The Road to Hope — Part 1: Kitimat
Our trip to Kitimat to learn about liquified natural gas and food security.
Four years ago I decided to travel across Northern British Columbia with my two kids and a veteran cinematographer to learn more about where our energy comes from. Along the way, we spoke to local residents about the ways their communities are being impacted for better or for worse.
We Hit the Road
After conducting as much preparation as I could muster between freelance projects, and after letting my clients know that I would be away for a couple of weeks, the day had finally come to head out on our adventure. Louis had arrived the prior evening and sat down with us for a family dinner before we got a solid night’s sleep to get started on the right foot.
In the morning, we loaded our equipment and the bare necessities for nearly two weeks on the road into the bus. Although I was paying for this on my own dime, and it was summer with warm temperatures expected across our destinations, I opted to stay in hotels rather than camp. I figured that we would have our hands full as it was trying to make it from one place to another on time, and I wanted to make sure that we had reliable electricity to recharge and power our equipment at the end of each day. In addition to reviewing dailies of each day’s footage, I had to back up the data, as well as plan for the following day.
Unfortunately, our problems started almost immediately. As Louis was trying to capture footage of the kids and I packing up the van, the diopter for the electronic eyepiece that we’d rented for the camera was not focusing, leaving him with the option of a blurry image (not really an option) or shooting with the LCD screen. Although the onboard LCD screen is quite large, it’s subject to being washed out and unusable in bright light, and it was, after all, summer. It also proved to have an even worse form factor than a DSLR for handheld shooting. There wasn’t much we could do about the latter problem but, for the former, we decided to try to exchange our faulty eye piece at the rental house. This detour took an inordinate amount of time, as they first tested our eyepiece, then another. In the end, the diopter didn’t work on any of the eyepieces, so we took a different electric viewfinder that seemed to work well with the camera. Finally, we were on the road, headed out of Vancouver, towards the town of Hope, British Columbia (B.C.), our first planned pit stop, and eventually to Kitimat, B.C.
I should note that I have a personal family connection to Kitimat. My parents moved to Canada in the late 60s from the U.S. My father had trained as a school teacher in Oregon, and my mother had been doing community development work, first in Miami, and later in Portland. Upon my father’s graduation, they learned that the government of B.C. was desperately searching for teachers to fill roles in rural regions of the province. After securing a job in the small community of Kitimat, they packed up their belongings into their Fiat station wagon and made the trek to their new home.
While my father worked at the local high school teaching history and English, my mother worked as a counsellor in the school, until she was no longer allowed to work because she was pregnant with my brother (you wouldn’t want teenagers to know that married women could get pregnant). She also created a community group for the local women, who at that time were not welcome in the few social establishments around town. This was a lifeline for women, many of whom were indigenous or immigrants, and who had few social connections, especially during the winter months when Kitimat could get up to 90+ cm (35+ inches) of snowfall.
The road that my parents took to Kitimat was not quite as easy as ours. Although the initial part of the trip past Hope, along the Fraser river, through the tunnels near Ashcroft, Princeton, and Cache Creek, and up to Prince George are likely quite similar, the new Yellowhead Highway (infamously known as the highway of tears for the number of indigenous women and girls who have been killed or gone missing along the route) is a much easier drive than the rural road that it replaced from the centre of the province to its western coast.
Car Trouble in Paradise
As we traveled the route to Kitimat, our technical problems piled up. The electronic viewfinder that we had rented had a malfunction, and we could not get it to power up any longer. We spent quite a bit of time trying to troubleshoot it with no luck. I had also brought along a large powerbank big enough to jumpstart the bus or power our recording equipment, on which only the USB connections were working. Tinkering with the equipment put us even further behind schedule. At a certain point, we had to simply continue on if we were to make our first scheduled interview.
Along the way between Prince George and Kitimat, we stopped to fill up our tank, noting that there would be no gas station for many kilometres. Even with the jerry can that we had affixed to our roof rack, I was quite worried about running out of gas, and even with multiple SIM cards from different mobile carriers, a good part of this route was completely out of cell phone range. As we chatted with the man inside the gift shop attached to the gas station, I was surprised to learn that he had grown up only a few blocks from where I was living in Vancouver at the time. He had moved north after retirement, looking for a slower, more quiet life. I was reminded how small a world we live in!
As we continued on our path, we made an unplanned stop at a river lookout where the road ran directly adjacent to the Bulkley River just past the indigenous village of Wet’suwet’en / Moricetown. It was a great opportunity to get out and stretch our legs, and the kids and I took a bit of time to explore the river. This is where we captured the closing shot in our videos of the VW bus driving next to the rapids and over a bridge.
On we went towards Kitimat. Just prior to our stop near Moricetown, I started to notice what I would describe as a “hiccup” in the engine timing. When you drive this type of vehicle, you really form a bond with it and tend to notice the smallest changes in how they run. In this case, it was very minor, and I hoped it would work itself out. We were not that lucky.
As we continued, the hesitation began to get worse, to the point that others in the car could also feel it. By the time we reached Terrace, B.C., the junction at which we needed to veer south towards Kitimat, the bus was lurching and losing power at regular intervals. This was a new phenomenon that I hadn’t experienced since getting the bus, and I had no idea what was wrong. It was already late evening, we hadn’t had dinner, and we still had a 45-minute drive to Kitimat. I decided to call ahead to book a hotel in Kitimat, as we had our first interview scheduled there for the next day, but every hotel was fully occupied, with the exception of the Kitimat Hotel. The Kitimat Hotel’s website displayed photos of newly renovated rooms, and I made sure to ask if it was a kid-friendly hotel. They assured me it was. With our reservation made, I decided it would be best to forge on to Kitimat rather than stay in the larger town of Terrace, just in case the bus decided not to start in the morning.
I should note that I had intentionally not pre-booked hotels along our route. I wanted to leave us open to opportunities as they arose. It turned out to work in our favor up to this point, as we had fallen quite behind schedule from our initial equipment problems. Up to this point, it had not been a problem with the exception of our stop the previous night in Vanderhoof, where we did have trouble finding rooms, however, I had thought that was an anomaly. In Kitimat, however, it seemed we had somehow found the last hotel with two available rooms.
As the bus limped to Kitimat, we followed our directions through the residential district and downtown, eventually crossing a bridge into what seemed like an industrial area. At this point, I was feeling unsure about the hotel; it did not seem like an area that would host accommodations. We eventually found the establishment. On the main floor was a large, loud strip club flanked by pick up trucks on all sides. It was now 10 p.m., we were hungry, and we needed somewhere to sleep for the night. Although I did not want to stay there, I decided in desperation to at least see the rooms; perhaps there would be a separate entrance that we could take. There was not.
I made my way through the rowdy strip club to the bar and spoke to a young woman there in her mid-twenties. She called a man that I assumed to be her father; this was, it turns out, a family establishment. He took me upstairs to see the rooms and confirmed that this was the only entrance. When I reminded him that I had specifically told him over the phone that I had kids with me he had no response. We trudged up the stairs and he took me into one of the rooms. I wish that I had made some excuse to photograph the space, as I’ve found it very hard to describe, other than to say it’s what I would imagine a crack den looks like after months of use. I was absolutely shocked. I didn’t even want to breathe. I got out of there as quickly as I could.
At this stage, I didn’t even know if we’d make it back to Terrace, so I called the local hotels again. One kind woman told me that they had a single room and they could set up an extra cot to accommodate us. Exhausted, we made our way there. We were all tired, hungry, and very unhappy. To make matters worse, there were no restaurants open by that time, so we made do with food from the vending machine. Louis slept in the cot, and the kids and I shared the bed.
Honestly, what else could go wrong?
The next morning, we got up early as planned and packed up the van. Each night we would unpack all of the gear and store it in our room. I didn’t expect that it would be stolen, but couldn’t take a chance. The bus hesitated and started reluctantly. Every couple of minutes it would lurch and lose power. We only had a short distance to travel from the town of Kitimat to the Indigenous Village of Kitimaat, which was almost directly across the water, but I had real doubts about whether or not we would make it. Fortunately, we did. We arrived, spluttering, at the village dock where former Haisla Chief Gerald Amos had not only agreed to meet with us, but had offered to take us out on his fishing trawler.
We met, and he introduced us to members of his extended family who were filing in. Everyone was very kind, but mostly focused on getting the boat ready to depart; they had clearly done this before. There were really two generations present; Chief Gerald’s contemporaries, and “the grandchildren”; kids ranging in age from around 6–12 years old. Chief Gerald and I started chatting and, before I knew it, we were all setting off for the body of water that extends between Kitimat and Kitimaat Village, and out towards the Pacific Ocean.
While onboard, Chief Gerald was quite busy, first tending to the ship with a friend who was the pilot, then fishing for salmon, so I spent most of my time speaking with other family members, especially the kids, who were very sweet and friendly. My kids were really at ease, and took to the other kids as well. There were several women on board who were very kind to us; we all shared a simple meal and relaxed on the water. It was stunningly beautiful out there; once we passed the large industrial areas (the aluminum smelter and the LNG refinery under construction), it seemed completely unspoiled. The peace that we felt being on the water was rejuvenating after all of our trials and tribulations to that point.
My conversations with the adults revealed some of the concerns that they felt about the industrial development that had been a constant reality since the town of Kitimat was first established. Some of this I knew: this town had actually been a planned development, initially built for the aluminum smelter that was constructed there. Later came other industries, such as a power station built into a cavern created in the side of a nearby mountain and a paper mill. All had in one way or another polluted either the water or the air, the former inhibiting their ability to harvest food from directly in front of their homes. They were now trapped in a dependency on jobs from these industries. The current band leadership, hoping to bring job security to their band, had struck a deal with the provincial government to partner in a Liquified Natural Gas project led by Chevron. As we returned towards the village, we could see the area that was already being cleared for the refinery, even though it had not yet received federal or provincial approval. This was also the reason for the lack of hotel rooms in Kitimat. The kind hotel operator who found us a room had told me that the oil and gas companies regularly rented out most of the rooms — even though they often sat empty — in case they were needed by executives or workers.
On our way back into the harbour, we were met by a pod of orcas who seemed to be escorting us in. It was magical. Our camera wasn’t ready to capture it, so I shot a bit of footage on my iPhone. I couldn’t help but wonder how they would fare when tankers started to ply these waters carrying LNG from Kitimat to Asia or elsewhere in the world.
We left Kitimaat Village feeling refreshed and renewed. My bus was still lurching and losing power every couple of minutes, but the world felt less intent on destroying us. We lurched back to Terrace — at one point with a long line of cars behind us and unable to pass — where we booked a couple of hotel rooms. We took the rest of the day off, which seemed only fair after the stress of the prior day.
Trapped in Terrace
The next few days were a bit of a blur. I called every car rental in Terrace trying to find a rental vehicle, only to find that they were in short supply. Like hotel rooms, they were being heavily booked by the oil and gas companies. We finally found what must have been the only available vehicle, and fortunately it was a van. We didn’t have as much luck with garages. None of the local garages would even look at my van. They were too busy with modern trucks and didn’t want the headache.
At this point, I was very tempted to pack it in and go home. The number of technical difficulties that we had experienced felt like a sign, and our little production was hemorrhaging money as a result. I called my wife and, to her credit, she talked me off the ledge and convinced me to continue. With our new rental van, we completed two additional interviews, one with the longtime mayor of Kitimat, and another with the president of the local chamber of commerce. Sadly, their interviews didn’t make the final cut; I simply did not have enough material to do anything but pit intercut their two interviews, and that felt like it would be sensational and combatative; not the feeling that I was going for.
On our way to visit the former mayor, we passed what I believe was the home that my parents must have lived in while they were there. It was a low-rise apartment building; I recalled stories of the snow getting so high that people on the ground level were left completely in the dark, their windows submerged under several feet of snow. Apparently the only time school would be cancelled was when the snow was so high that kids could reach up and touch the power lines. Being a city kid and living on the more temperate southern coast, I found it hard to imagine what my life would have been like had my parents stayed.
One thing that struck me was how segregated the Kitimaat Village and town of Kitimat were. They were physically separated; you had to travel for 10–15 minutes down a small road from the town in order to arrive at the village. I also only saw Indigenous people in the village and people of European descent in the town. I wondered how this affected cross-cultural understanding and meetings of minds around issues that affected both groups. Both Chief Gerald and the former mayor gave us a detailed history of the area since the town was founded, which is a tale of one major industrial player after another, each bringing with it jobs for locals and economic boom, before inevitable bust, in addition to air and water pollution. Their concerns, however, were different: For Chief Gerald, the main concern was food security and the ability of subsequent generations to harvest their meals from nature; for the mayor, the main concern was economic growth and jobs. Both were concerned with the local people, but they saw different means to that end.
We made our way back to Terrace and spent a few days there, which was much longer than planned. After calling garages in nearby towns, I eventually found a VW mechanic in Smithers, which happened to be at the very limit of the allowable towing range, and was on our route back east. We arranged for a tow and followed as my bus was delivered to the garage. It was finally time to make our way to Eastern BC to complete our journey.