A Letter From Corky

The following letter was taken from Corky Evans website http://www.corkryevans.kootenayactivist.ca. Written at Thanksgiving 2005 it gives us a great insight as to just what is going on with BC Hydroand the Liberals in BC.

Thanksgiving 2005 – the Kitimat story
letter from Corky Evans

It is Thanksgiving tomorrow and I am thankful.

Firstly, thankful that I am home today.

Secondly, I guess just for the good will that I feel living among these people in this place.
I spent the last 24 hours in the company of the fine people of Kitimat and my old friend Paul Ramsey and my new friend Bill VanderZalm To explain such a coalition might take awhile. Happily, we have the grace of time for stories. I thank generations of people who organized for the right to take time away from work for this holiday. I am thanksgiving for the home to write in, for the time to indulge this activity, and for the people that make up the story.

Kitimat is at the end of (what I imagine to be) the longest fiord on the coastline of B.C. The sea runs so far into the land at that place that the town itself is not so much on the ocean as it is in the Coastal Mountains, and visited by the sea. With the moisture of a seaport and with the mountains stopping the weather from moving inland, Kitimat might be the wettest town in the Province and the town (prior to the time of climate change) with the highest snowfall.

Sixty years ago some smart people figured out that if they drilled a hole through a mountain at this place they could take a bit of the Fraser River drainage from the highland of the central province and run it to the coast, dropping thousands of feet in the process, to make power. There being no cities at this point on our coastline to consume such power, they could use the power build and run an aluminum smelter (the biggest in the world at the time.)

Aluminum is made out of stuff called bauxite. We don’t have bauxite in B.C. but that doesn’t matter because making aluminum takes so much electricity that the people who make it will haul the raw material anywhere in the world where there is sufficient power to run their smelter.

In 1949 Canada and British Columbia gave a company called Alcan exclusive rights to a watershed the size of Prince Edward Island. A mountain was hollowed out, the largest (at the time) clay filled dam in the world got built, a lake was created (without bothering to cut the trees first), a large part of the Nechako River was diverted into the hole in the mountain, turbines were installed at the bottom of the tunnel, a smelter and the town of Kitimat were built at the vortex of the fiord, and a Port took shape to receive the bauxite and ship the aluminum.

More or less, that’s how the story started. Years and years later people who lived in the area figured out that native people and salmon had been left out of the deals governments and the corporation of Alcan had made, and court cases and reparations have ensued and carry on.
In the main, though, the scheme worked. Kitimat made aluminum for the world for half a century. 13,000 people lived there. It rained a lot. People liked the stability provided by the work. People liked their town.

Enter Globalism. (How weird that my spellchecker rejects that word every time I type it. This machine is a product of the Globalism phenomenon and it refuses to recognize its own name.)

Globalism changes everything everywhere.
A few decades ago capitalism went a little bit crazy and companies decided to try and be bigger than countries and mergers and buyouts and hostile takeovers began to expand exponentially, doubling every year for much (maybe all) of that time.
Alcan was no different. This Canadian company became a company of the globe.
Another weird phenomenon in business that happened in our time was the utterly bizarre notion that success was not making stuff that people wanted to buy, it was increasing the value of stock, the salaries of executives, the returns to stockholders regardless of whether or not “making stuff” was part of the process.
In the spirit of “the bottom line” Alcan figured out that if they sold the electricity that powered their Kitimat smelter they could make more cash than they could if they used the power to make aluminum. Not that the world didn’t need aluminum. Not that they weren’t good at it. It’s just that it takes workers and machines and lots of bothersome trouble to make stuff. Selling electricity takes hardly any bother at all. Besides, a big enough company can make aluminum anywhere in the world that they can get cheap enough labor and sufficient electricity .

In the brave new globalized world governments all over the world are lining up to sell power for almost nothing to attract a big smelter to employ their citizens. (Some people call this the “race to the bottom.” South Africa, for example, has lots of people who need jobs and lots of coal to burn to make power. Maybe Alcan will go there.)
But, while the world is full of countries that need work for their citizens, there are very few places on this entire continent that can generate electricity as cheaply as the Kemano project (which is what they call the hole in the mountain and the power plant it runs) that was built to electrify Kitimat.

So a couple of decades ago Alcan started trying to break the agreements that they made in 1949 to use Kemano power to smelt aluminum and tried to be allowed to use the water that belongs to British Columbia to make power to sell in California while reducing their workforce in Kitimat.

I guess nobody should blame Alcan for this kind of thinking. Making money, after all, is what corporations are supposed to do. Governments, though, especially democratic governments, are supposed to try and manage affairs differently. Governments are supposed to regulate business to try and make good things happen for their citizens and their communities and for their land.

So the interests of Alcan and the interests of British Columbia governments have been at somewhat of a healthy cross-purpose for a long time. Or at least they used to be. The deal that created Kemano and Kitimat was negotiated by a coalition of Liberals and Conservatives in B.C. in 1949/50. As Alcan started trying to free themselves from the unhappy business of having to smelt aluminum and get themselves free to sell power to California the original intent of the deal was defended by Social Credit and New Democrat governments. Negotiations happened. Court cases happened. Deals were struck and came unstuck.
And all the time families lived in Kitimat and the town was healthy and everyone believed that they would always be there because governments of any stripe would always want them to be there.

In 2001 a government was elected in B.C. who called themselves Liberals. Everybody figured “We can live with Liberals. They run Canada pretty good, they can probably run B.C. too.”
Only the Liberals who became government in 2001 were not like the Liberals who signed the original deal in 1949. These new Liberals were Globalists. These new Liberals do not believe in the idea that the resources of our land are to be managed and regulated to provide well being for citizens. These new Liberals believe that the Marketplace is the holy grail of our brave new culture and if the Marketplace wants power instead of aluminum, then, so be it.

In the last four years the government of B.C. has decided that Alcan is not an aluminum company, it is an Independent Power Producer. It can use the people’s water to make corporate power and it can use the peoples’ electrical transmission grid to move that power to another country and then it can take the profit it makes out into the world to build smelters in other countries to compete with our workers and our smelter. Then, if the town of Kitimat dies, well, “that’s the marketplace.”
A lot of places where a big company is the main employer for a whole town they manage to buy the local government and buy the business community and, sometimes, even the union that represents the workers. When that happens there is nobody to raise their voice when the community is mistreated. For reasons I do not understand but stand in awe of, Kitimat does not appear to be willing to die. The municipal council and the business community and the workers and their union do not appear to be for sale. So they organized to save their jobs and their smelter and their town.

Getting organized is, as far as I know, the only thing that has ever worked to fight power and money. Money is always organized. Banks do it. Stock markets do it. Mutual funds and pension funds do it. Bond rating agencies do it. Most of the most skilled professions do it or teach other people how to do it or provide it with technology and language and theory. Money always gets itself organized to buy political power.

But communities rarely do. For regular people getting organized to row in the same direction is the hardest the job there is. Well, maybe the second hardest job. My friend and co-worker Adrian Dix says the hardest thing to do is “to speak truth to power.” But more on that later.
Anyway, the people of Kitimat got themselves organized a few years ago and they are in a struggle to make Alcan live up to their half century old agreement to use water and electricity to employ people. (You may have noticed by now that I haven’t named any of these folks, or their businesses or their organization. And I won’t. Any mistakes in this letter are strictly my own. Any ramifications that fall out from me writing this letter should fall on me. Nobody told me any of this. I can’t remember anybody’s name up there. I am not very good with names. )
The last Socred Premier to struggle with these issues on behalf of the people of Kitimat was Bill VanderZalm. He told Alcan that they would use the power to make aluminum or they wouldn’t have the power. The New Democrat who worked hardest all through the Nineties to make things at Kemano right was Paul Ramsey. Paul carried the Alcan file for eight years.
The fact that they represented wholly different ideas of How to run the government has no bearing on the fact that they agree on what the Objective is, which is to represent the people and the communities and the land of the Province.
So both of these fellows, in their time, defended Kitimat as best they could and tried to make Alcan use power to employ workers to make aluminum.

Moving (finally) to the present time……Kitimat got itself organized and decided to try and put their history in front of their citizens to assist them to understand what is happening to them and the context for those events. They invited Bill and Paul to come to Kitimat and talk about events of the 1980’s and 90’s as they relate to today. Happily, for me, I guess they heard me talking about how the Liberals were allowing Cominco to sell power while their workers were on strike and about the (impending) sale of our natural gas company, Terasen, to a Texas corporation and they invited me to come with Paul and Bill to talk about the Liberal Brave New World.
Wow. What a cool experience.
I really like to be in towns where I can figure out what people do there. I don’t know why that is. I just like it. I like it if they pack salmon, cut boards, grow apples, log timber, smelt lead or even if they make theater. It doesn’t matter what people do, so long as there is the feeling that the way they live is reflected in where they live and what they do and how they relate to the world. (I am way less comfortable in places where I can’t figure out what the people are doing there.) Kitimat is a place where you know what the people do and the people are full of the pride of doing it well.
And, dare I say it, I really like Bill VanderZalm. I cut my political teeth trying to destroy his Party (although now that I have met the Brave New Liberals I am nostalgic every day for the good old days of conservative politicians that, at least, represented the people that elected them.) I like Bill VanderZalm because he says what he thinks as opposed to what some pollster told him we wanted to hear.

And I always knew I liked Paul Ramsey. Paul and I share an understanding of this country that is unique to those of us who came to B.C. at a hard time and were made to feel welcome and will never forget it. And social democracy. And a bunch of other stuff.

We landed at the Terrace airport and walked outside to find a big white limousine parked at the curb to drive us to Kitimat. Bill said “I can’t ride in that! It might be O.K. for a big shot like Corky but I have a reputation as a regular guy. We get into that car and I’ll never live it down.” We got in and the conversation began and I knew nobody would ever believe I rode in a limo from Terrace to Kitimat.

That night the town came out and filled a theater in Kitimat. It was not a politically partisan crowd. It was a whole community fighting for its life.
Paul talked first and I thought “How many people in this entire Province, are, like Paul, both politicians and educators in the same person? Who else could take a half a century of public policy and contract law and make it make sense to every single person in the room regardless of their language skills or education or understanding?”

Then I talked and waved my arms and talked about this thing I am trying to understand called Globalism and what it means to 10,000 people at the vortex of a fiord on our coast.
Then Bill talked about politics as he understands it. In straight talk he explained the difference between the natural (and correct and different) objectives of a corporation to make money for its stockholders and of a government to represent citizens and about the danger of either institution failing to do its job.

Between us we talked for maybe an hour and then we opened the mikes to citizens to say their piece and/or ask questions.

Workers talked. Elected officials talked (including the MLA and the MP.) Immigrants spoke and people born in that town. At one point a woman went to a microphone to tell a story.
She told how she and her husband run a business in town and she is proud to have made her way by the labor and skill of herself and her husband. She explained that a while back she had written a letter of support for the organization that was defending the interests of the town on this issue. And she explained that from that day on she and her family had had not one day of work from the company, Alcan, that had until that time been their primary employer.
She stood to speak, she said, not to scare people or to express regret. She was neither scared nor sorry. She stood and spoke to explain to people what they were up against and what it would take to win.
The speech of that woman was worth a hundred visiting politicians. It required no answer. It was not poetry. It was, as I had heard Adrian Dix say (about another person on another issue) just a few weeks ago, “the hardest thing to do in life, Speaking truth to Power.”
I was honored to be in the room.

A dear friend of mine told me one time that a thing that a politician must never do is to promise the people that they can, by following the politician’s leadership, avoid the future. I have been thinking about that problem for ten years. I am sure that she was right. For a long time I imagined that this implied that the future is inevitable. I no longer think that.
I am thinking now that maybe what needs to be reconsidered here is not the inevitability of the future but the nature of leadership. Maybe people can make their own future if they try hard enough. Maybe the job of leadership is to participate and listen and represent, not “promise” or “fix.”

I went to Kitimat yesterday and got to see people organize to try and make ideas relevant to the century we are living in instead of the simpler times we like to read about.
There is something going on here. It is hopeful. I don’t claim to understand it. I just want to be part of it.

[all bold emphasis and italics mine]

1 comment:

BC Mary said...


What a great letter. Corky has the gift of making difficult subjects understandable.

I'm going to copy it and send it to a few friends.

I bet others are doing the same. And, like he says, "feeling hopeful."

Thanks, Gary.