Last week, the provincial government announced a $69-million fund to help forestry workers impacted by mill closures and curtailments.
What the B.C. NDP did not disclose at the time was that the money was made possible by the government scrapping this year’s $25-million rural dividend fund.
The fund was set up by the B.C. Liberal government to provide economic diversification to communities of 25,000 population or smaller, many of them dependent on a single industry.
That changed on Sept. 17 when Forests Minister Doug Donaldson announced ministry funds have been reallocated for this year.
The B.C. government’s decision has prompted a backlash.
Williams Lake Mayor Walt Cobb said his community was counting on funds to help upgrade its water system.
“We’re on boil water right now from Interior Health because of manganese in our water,” Cobb said. “We can’t wait two years.
Kamloops B.C. Liberal MLAs Todd Stone and Peter Milobar said it is “deceitful” and “misleading” for the NDP to have neglected mentioning the cancellation of this year’s rural dividend fund when announcing the forestry aid package.
The government later informed applicants via letter.
“It’s incredibly disrespectful to rural B.C.,” Kamloops-North Thompson MLA Milobar said.
“Everyone I’ve been talking to at UBCM is livid about this.”
Milobar said the fund is designed to support communities at a time when most of them are reeling from issues in the forestry industry.
“This is devastating news for communities across the province — particularly for small, rural communities in the Interior and the north,” said Stone, MLA for Kamloops-South Thompson.
He said communities need money from both funds, noting he heard from Clearwater Mayor Merlin Blackwell at this week’s Union of BC Municipalities convention in Vancouver that the municipality 90 minutes north of Kamloops was set to receive $220,000 from the rural dividend fund for a number of projects.
“That’s all been cancelled and, in exchange for losing that $220,000, they’re going to get $100,000 directed towards support for forest workers in their community,” Stone said.
“The forest workers obviously need that support, but the community also needs the rural dividend support.”
Stone said the B.C. Liberals have been calling for more support for forestry workers, along with aid for transitioning economic development in communities.
“Not only has the government waited until the last minute to do something, but now we learn they’re essentially robbing Peter to pay Paul here,” Stone said.
Both MLAs said the government should have used surplus dollars to fund the forestry aid.
“There’s a simple way to rectify it,” Stone said. “Come to the table with new dollars to support communities and displaced workers.”
B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson hosted rural community representatives at the UBCM convention on Tuesday, where they took turns blasting the decision.
Wilkinson said the current year’s rural fund has 338 applications, totalling $35 million in needed assistance.
The province has $300 million that was left on the table after a calm forest fire season.
Wilkinson said that money should be available to help with rural needs, regardless of whether they are related to mill closures.
— with files from Black Press