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Gaby Poirier, general manager of B.C. operations, at the Rio Tinto Alcan Kitimat site with stacks of aluminum ingots. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Gaby Poirier, general manager of B.C. operations, at the Rio Tinto Alcan Kitimat site with stacks of aluminum ingots. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Kitimat’s modern-day LNG gold rush Add to ...

The plan also recommends the province consider an apprentice quota for public infrastructure projects, a step designed to produce new qualified journeymen by the time LNG projects are ready to break ground.

Such measures are essential if B.C. and Canada are to benefit fully from LNG projects, said business owner and District of Kitimat Councillor Phil Germuth.

He would like the province to offer more financial incentives, both to employers to hire apprentices and to students who sign up for apprenticeship programs.

“They need to put more incentives in,” Mr. Germuth said, adding that he got government support when he was a young apprentice.

“I think a lot of the incentives and benefits have been taken away, for the employer and the worker too.”

While the much-touted LNG projects have yet to materialize, Rio Tinto Alcan’s smelter upgrade is providing a case study in what to expect.

The project formally kicked off in 2011 after more than a decade of discussions and will nearly double the capacity of the existing 60-year-old smelter.

Currently, about 1,000 Kitimat Modernization Project employees live in Kitimat or elsewhere in the region.

About 1,700 construction workers live in a trailer camp near the smelter site.

Later this month, as the construction labour force peaks, as many as 450 workers will begin moving onto the cruise ship.

The vessel is a necessary stop-gap measure, said Gaby Poirier, general manager of B.C. operations for Rio Tinto Alcan.

Brought in on a nine-month contract, with an option to extend for another three if required, the ship will allow Rio Tinto Alcan to provide the standard of housing that workers desire without putting more pressure on home prices or scarce rental accommodation.

“We took the responsible decision – to make sure we don’t put [stress] on the city. That’s why we did it,” Mr. Poirier said.

Once the upgraded smelter is complete – scheduled for 2015 – it will employ about 1,000 workers, most of whom already live in Kitimat or nearby, so the housing crunch is expected to be short-term.

But other projects, with head counts of 1,500 and higher, could be around the corner.

Mr. Poirier, who worked at Alcan operations in Quebec before moving to Kitimat last year, said he is not too worried about losing KMP “operations” workers to competitors if the LNG boom materializes.

About 70 per cent of KMP employees are shareholders, enhancing employee stability, and Alcan ties run deep in the community.

Some people’s work history with the company goes back four generations.

Mr. Poirier said his biggest priority is safety – unsurprising at a workplace that has its own railway, and where a passing “cruce,” or crucible, filled with four tonnes of molten aluminum heated to more than 900 degrees, demands and gets the right of way.

But he is also attuned to hiring and retention, as shown by a March visit to the engineering faculty at the University of Victoria.

Mr. Poirier welcomed the chance to pitch training and employment opportunities in the north and, at the urging of B.C. Advanced Education Minister Amrit Virk, used his own experience as an example.

Married, with a young family, Mr. Poirier said he was drawn to Kitimat by the opportunity to oversee a world-class smelter but also by the recreational opportunities, civic infrastructure and spectacular landscape.

He plans to return for another visit to UVic in the fall with Mr. Virk.

Long-time physician Howard Mills would like to ensure that people have access to a doctor and health services if and when they arrive.

Dr. Mills, who moved to Kitimat in 1981, is the longest-serving general practitioner in the district, and also, with his wife, runs Minette Bay Lodge, a seven-room fishing camp.

Kitimat’s 22-bed hospital is at capacity, and health services in Terrace are also under pressure, Dr. Mills said in a recent e-mail.

The region needs more nurses, midwives, occupational therapists and other health-care staff.

Three of four general practitioners in Kitimat have stopped seeing new patients, Dr. Mills said, and the only reason he sees new ones is that he worries if he does not, they will wind up at the emergency room, which is already overloaded.

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