October 8, 2014
Port Alberni is a small community located in the centre of Vancouver Island off the coast of British Columbia. The town was originally built around the rich natural resources in the area including massive rain forests, a natural deep water canal connecting to the west coast and rivers full of salmon. This resulted in the early European settlers firstly developing of a booming logging industry. Then when The Anderson Company from London, England decided to develop a small sawmill corporation in the town it led to many more job opportunities than expected, and the town began to thrive. The large First Nations community and presence and the rich salmon stocks in the many local rivers also led to the development of a strong fishing industry. The paper mill, now called Catalyst Mill, opened its doors and for many years became one of the most successful pulp mills on the island, providing paper products to businesses across the world including the USA, China and India. This in turn provided well paying union jobs for the growing Port Alberni population and during the boom times of the 1970’s and early 1980’s Port Alberni had the highest average per capita income in Canada. The strong pulp mill smell that hung in the air of the valley became known as “The smell of money”. Unfortunately, as with many towns built predominantly around one industry, changes in the economy, demand for product and raw material availability led to dramatic changes in the town’s fortunes. After years of successful operation, the mill productivity and profits began to decline as machines aged and cheaper competition increased. Machines started to shut down and people were laid off. The boom town was done and with closures and job losses the population of the town shrank drastically. The town needed to re-establish itself and find new business and economic opportunities. Furthermore the flourishing commercial and sports fishery were also struggling as fish stocks declined and the effects of over-fishing were felt. Having been such a prosperous town known as the “Fishing capital of the World” Port Alberni now found itself a “have-not community” with multiple socio-economic problems and being awarded the new questionable title of “worst place to live in Canada”. The community with a heart was going to have to dig deep into its strong roots to reinvent itself. Port Alberni was built on the land of the Tseshaht, a First Nations community. The Europeans caused tension within the aboriginal people of the area from when they first arrived. The First Nations people had been living off the natural resources of Port Alberni for years prior to any settlers. They survived through trading, hunting, and fishing. The Somas river, which now made Port Alberni the salmon capital of the world, kept the aboriginal peoples thriving along its shores.
When the Europeans came into the town they felt the need for all the first nations people to behave like them and integrate into their community, making them leave behind years of tradition and culture. In 1920, the Alberni Residential School was opened, which led to a law stating that all First Nations children must leave home and complete their education in this school. During their time in the school, the aboriginal children had no contact with their families. They were forced to leave everything they had been taught about their heritage and culture behind, and become the same as the settlers. They were to learn what the Europeans wanted them to know and were not allowed to participate in any First Nation’s activities, including speaking their own language. During their time in these schools many aboriginal children were starved, beaten, and sexually abused. Finally in 1973 the school was closed down, but the horrific memories that many of the First Nations people of this area endured cannot be so easily forgotten. With the school still standing on the