Natural beauty surrounds Northern B.C. community of Mackenzie

PHOTOS: Hikers trek along a mountain trail in the Pine Pass region near Mackenzie.
 The Mackenzie Rec Centre (left foreground) and Mackenzie Secondary School (right foreground) are shown in an aerial photograph.
FRONT PAGE PHOTO - Mackenzie's Morfee Lake is seen at sunset
. Photos courtesy of The District of Mackenzie.

Mackenzie is a land of opportunity.

For teachers looking to get their careers started, or those who crave outdoor lifestyles, the community of about 3,700 people in North Central British Columbia is an ideal place to put down some professional roots. Mackenzie – located between the Rocky and Omineca mountain ranges – has an elementary school and a secondary school. Staff members at Morfee Elementary and Mackenzie Secondary work in supportive environments and, as employees of School District No. 57 (Prince George), have the full resources of one of the largest districts in the province behind them. Prince George, home to 74,000 people, is 183 kilometres south of Mackenzie.

Cynthia Mangan, Recruitment and Retention Officer for School District No. 57, says teachers seeking their first full-time jobs often end up working part-time or on-call instead. Or, they break into the profession by accepting jobs in rural locations where they have to fly in and fly out. Sometimes, Mangan says, they take jobs overseas just to get their start.

In Mackenzie, however, it’s not uncommon for full-time jobs to be available. As an example, for the 2019-2020 school year, Mangan was looking to fill four positions – one Grade 4-5 teacher, two Grade 5-6 teachers and a prep teacher. One way she searches for candidates is the Make a Future Canada-wide data base.

Mangan says Mackenzie is especially ideal for new teachers who have young children.

“It is a nice place to bring up a family,” she said. “There’s lots to do, lots of activities.”

Those activities include all manner of outdoor pursuits – hunting, fishing, paddling, hiking, biking, golfing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, skating, snowboarding and skiing (alpine and cross-country). For snowboard and alpine enthusiasts, Mackenzie is a short drive away from Powder King Mountain Resort, famous for its deep, pristine snow and terrain that varies from tame to steep.

Other recreational options in Mackenzie for children include figure skating, hockey, lacrosse and swimming. For the grownup crowd, there are activities like curling, hockey, lacrosse and slo-pitch.

Paul Raines, a former School District No. 57 teacher and administrator, lived and worked in Mackenzie from 1977 to 1991. After a move from Prince George, he became an administrative assistant at Morfee Elementary – a three-year stint – and later took on principal positions at Mountainview Elementary and Mackenzie Elementary for a combined 11 years. The latter two schools are no longer in operation.

Raines’s first impression of Mackenzie was that it “looked like a little suburb out in the middle of the wilderness.” As he got settled there, he came to appreciate the lifestyle it offered.

“If you had young children, it was a great place,” he said. “It was a very safe community and it was a great place to raise kids until they got into teenage years.

“There were 6,000 people then, and 1,600 school kids – 1,100 in elementary and 500 at the high school, roughly speaking. There was lots of stuff for the young kids to do.”

He himself became an avid fisherman. Mackenzie sits on the edge of Morfee Lake, so the Morfee waters are great for weeknight fishing. Mackenzie is also in close proximity to countless other lakes, including the man-made Williston, a popular place for anglers seeking the thrill of hauling in bigger catches.

“I would go (fishing) with a bunch of the teachers on staff and I actually had a little notebook that I left with one of the teachers when I left Mackenzie of all the good fishing spots, the time of year to go there and what lures or bait to use,” Raines said.

Raines says once he had himself established personally and professionally in Mackenzie he thought he would never leave.

“I was there for two or three months and I was asked to run for mayor,” he said with a chuckle.

Eventually, Raines and his wife and daughter – who was 15 at the time – moved back to Prince George for the additional opportunities the city offered a teenager looking toward her future.

At one point, when there was a principal vacancy at Morfee Elementary, Raines considered a return to Mackenzie but the timing wasn’t right. Even now though, he sees Mackenzie as a desirable location for establishing the foundations of a career in education.

“I could see young people being hesitant because it’s off in the middle of nowhere but the sales pitch is, ‘Come up there and get some experience to go wherever it is you want to go,’” Raines said.

“It’s a place you can practice teaching,” he added. “During my time in Mackenzie, there were young principals there that were keen on making sure that the people on their staff were successful.”

That holds true today. Christa Barnes is currently principal at Morfee Elementary. Mangan says Barnes – who has been in Mackenzie since 2012 – is very supportive of her staff.

“She has mentoring programs, professional development – quite often she encourages them to come into Prince George (for training),” Mangan said. “She has had quite a few people from (School District No. 57’s) Learning Innovations that will go into Mackenzie and provide support that way.”

Mangan says Martin Dugan, principal at Mackenzie Secondary, is also very good at helping new teachers learn the ropes of small-town living and working. Dugan and vice principal Justin Hawkins grew up in Mackenzie, graduated from Mackenzie Secondary, and made the choice to stay in the community as professionals.

And they’re not the only ones.

“Currently we have 10 employees in our school that are graduates of Mackenzie Secondary,” Dugan said. “All of our office staff – the vice principal, myself, both secretaries – are graduates so we’ve seen a real move in that direction, people coming back to the community. And between EAs and teachers, it’s pretty incredible how many people we have there. Those people came back for that lifestyle – they were raised that way, in an outdoors, rural environment and they came back to continue that kind of lifestyle for their own children. It’s a great place to raise kids.”

Hawkins would be hard-pressed to trade the Mackenzie lifestyle for a different one.

“Some of the best stuff about living in Mackenzie and working there is the opportunity to live in a small community, have the outdoors right there at your doorstep – being able to cross-country ski right from your house down to the lake,” he said. “You can experience nature right in your backyard. I’ve always found, being born and raised there, that it’s a family-based community where everybody looks out for everybody’s children and looks out for each other. And it’s a community of resilience and a community that bands together to help each other out when things happen. Nobody is really left behind at any point in time. It’s a place where you always know that regardless of what’s happening to you, you’ve got somebody in the community that’s going to have your back. It’s just an all-around great place to live.”