The provincial government has announced a $69 million fund to help British Columbia forest workers impacted by mill closures and shift reductions in several B.C. Interior communities.
The Interior forest industry has been reducing production in the wake of the mountain pine beetle harvest and the 2017 and 2018 fire seasons.
This year has seen numerous announcements of mill closures and curtailments, including Canfor shutting down its mill in Vavenby, near Clearwater, leaving 178 people out of work, and Tolko shutting down its Heffley Creek mill in Kamloops for 10 days.
Just last week, Tolko announced the indefinite shutdown of its Kelowna sawmill, while the Teal-Jones Group said it was closing its three mills in Surrey, the pair of decisions affecting 600 employees and various people whose professions are connected to the mills
Premier John Horgan and Forests Minister Doug Donaldson met with the chief executive officers of the major Interior forest companies to explain the measures to be taken in the months and years ahead.
They include $40 million to establish a new cost-shared, early-retirement bridging program for older forest workers, $15 million to establish a new short-term forest employment program, focused on fire-prevention and community -resiliency projects, $12 million for workers to access skills training and for employer and community grants for training and $2 million to establish a new job placement co-ordination office that will track the transition and employment of impacted forest workers on an individual basis.
In addition, community support grants will be aimed at providing short-term assistance to communities more profoundly impacted by the closure of a major forest employer.
As many as 3,000 mill workers have lost work during this summer’s production cutbacks, Donaldson said, including as many as 700 permanently with the permanent closure of four mills.
“The announcement you hear today is building on the work of the community transition teams,” that have been on the ground in affected communities since May, Donaldson said.
While government has been taking heat from the opposition for the length of time it has taken to come up with a package, Donaldson argued that those transition teams have been taking feedback on what communities needed “making sure we got it right.”
"The province is committed to supporting the people impacted by this change, but we need the forest industry and the federal government to step up and do their part as well," Donaldson said. "I'm hopeful that the Interior forest sector recognizes that the new industry that will arise from this transition will need skilled, experienced workers to produce new forest products that can compete in global markets."
Donaldson called on the forest industry to increase supports for impacted workers, ensure key corporate leaders are working on the industry transition and ensure that it does a better job of communicating effectively with affected workers and communities.
He also asked that the federal government step in and help those in the forest industry who have lost jobs.
West Fraser Timber Co. Ltd. CEO Ray Ferris said the province’s aid package aligns with his company’s efforts to ensure continuing employment as industry and government work on longer-term solutions during its transition.
Stephen Hunt, United Steelworkers director for Western Canada, said while the financial aid from Victoria welcome, permanent solutions for those impacted across B.C. are needed.
"A jobs protection commissioner would also go a long way to assisting mills, workers and communities facing closures all around the province," Hunt said.
Jeff Bromley, United Steelworkers wood council chair, said significant changes to forest policy is required, arguing there is a need to bring back a social contract tying logs to jobs, which existed prior to the B.C. Liberal government being elected in 2001.
Gary Fiege, president of the Public and Private Workers of Canada, said the aid package from the provincial government needs to be followed by more.
“We will continue to work to save jobs, but have to be realistic with the situation at hand and help people transition in a changed landscape,” he said. “This funding announced today is just a start in the effort needed to accomplish this transition."