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Building Community in an Instant Town: A Social Geography of Mackenzie and Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia

By Greg Halseth, Lana Sullivan

Review By Trevor Barnes

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 144 Winter 2004-2005  | p. 128-9

BRITISH COLUMBIA’S single-industry communities that lie outside the province’s heartland of the Lower Mainland and southern Vancouver Island have experienced a dreadful pummelling over the last quarter century. Because of technological change, alterations in labour practices, failing global markets, hostile trade acts, and diminished resource bases – to name just a few of the body blows – single-industry communities are reeling. There is not much sense of this, though, in Halseth and Sullivan’s book about the emergence and subsequent trajectory of two of British Columbia’s recently formed single-industry communities: Mackenzie, incorporated in 1966, and a product of the forest products industry; and Tumbler Ridge, incorporated in 1981, and a result of coal extraction. Rather, Halseth and Sullivan offer an often insular and celebratory reading of the two towns, ignoring the larger tumultuous and sometimes-violent context within which they are embedded, choosing, instead, to emphasize the salve of community. 

It is not exactly clear what they mean by “community.” They provide an encyclopaedic listing of formal and informal community groups found in both towns as well as an equally encyclopaedic listing of community events. But surely these are only the means by which community is expressed rather than community itself. Further, there is no sense of people within either community. No one speaks. Apart from the preface, where two men associated, respectively, with Mackenzie and Tumbler Ridge provide personal testimonies, we do not hear voices from the towns. There are only lists and desiccated tables of figures. Perhaps this feature is the oddest of all. Greg Halseth, in particular, is passionate about British Columbia’s small communities and holds a Canadian Research Chair in rural and small town studies at the University of Northern British Columbia. His media interviews are full-blooded and compelling, in part because he talks about people and their sometimes difficult lives in single-industry towns. But this is not often apparent in Building Community. 

The first half of the book is better than the second. Divided into four parts, Building Community‘s first two sections discuss the founding of Mackenzie and Tumbler Ridge, and the socio-economic relations that sustain them. Both communities were the consequence of British Columbia’s Instant Towns Act, 1965 – legislation that allowed the rapid construction and political incorporation of towns based on the development of remote resource sites. In Mackenzie’s case this was the forest resource of the Central Interior, and in Tumbler Ridge’s case it was deposits of northeast coal. Both communities were fully planned, the model being Kitimat, which was designed in the early 1950s by the prominent American planner Clarence Stein, who was associated with the garden-city movement. What drove Mackenzie and Tumbler Ridge were not bucolic hinterland activities of the kind usually envisaged in the garden-city movement but, rather, gritty staple resources: two-by-fours, kraft pulp, and coal. Halseth and Sullivan do a good job discussing the nature of staples production in Mackenzie and Tumbler Ridge. Still mainly “men’s work,” it is linked to relatively high wages, high rates of unionization, and periodic employment fluctuations. Empirically they also do well in discussing housing and the gender relations that stem from such staples work – flat-line or declining housing value in real terms, low female wages in both full-time and part-time work, and strains on family life due to shift work. What is lacking, however, is interpretation, a wider corpus of ideas that animates and provides meaning to what we are told. 

This problem is exacerbated in the book’s remaining two sections, which discuss civic society and civil society, respectively. For Halseth and Sullivan civic society means government and the provision of government-funded services. So we are given lists of committees, committee memberships, town councillors, flow charts of committee structures, and budget statements. But there is neither explanation nor a conceptual framework with which to interpret them. At least in my discipline of geography, of which Greg Halseth is also a member, since the late 1970s there has been a sustained theoretical discussion concerning the state at every geographical scale as well as its relationship across scales. All this work is ignored. The discussion of civil society is perhaps even more unimaginative. The two chapters in this section provide a comprehensive inventory of all formal and informal community organizations, and a calendar of events for each month of the year. But no wider ideas are provided to make sense of what any of it means. 

The single-industry communities of British Columbia, of which Mackenzie and Tumbler Ridge are two, deserve to have their story told. I’m convinced this is possible only by setting such communities against the larger canvas of industrial capitalism and the full body of literature and ideas that enable us to understand it. Halseth and Sullivan seem to think that relating only the narrow, internal facts of community life is enough. It is not. It is thin description. As a result, what has been lost is an opportunity to recount an important narrative about a seemingly abiding feature of British Columbia’s geography (which turns out not to be so abiding) – the single-industry town.