If you told Jesse Wright at 19 that he would end up supporting youth in a rural logging town in northern British Columbia, he wouldn’t have believed you. But today, he is proud to call Mackenzie, B.C., home, and he wouldn’t choose to be anywhere else.
“The town is in the middle of a forest, we’re surrounded by hiking trails (and bears, a big fear of mine still), and the community has accepted me with open arms,” Jesse says glowingly of his northern B.C. home. “And I met my fiance here. We’ve got a puppy and bought a house. I’m building a life here in Mackenzie.”
Although a newer resident of the area, Jesse is the active community member many small towns need and dream of having. He has worked as a teacher, business liaison, youth and child worker, and most recently, a city council member.
Jesse loves Mackenzie. He’s a downhill skiing enthusiast, enjoys picking up a black coffee at the Purple Bicycle cafe, and feels lucky to stay hydrated with the country’s best drinking water. But he also worries about his friends and neighbours.
“I learned within the first couple of months of being here about how entwined the well-being of the town is to the forestry industry,” Jesse says. “You can’t live in Mackenzie and not understand that.”
In 2008 — a year and word that is profanity in the town of 3700 — six mills shut down, and over 1000 people lost their jobs. Some reopened, then shut down again, and in the past four years, more than 400 people were laid off, thanks primarily to mill closures. Mackenzie’s mayor has been trying to get the province’s attention.
“It’s not fibre supply that has robbed our community of hundreds of jobs. It’s current forest policy that has crippled my community,” said mayor Joan Atkinson at a forestry forum last March.
In his five years in Mackenzie, Jesse has seen the community making efforts to diversify its economy, which he thinks is good. But the forest industry has been and still is the bread and butter of the town, and without it, working families, whom Jesse knows, are suffering.
“I work with youth every day. I am in the school all the time. And the kids are really struggling,” Jesse explains. “Our mills closing are causing so much turmoil. Parents work away all week and come home on the weekends to be with their kids. It’s causing stress. Our youth need extra support.”
Jesse thinks the problem for Mackenzie and other resource-dependent communities in B.C. is more than just job loss.
“When Mackenzie was built in the 1960s, the forestry companies had a vision of community. They built the recreation centre and put on festivals. The companies did that. So did the mills. As soon as local ownership went away and foreign ownership came in, that all fell apart. They [forest companies] stopped investing back in the community.”
The province could do more to manage the forests surrounding Mackenzie so they benefit the locals who live near them. Taking unused tenures away from corporations uninterested in the welfare of the community they operate in and reallocating them to community owned forests and local First Nations would be a good start, in Jesse’s opinion.
“For too long, we’ve taken an economic approach to forestry and haven’t considered the community benefit,” Jesse says. “Everyone in town is seeing logs from our forest, driving down the highway to go God knows where and not being used in Mackenzie to create jobs. It drives people crazy. We need to make sure our forest industry is serving our community and not vice versa.”
Jesse admits that the forest industry will likely never be what it once was. He thinks it’s good that Mackenzie is diversifying its economy to support families and attract new professionals.
Mountain bikers can now explore 14 kilometres of maintained trails, Powder King is ranked the #4 ski hill in North America for snow, and then there’s the new bitcoin mine. But Jesse hopes forestry will still be part of the picture and Mackenzie’s mill legacy continues.
“My hope is we’re a town that supports its people to live fulsome, healthy lives, and they don’t have to travel to who knows where during the week,” Jesse says. “[We need] our mills to have owners who care about the community. The government could step in. There are options.”