Surrounded by the towering Hazelton Range within the Coast Mountains, the communities of Hazelton and New Hazelton enjoy a special place at the confluence of the legendary Bulkley and Skeena rivers in northwestern B.C. Hazelton is one of the oldest communities in northern B.C. and was the staging point for the Omineca gold rush of 1869 that used the Skeena River to ferry prospectors to the nearby gold fields.
In later years, it was softwood lumber that became the major industry for the area, but when the softwood lumber dispute with the U.S. took hold some 15 years ago, the market all but disappeared — taking more than 9,000 B.C. jobs with it — with very little to replace it.
Today, the Hazelton area is home to some 6,500 people living in the two municipalities, three unincorporated settlements and seven First Nations villages.
“When I came here 36 years ago, this was a thriving little community,” recalls Dr. Peter Newbery, an internationally recognized expert in the practice of rural family medicine, who works in the community’s Wrinch Memorial Hospital. “Today, unemployment here is high and in the winter can hit 95 per cent among the neighbouring First Nations communities.”
“With high unemployment comes health issues. The two are directly linked. I’ve seen all of the ills that unemployment and poor health can bring — suicide, alcoholism, family breakup.”
– Dr. Peter Newbery, doctor, Wrinch Memorial Hospital
Dr. Newbery and others in the community started talking about solutions. What could they do to bring a renewed sense of optimism back to the area, and with it, a much-needed sense of well-being? Faced with limited recreational facilities, they developed a strategy known as the Heart of the Hazeltons, with an immediate focus on replacing the 50-year-old ice arena with a new facility, called the Upper Skeena Recreation Centre.
On April 16, TransCanada’s Prince Rupert Gas Transmission Project donated $1 million to support the construction of the $10-million facility and help run its programs over the next 10 years.
Financial support has come from the Regional District of Kitimat-Stikine, the Village of Hazelton and the District of New Hazelton, the Gitxsan Government Commission donated $50,000 and the Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs have committed more than $350,000. Dr. Newbery says TransCanada’s large donation sends an important signal to other funders who may have been sitting on the fence before making a decision to donate.
“As a physician, the health and well-being of my community is paramount and we felt that this project is an opportunity for this community to regain hope and a sense of purpose,” he noted. “The arena that’s there now is in such poor shape, that it is not attractive to go there. With the Centre, we are hoping that it will spark a new interest in fitness, to get all age groups thinking about fitness and health again,” said Dr. Newbery.
He sees important spinoff effects that will come once the 500-seat, NHL-sized arena is built in time for the 2015 hockey season. The new arena will be built next to the local high school, so that fitness programs can link with high school programs, which in turn will encourage students to stay in school and complete their education. It will also serve as a gathering place for socializing, graduation ceremonies and weddings that doesn’t exist now.