By Keith Norbury

The COVID-19 pandemic has coincided with months of protests over racial injustice sparked by the death of a Black man, George Floyd, after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled his neck for over eight minutes this spring.

In recognition of that, Juneteeth — June 19 — a day that marks the end of slavery in the U.S. — took on increasing significance beyond the U.S. At the Port of Prince Rupert it meant temporarily halting cargo operations to commemorate the occasion.

The Prince Rupert Port Authority lent its support to the International Longshore & Warehouse Union Canada and the British Columbia Maritime Employers Association to shut down some operations “to acknowledge this solemn day,” the port authority said in a statement.

The port authority also acknowledged National Indigenous Peoples Day two days later on June 21. Together those occasions present “an opportunity for each of us to educate ourselves on the history of Indigenous, Black and other minorities in our communities, celebrate their contributions and cultures, and recognize that there is strength in diversity,” the port authority statement added.

Shaun Stevenson, president and chief executive officer of the port authority, said the action was taken at the request of the union and its members. “They felt it was important and consistent with the values of the ILWU,” Mr. Stevenson said. “We have a lot of respect for that.”

Mr. Stevenson added that the port as an organization is striving to make the workforce “a direct reflection of the community in which we operate.” Recognizing Juneteeth and National Indigenous Peoples Day reflect core values of the organization and the Prince Rupert port community, he added.

Large First Nations presence

Prince Rupert has a large First Nations population with several Ts’ymsen communities and governments in the area. In recent years, those First Nations have been taking increasingly active roles in economic activities at the port.

For example, the Metlakatla Development Corporation, the business arm of the Metlakatla First Nation, is proposing an $89 million import logistics park, which has received a federal government funding pledge of $43.3 million, on south Kaien Island.

“The First Nations in the Prince Rupert area are really becoming embedded in the economic opportunities that the port has created,” said Brian Friesen, the port authority’s vice-president of trade development and communications. “They’re such an important partner in terms of the growth and development of this gateway.”

The Metlakatla Development Corporation operates several other enterprises, including a ferry service between the village of Metlakatla and Prince Rupert, a Petro Canada station, and Gat Leedm Logistics, which has a fleet of 15 tractors and a 4,000 square foot warehouse. Metlakatla First Nation, along with another Ts’ymsen government, the Lax Kw’alaams Band, are participants with four northern B.C. construction companies in a joint venture, the Coast Tsimshian Northern Contractors Alliance, that is building the $115 million Fairview-Ridley Connector Corridor.

The two First Nations governments together also now own a 10 per cent share of Ridley Terminal, Prince Rupert’s coal-exporting facility.

“With a significant share in RTI, we are continuing our work of enhancing the quality of life for all members of our community,” Mayor Garry Reece of the Lax Kw’alaams Band said in a December 2019 news release announcing that a new ownership had officially taken over the terminal. “This is a significant part of building an economically sustainable future for the Lax Kw’alaams Band.”

In addition to the First Nations partners, the new ownership group includes Riverstone Holdings LLC and AMCI Group. Riverstone Holdings LLC, AMCI Group described the new owners as “a very unique partnership group that will ensure the terminal continues to be sustainable over the long-term with open access.”

Chief Councillor Harold Leighton of the Metlakatla First Nation, meanwhile, said in the news release, “We are building a strong future for our community as a major economic force in northwest British Columbia. We believe this partnership is strongly aligned with our principles of sustainable eco-based resource management.”

Nearly 35 per cent of the workforce

An economic impact report released by the Metlakatla Development Corporation in 2018 revealed that the corporation directly employed 220 people and paid $9.6 million in wages in 2017. That report was prepared by Vancouver-based InterVistas Consulting, the same company that compiled an economic impact report for the Prince Rupert Port Authority in 2019.

Those 220 jobs are equivalent to 180 full-time positions paying an average of $53,000 a year. Prince Rupert’s average income in 2015 was $45,017 a year, according to Statistics Canada.

“Including indirect and induced multiplier impacts, current economic impacts of MDC businesses and strategic partnerships include a total of 430 jobs or 360 FTEs,” the InterVistas Metlakatla report said. “Total earnings of all employees amounts to over $21 million in wages. Furthermore, these operations contributed nearly $46 million and $106 million in total GDP and total economic output, respectively, to the provincial economy.”

Last year, then-mayor John Helin of Lax Kw’alaams praised its partnership with AltaGas to develop a training program for Lax Kw’alaams workers at the new Ridley Island Propane Export Terminal. “They included us from the beginning, respected us, trusted us, and worked with us to understand what our community needs,” the mayor said.

The port authority’s Mr. Stevenson said that about 35 per cent of the port’s workforce is now Indigenous.

“We are committed to working with the members of the Ts’msyenNation to ensure that they understand what’s being contemplated in their territory, have a say in how it’s done, and participating in things like environmental assessments,” Mr. Stevenson said. “They also have opportunities for participating in the economic opportunity that a growing port represents both in construction, but also in operations. You’d be hard pressed to find an element of the port that members of those communities aren’t involved with today.”

Overall, Mr. Stevenson said the port has a good relationship with First Nations communities but “it’s a work in progress,” he cautioned.

“Certainly we’re committed to many of the principles of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples — prior informed consent, entrenched economic participation, and so forth,” Mr. Stevenson added. “It’s their traditional territories in Prince Rupert. There are lots of examples of how that’s a reality.”