hire the right people, with the right skills at the right time contributing to a strong, resilient and healthy community.

Over the course of the curtailment at Neucel, NIEFS case managed just under 100 Neucel workers and worked with many more through in-community information sessions and in their self-serve resource areas in Port Hardy and Port McNeill.

NIEFS was a key partner in the Community Transition Team coordinated by the provincial government which was created specifically for Neucel workers and the community of Port Alice to provide coordinated support during the curtailment. This team met regularly and included:  local governments, health agencies, Service Canada, North Vancouver Island Aboriginal Training Society (NVIATS), North Island College (NIC), Community Futures, Industry Training Authority (ITA), the employer (Neucel Cellulose) and the union (Unifor).

As a result, many initiatives to support workers were rolled out including hosting community information sessions ranging from providing general information and resources to targeting areas of interest such as job search support, self-employment, and re-training.  Each information session often included a number of organizations with different roles.  For example: the information session focused on re-training included NIEFS, NIC, and the ITA so we could all speak to the services and supports available.  We also held drop-in times where workers could just drop by the Port Alice community centre to meet with staff on site.

Other initiatives that came about from the work of the Community Transition Team included:

  • The one-time federally funded Barriers to Balance program which was a partnership between North Island College and NIEFS that was offered in the fall of 2016 to upgrade workers essential skills, including digital literacy with all participants finding employment upon completion. Geared to move selected social assistance clients back into the workforce, Barriers to Balance was 120 hours of class time plus an unpaid local work placement of up to six months.

Barriers to Balance classes included:

    • Career and Job Readiness
    • Worksite Diversity
    • Conflict Resolution
    • Office Procedures
    • Navigating Windows and email applications
    • Bookkeeping for Beginners
    • Sage 1 Computerized Accounting
    • Word Level 1
    • Excel Level 1
  • The one-time federally funded New Directions for Older Workers program offered in Port Alice by NIC in 2016 was available to unemployed people from ages 55-64. The full-time 3-month program ran from May 9 – July 29, 2016, Monday-Thursday from 9 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. in Port Alice and Port Hardy.

New Directions for Older Workers curriculum included:

    • English/Math Assessment & upgrading
    • Career Exploration and Assessment
    • Navigating through Change
    • Employability skills – time management, goal setting, communication, customer service
    • Job Search Strategies – resumes, cover letters, networking, interviews
    • Microsoft Computer Training, including Word and Excel
    • Essential Skills Training – written communication, managing conflict, workplace diversity
    • Online Skills Training
    • Team Workshops
    • Self-Employment Options
  • The Resource Workers cohort program at NIEFS in 2017. Although this program was offered out of the Campbell River office a number of Neucel workers participated in the month-long program that included everything from essential skills and digital literacy to career planning and transition.

During the production curtailment, the BC Ministry of Advanced Education also provided additional funding to support a number of training opportunities through NIC on the North Island including: Marine; Coastal Forest; Industry Certifications; and Building Services Worker in which some Neucel workers participated.

Another successful project that came from the North Island Coordinated Workforce Strategy, in a joint project with the Workforce Planning and Action Committee (WPAC) and the Mount Waddington Regional District, led to funding through the Provincial Rural Dividend fund to create the Vancouver Island North Training and Attraction Society (VINTAS) in an effort to create a Centre of Excellence for Forestry Training in Woss (a village approximately 30 minutes south of Port McNeill). To date, three cohorts of 12 students have completed this 12-week program with a majority finding employment.


Economic and societal impacts

Right from the initial curtailment, the local economy suffered a trickle-down effect as people bought less to balance their loss of income and prepare for uncertainty. Local restaurants and other small businesses teetered on bankruptcy, reduced hours or closed altogether. In Port Alice, the main full-service restaurant, The Victorian, closed in 2016. The Quatsino Hotel — which had a lounge and a restaurant — and the town’s only convenience store closed in 2017. Scotiabank – the town’s only bank – closed in late 2019. The nearest bank is now 45 minutes away.

The Legion stepped in to provide a morning café run by volunteers, so that people had somewhere to meet and have a cup of coffee or breakfast. But the Legion is plagued by a Canada-wide drop in membership, and volunteers can only do so much before burning out. The grocery store opened a snack bar with some seating in the store and a pizza shop. However, there is not enough business to make a profit, and it’s more of a service to the community.

A few years into the mill curtailment, the cheap accommodation rentals brought social assistance recipients. But the small community doesn’t have the support systems in place. There are no government agencies, no soup kitchens or daily food banks (though it does now get some support from Port Hardy food banks through the school). The village has seen a noticeable increase in mental health crises and crime in the past two or three years.

The low population contributes to a nearly annual fight to keep health and police services.


Lions Park in Port Alice. View of a shelter with water and mountains in the background.
Photo by Trish Weatherall.

What are they doing now?

The Neucel workers, more than 400 of them, were all caught in the same storm of the curtailment/closure but were in different boats.

Several Port Alice families relocated to Mackenzie, BC, to work at one of four mills in the area. In a familiar déjà vu, in July 2019, three sawmills closed, and the pulp mill shut its doors in 2020. One family has since moved to another mill area of BC and one family has returned to Port Alice, where they had an unsold home they could live in and are now looking for work.

Some Port Alice residents have found lower-paying jobs in aquaculture or labour in the region, but still outside of Port Alice. Some, who had stayed hoping the mill would re-open, are now hoping another industry will come along to take its place. Some took early retirement after an exhaustive and fruitless search for employment.

The lucky ones, usually ticketed tradespeople, usually men, find work away at oil fields, mines and dam projects. They leave behind family to now become part-time single mothers and fatherless children.

The luckier ones, mainly the younger workers – free to move, digital friendly and willing to retrain – were able to start new lives with new work in new places.

Here are a few of their stories. (*Names have been changed and ages are current. They were five years younger at the first mill layoff in 2015).

Mike, 55

Mike* worked at Neucel for 15 years and planned to retire from the mill in another 15 years. Due to the mill’s lack of technology, much of his knowledge and skills are not transferrable. He is a homeowner, so it made financial sense for him to stay in Port Alice. He has found lower-paying part-time work, but nothing comparable to his former mill wages.

He has upgraded Math and First Aid through an EI program and has also attained his Trucker Class 1 certificate.

His frustration is around the lack of support services available to him and other workers. He was unaware of any information sessions or services offered in the region. (Although WorkBC and NIEFS did provide some, as mentioned earlier).

Mike has low digital literacy skills, but he does use an iPhone for emails and taking photos. I helped Mike create a resume.

Cole, 43

Cole* is a tradesperson in his early 40s. He found work at a comparable wage within a few months of his Neucel layoff, but it comes with sacrifices.

“I was blessed to have a trade apprenticeship,” he says. “But there is nothing I can do in town.”

Cole now works in Alberta, doing 12-hour shifts for 16 days on and 16 days off. He flies back and forth at his own cost. “My first three days of work are free due to the cost of travel.”

He lives at the work camp for those 16 days, where the best he can say about it is that they are well fed.

The biggest cost, he says, “Is being away from my family. I’ve been away for deaths in the family and my boy’s education. I’m not there to support my wife. It’s really hard on everyone.”

He is competent using the internet, email and social media but needed assistance creating his resume.

Jim, 58

Jim* was a machine operator at the Neucel mill. He is a homeowner and single. “I can’t afford two places – that’s the big killer.”

He has remained in Port Alice and says he gave up trying to find work two years ago and thinks ageism may play a factor.

“I applied for job after job after job. Is it my age?”

He also felt that the Neucel mill “had a chain around my ankle” after being laid off, when he was expected to be available for a callback or lose seniority and any possibility of severance. In fact, the mill did recall 32 workers, including Jim, in August 2018 for several weeks.

Jim used as many local resources as he could find. He attended a WorkBC information session and worked with NIEFS on his resume and job search skills.

He also participated in North Island College’s New Directions for Older Workers program in 2016 in Port Alice and Port Hardy, which he felt was extremely helpful in upgrading his job search, computer skills and soft skills. He attended the full-time program for months in 2016. He says it helped him connect to other unemployed older workers and gave him confidence in his digital skills and his potential to find new employment.

He did his best to upgrade his skills, attended local job fairs and training opportunities, although he says most training he was interested in (such as an aquaculture or transport driving program) was three hours away in Campbell River. He took a janitorial course offered locally and a security course through the Justice Institute.

Exhausted from the job search and rejection, he ended up taking an early pension.

Sam, 45

Sam* was a 30-year-old mill worker when he was caught in the 2004 shutdown.

“I thought I had a job for life. What am I going to do now?”

At the time, Sam was a labourer without a trade or certification.

A homeowner, married with three children in school, Sam couldn’t afford to pay his mortgage. And he couldn’t sell his house because there were no buyers. Even if he could find a job at another mill, he couldn’t move because he would have to pay rent in the new place in addition to his Port Alice home mortgage. He found lower-paying work locally, which at least gave him a reason to get up in the morning.

When he was re-hired by new mill owners in 2006, Sam applied for and achieved his millwright apprenticeship.

In 2015, he was prepared with experience and a resume and just before the first round of layoffs, he found work in Alberta’s oil industry. He works three weeks on and three weeks off, leaving his wife to handle all their family responsibilities for half of the time. He has mid-range digital skills, with the ability to surf the internet, access social media and send emails. I assisted him with his initial resume in 2016 and his wife updated it for additional job opportunities. He would take a local job if one in his field were available.

Carl, 69

Carl*, a 4th Class Power Engineer, had worked at the Neucel mill for eight years and was six months from retirement age when the mill laid him off in 2015. A single person, he had planned to work beyond age 65. Now he felt financially strapped and was “left with a pile of bills.”

“I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under my feet.”

This wasn’t the first job loss Carl had experienced.

“My whole work history is full of closures across Canada. Every place I ever work has shut down. I’ve lost more than one house.”

Although he worked with me on customized resumes and cover letters to apply for nine different jobs, he has not worked for five years. He feels ageism may be a factor. He recently applied for a low-paying ($18/hour) security job at the mill site but doesn’t expect to get it.

He is angry and fed up with the job search struggle and the high competition for low-paying jobs. Most of the anger is directed at the mill owners, who left the door open to possible rehiring by not officially closing for almost five years.

“The company should have been up front instead of stringing us along.”

Carl has few computer skills, although he does use email. He says he would have been interested in career counselling or training but was unaware of what was available.

Darren, 51

My partner was a machine operator at the mill from 2001-2012 and then on the Service Crew from 2012-2015. He was also caught in both shutdowns.

A few months after Neucel’s initial curtailment in November 2015, he found employment locally as the groundskeeper for our strata complex, at about half his mill wage. He supplemented that with a part-time job in Port Alice’s only grocery store. These two jobs still didn’t add up to a full-time mill job.

In 2017 we moved to Denman Island, where we were fortunate to have family with room for us, where we could live for free while still paying the mortgage in Port Alice.

We both work as independent contractors and earn about 50% of our previous combined income.

He does yard work and clam digging on a family commercial lease; I have multiple small contracts for writing, editing and promotional work, which I supplement with gardening work and clam digging.

We finally sold the strata in July 2020 at 25% less than its original price in 2008.

Darren has limited digital skills. He uses an iPhone for email and social media and is able to Google information but is not comfortable with apps, updates and online forms.


Water with islands and mountains in the background.
Photo by Trish Weatherall.

The literacy-related problems

The low-tech nature of the 100-year-old Port Alice mill meant that employees don’t have training on the type of equipment used to run modern mills.

There is limited education and training available in the Mount Waddington region through North Island College in Port Hardy and Community Futures in Port McNeill, and nothing in Port Alice.

Factors affecting retraining opportunities include awareness, availability and access, transportation, cost, cost of living while going to school, lack of digital skills, fear and initiative.

Lack of digital literacy reduces their ability to search for jobs, apply online or create a resume.


The social-economic problems

  • Mental health. The financial concerns of being out of work with no foreseeable local job options affect families and create mental health issues like stress, depression, anxiety, and anger. The suicide rate in the Mount Waddington region is more than double the standard Mortality Ratio at 2.7, compared to 1.21 for Island Health and 1.00 for the Province.
  • Health is affected by reduced living conditions and costly or lack of access to healthy food.
  • Food security is an ongoing issue. There is no ongoing food bank in Port Alice, but there is a community garden. Due to shipping and transportation costs to the remote community, grocery prices tend to be higher than on southern Vancouver Island, and items less fresh. Regional food banks and community farmers’ markets are available in Port Hardy and Port McNeill.
  • High drug and alcohol use. The Mount Waddington region has a high rate of alcohol and drug use that impacts finances, work and family. According to the 2015 Vancouver Island North Health Profile, North Island residents purchased an average of 15.8 L of alcohol each annually, compared to 10.9 L for all of Island Health and 9 L for BC residents. The added pressure of unemployment and the current stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic has likely increased many people’s use of drugs and alcohol.
  • Family disruption. As more men and women must travel far away for work at oil fields and other large-scale projects, families are split up for large portions of the year, the parent left behind has added responsibilities and stresses and the children are raised in single-parent homes for the majority of the time.


Support for regular digital literacy programming

The Communications Technology Council in 2016 estimated that around 84% of jobs in Canada currently require the use of a computer and basic technical skills.

In addition to what we know about the Neucel employees’ digital literacy gaps, there are several other indicators of a need for digital literacy programming in the general Mount Waddington population.

In April 2018, the Mount Waddington Family Literacy Society conducted an online Community Learning Needs Survey in which 98 residents across the region participated. Respondents were asked to choose the top three learning programs that they felt were needed in their community.

Results showed that almost 60% of respondents felt that digital literacy was the top priority for adults (age 19-64).

*It should be noted that because this was an online survey, promoted on social media, it eliminated participation of potential respondents that do not use technology, and therefore the number is likely higher.

Overall, the North Island residents’ technology savvy may be even more behind than those in urban areas simply due to accessibility and cost. For years the Mount Waddington Regional District and local governments and businesses lobbied for improved bandwidth and wireless coverage. Port Hardy and Port McNeill were finally connected to Telus fibreoptics in 2018. And while Port Alice still does not have fibreoptic connectivity, it did finally achieve highspeed internet in August 2016 through Brooks Bay Cable internet service, which charges by usage.

Based on the demographics that 75% of Neucel workers are over age 40 and the estimation that 66% lack digital literacy skills, an accessible and easy-to-follow digital literacy program could make an impact on a wide range of issues, including improving their ability to seek work and attain a job.

There is also a misconception that younger workers, under age 40, are digitally literate. While many may know how to surf the net or social media pages, they are often not familiar with how to effectively use email, navigate word processing or spreadsheet programs, or use online communication tools like Zoom and Skype.

Anecdotal reports from NIEFS and the Mount Waddington Health Network also indicate that they see a low-level of digital literacy in Mount Waddington residents.

I received this statement of support from the Mount Waddington Health Network:

“As a network of more than 250 people, Governments, organizations and First Nations, the Mount Waddington Health Network has been doing a deep dive into understanding the role of the key determinants of health in our community, and juxtaposing them against some of the more challenging truths about rural life such as the question “Why do rural populations, on average, live shorter lives than our urban counterparts?” And we query: “Why, despite living in a resource-rich environment, do we still have 24% unemployment and the second highest rate of child poverty in the Province?”

In accessing statistics and qualitative and quantitative data, we can draw concrete parallels that indicate education, literacy, and access to technology services are root causes of many rural health issues. We see a snowball effect impacting the most vulnerable in our communities – without access to a good education or technology, job options are limited. Without a good job, finances are limited. Without stable or adequate finances, access to nutritious food is limited. Without high quality food, health suffers – and the documented correlations go on.

In 2020, education and literacy have become synonymous with “Digital Literacy”. COVID-19 intensified this situation. Job searches, health services, banking, and basic communication is all happening online. We know that our displaced workers, aging workforce, and underserved community members have trouble in accessing all aspects of technology and we need a solution. We are supportive of initiatives that help us support people with low levels of digital literacy, and we will support and partner on initiatives and programs that help our community have equitable access to technology. It is needed.”

In 2019, the MWHN helped coordinate a digital training for seniors at the Port Alice branch of Vancouver Island Regional Libraries as a drop-in program with one-on-one assistance. Training was tailored for users’ specific needs and was implemented largely to address the Scotiabank closure, to get seniors more comfortable with online banking.

The Vancouver Island Regional Libraries branches do have computers available and staff can provide some support to users, however, there are currently no basic digital literacy classes in the region on a regular basis.

Programs that included similar digital literacy and employment related goals like Barriers to Balance and New Directions for Older Workers showed promise but were one-time funded. About two dozen Mount Waddington region residents accessed and benefited from the local programs. There are hundreds, possibly thousands more that could benefit from a consistent, locally available – and free – beginners digital literacy program.



Workers in remote, single industry resource towns have depended on high-paying, low-education jobs, and fully expected to work at that job until retirement. The remoteness and low population make it difficult to bring a viable variety of training to the community that would result in similar high-income jobs.  The lack of digital literacy skills make online training intimidating and unlikely.

Without access to education possibilities, they are doomed to any low-paying job they can find or to social assistance. The lack of digital knowledge also creates a barrier to navigating government services online.

North Vancouver Island was already leading the provincial statistics for mental health and addiction issues, but the current economy, lack of jobs and lack of training opportunities, combined with the new pandemic limitations that have closed many businesses and post-secondary institutions, is likely to show even further increases in drug and alcohol use and mental health issues at the next reporting period.

Increased digital literacy skills could also help workers access health and mental health services, including online counselling and support groups.

And finally, low digital literacy skills impede the job search process. There are many major job search sites as well as local job boards like NIEFS’ Job Bank. Jobs may also be advertised on local community social media boards, like Port Alice New & Views on Facebook. The old concept of ‘pounding the pavement with a resume in hand’ doesn’t work well today. Large employers have full-scale digital hiring processes that require online applications and pre-sort and prioritize applicants based on key words in the resume. Even small businesses expect resumes to be emailed to them and might further check out applicants on LinkedIn or social media.

The benefits of having some digital skills could have made the situation easier and led to more productive outcomes for the Neucel employees. A basic digital literacy program could pave the way for learners to be more comfortable with technology and to take risks by venturing into new ways of using technology for continuing education, access to health and government services, and connection to family and community.

The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have made these skills more important than ever before.


Rocky beach with mountains and one island in the background.
Photo by Trish Weatherall.


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