WILLIAMS LAKE – I visited Alex Fraser country last week, and let me tell you, the Cariboo is as far removed from the south of the province as ever. The 650 kilometres along the Trans-Canada Highway and 97 North between Vancouver and Williams Lake don’t even begin to tell the story.
The difference starts north of Hope. I stop at a restaurant a ways north of Hell’s Gate in the Fraser Canyon. The TV is tuned to a station showing country music videos. Guys in cowboy boots, blue jeans and denim jackets sip coffee.
Ashtrays are on every table; no need to ask for a seat in the smoking section. I briefly wonder how the loggers, whose presence dominates the restaurant, would react if some prissy regional district bureaucrat came in and told them they couldn’t smoke in 66 per cent of the place. It wouldn’t be a wise idea.
I arrive in Williams Lake. You know you’re in the Cariboo when you see more trucks than cars. This is the kind of country where, Bill Bennett once said, the real British Columbians live.
The late Alex Fraser, minister of highways during Bill Bennett’s days, is a legend in these parts. People remember him. He was a local boy who worked tirelessly for his constituents.
I remember Alex too, and fondly so. When the Quesnel Cariboo Observer stopped running Alex’s weekly Socred political manifesto, masquerading under the term "column," he stormed into the newsroom, demanding an explanation.
Jerry Macdonald, the editor, told him he didn’t have the space. "What do you mean, you don’t have the space," thundered Alex. " You’re running that goddamned Beyer." That was Alex.
The reason I’m in Williams Lake is the annual general meeting of the Cariboo Lumber Manufacturers’ Association, CLMA for short. I’ve been asked to be moderator of a panel discussion.
The panelists are Janna Kumi, Assistant Deputy Minister, Operations Division, of the Forest Ministry; Rick Franko, vice-president of wood product sales for Weldwood of Canada Ltd., and Dr. Clark Binkley, dean of the University of British Columbia’s forestry faculty.
I’m glad I’m just the moderator. As a journalist, I’m expected to know a little about a hell of a lot of subjects, while being an expert at none. These guys are pros.
The night before, at a social gathering, I had run into B.C.’s Chief Forester Larry Pedersen and told him jokingly that, on the basis of a cursory inspection, I’d come to the conclusion that the local forest district’s annual allowable cut could be increased by at least 25 per cent. Larry groaned and said, "Hubert, we need a talk."
Next day, Binkley says that my remark wasn’t that far off base. A friend of mine who sat next to Larry tells me later that our chief forester covered his eyes and mumbled something like oh, no.
Well, Binkley was talking about the future, when some of our forest land could be so intensively managed that it will yield far more fibre than it does now. Relax, Larry.
Janna Kumi calls for a new social contract between industry and her ministry. The two, she says, have been at loggerheads too long.
Rick Franko warns that B.C. hasn’t seen anything yet when it comes to the brave new world of the global economy B.C. is up against. He shows a slide of a huge forest of eucalyptus trees in Brazil, each one of which is an exact replica of the other.
The trees are cloned. Their branches come out at the same spot. They are as identical as twins, only there are thousands of them. Talk about Orwell’s 1984. But the trees grow fast and produce excellent fibre. Down the road, they are ready to bury our forest industry.
It’s about 3 p.m. The meeting is over and I mingle. Alex Fraser’s name comes up again and again. O.K., they named a bridge in the Lower Mainland after him, but Alex’s real legacy lives on right here, in the Cariboo.