The women of Burns Lake have suffered a great deal this past year. Burns Lake is located in the heart of Northern BC, about 200 km west of Prince George on Highway 16, with a population of about 3,800. On January 20, 2012 an explosion of the Babine Forest Products Mill caught the mill on fire killing two men and injuring 19 others. The mill has been the main economic driver in the community with over 250 employees.
Al Gerow, chief of the Burns Lake Indian Band told the delegation: “We are still dealing with the effects of that [explosion] on a day to day basis. It has been incredibly difficult. Domestic violence has risen 227%.” People are suffering the effects of having lost community members, their livelihood income and wondering whether they will be employed again.
Too often the frustrations play themselves out on women’s bodies.
The mill business hasn’t been doing well. Lumber availability is precarious due to the region’s pine beetle scourge. “Over 80% of our forest is dead, hundreds of thousands of acres of dead forest,” explains the Chief. “What used to keep the mountain beetle in check was extended periods of cold weather, at least 2 weeks of minus 40 degrees celsius but with milder winters the pine beetles just explode.” According to a scientific analysis commissioned by WorkSafeBC, beetle-kill wood dust contributed to the fatal explosion. This type of wood dust poses a high risk of explosion under very dry conditions.
The community is at a cross-roads. With lumber supplies steadily decreasing due to the impacts of climate change – such as the pine beetle plague – big logging companies clear-cutting the forests, and the dangers that come with working with lumber machinery, many people are not keen to work in the lumber business. But job opportunities are limited in the region and people can’t find ways to transition into other types of employment. Most of the employees of the mill have been living on Employment Insurance since the accident and many are hoping the mill will be rebuilt.
The women of the community are concerned about the impacts industry is having on their families’ lives. Now, the Enbridge Northern Gateway poses additional risks for their community. The pipeline would go directly through the town’s boundary. “If anything happens, the 1 mile corridor on either side of the pipeline that would have to be evacuated would be our whole town.” One of the women at the meeting exclaimed. Another woman from the First Nations tells us: “I’m feeling frustrated that to me we are the people of the land, we come from this land and for people not to understand that is very hard. Once it’s gone it’s never coming back. People don’t realize you can’t eat money.” The meeting ends on a somber note:
“The economy that goes on here has no feeling for women, children, nature, the forest, water, any of it.”