British Columbia’s New North - The Opportunities for Business

Published: Oct 5, 2015
Last Updated: May 13, 2016

With unprecedented numbers of proposed major projects in northern British Columbia, the opportunities for business are enormous.The provincial government’s March 2015 Major Projects Inventory outlines billions of dollars of potential investment in the region. These activities will generate a multitude of contracts for companies, large and small.

Achieving business success in the North can be challenging. Skilled workers can be in short supply, supply lines are long, the climate can be harsh and the infrastructure limited. Recent court decisions related to First Nations and their territorial rights have increased the importance of working effectively with them.

With challenge, of course, comes opportunity. This article provides a brief introduction to the North’s economy and describes some of the available opportunities for business. The final section discusses ways to get further information, specific to your needs.

The North Defined

Various definitions of the “North” exist. For purposes of this article, I’ve defined it as stretching from the Alberta border at Prince George east to Haida Gwaii, then North to the Yukon border (see map). The North can be further divided into three sub-regions:Northwest BC (2014 population 57,334)  which includes the main economic communities of:

Prince Rupert – Expanding port, proposed site of LNG plants, oil refinery

Terrace – Service centre for the region

Kitimat – Rio Tinto Alcan smelter, proposed site of LNG plants

North Central BC, home to:

Prince George - The city of 73,590 (2014 estimate) is seen as the gateway to the North.

Smithers - A centre for mining exploration and agriculture

Northeast BC (2014 population estimate 72,353) with the larger communities of:

Fort St. John - Centre for natural gas extraction industry and Site C dam

Dawson Creek - Natural gas, wind farms and agriculture

Fort Nelson - Forestry and natural gas

The North is also the site of traditional territories of many First Nations and several Métis communities. In the North Coast region, in 2011, Aboriginal people represented 35.5 percent of the population. (Statistics Canada 2011). Many First Nations have active community Economic Development Corporations, working to create business and job opportunities through the resource development occurring on their territories.

Business Opportunities: The Major Projects and More

Businesses directly and indirectly linked to the construction sector will have work to do for a decade or more. In the North, numerous major projects have been proposed and some are being built. They include:

  • Site C dam, with construction underway, at an estimated cost of $9 billion
  • Liquefied natural gas plants (Estimated costs $4-5 billion)
  • Major pipelines to transfer gas from Northeast to Northwest at cost of $4.5 to $5 billion per pipeline
  • Oil refineries with costs estimates ranging from $10-30 billion.

Even if projects of these sizes are delayed or stopped entirely, proponents will still spend billions of dollars in preliminary stages. Monies are spent on site selection and preparation, environmental assessments, First Nation and community consultations and so forth.  There’s business to be had!

Major Communities

The communities in British Columbia’s North also offer opportunities for companies, during major project construction and over the longer term. Here are some examples:

  • Business and industrial services to major projects - expanded contracts for service industries for short and longer term (e.g. mine maintenance, pipeline inspection, camp services, transportation services)
  • Consumer and professional services - As towns grow, they will need to increase health care and professional services, retail, restaurant, consumer and recreational services and so forth.
  • Demographic change - Profitable businesses will be on the market as retiring owners look to sell.

Northern communities like Prince George  have campaigns to attract more businesses and residents. The attractions of these smaller towns include more reasonable housing costs than in the Lower Mainland, excellent outdoor and recreational services and a relaxed lifestyle. As well, flights in and out the communities are more frequent and less expensive than in the past.

For More Information

A variety of on-line and offline information sources are available on BC’s North. Here’s a few to get you started:

  • Northern Development Initiatives Trust provides an excellent business introduction to British Columbia’s North and its various sub-regions. It also has specific programs to support local businesses.
  • Regional overviews – Sites like Invest in Northwest BC, offer details on major project and investment opportunities by community. Similar sites exist for other northern regions.
  • Major project opportunities – The company or consortium will generally have a website, frequently with links on jobs and business opportunities. For example, in September 2015, the site of LNG Canada a major LNG proponent, provided information for contractors seeking to participate in a pre-qualification process.
  • Economic development offices – Many communities have an economic development officer (EDO) who works extensively with businesses. EDOs have access to a treasure-trove of statistics, socio-economic profiles, and other data. They can alert you to government funding programs.
  • Chambers of Commerce – Most towns have Chambers of Commerce, whose purpose is to support and promote local business. They often hold luncheons that offer a chance to meet local people and gather intelligence on market conditions.

British Columbia’s North is more than rocks and trees, and for that matter, LNG. There’s a lot for business to do, in many sectors. Entrepreneurs and established companies with a sense of adventure have a chance to head north and be part of growing communities in a region with an exciting future.

Author Bio:

Ramona Materi, MPA, MEd is the President of Ingenia Consulting. Ingenia consults on labour market and economic development issues.  The firm has worked with First Nations, the natural gas, solid wood, mining and environmental sectors and developed workforce training strategies for Northwest and Northeast BC. Ramona blends 20 years of experience in consulting and facilitation with an instinctive ability to spot business opportunities and trends. She is the author of British Columbia’s New North: How to build your business, respect communities – and prosper. She tweets regularly on Northern BC issues @RamonaMateri and can reached at newnorth(AT)ingenia-consulting.com.