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B.C. government rolling out plan to support workers affected by mill closures

WATCH: As mill closures spread, the NDP government has announced $69 million to help forest workers transition into other industries. Keith Baldrey has the details.

The B.C. government is funding measures to support British Columbia forest workers impacted by mill closures, but critics says it’s taken too long to respond.

The provincial government announced $69 million to establish an early-retirement bridging program for older forest workers, to create a new short-term forest employment program focused on fire prevention and community resiliency projects and for workers to access skills training.

“The previous government knew that the end of mountain pine beetle harvest would disrupt the lives of forest workers, contractors and communities, but they did little to prepare for this inevitable transition,” Premier John Horgan said.

“While the forest sector must reduce surplus milling capacity to remain competitive, it cannot do so at the expense of the workers, contractors and communities who built the industry. Our government will ensure that forest workers impacted by mill closures are supported.”

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READ MORE: Forestry industry laying out vision to help struggling sector

The BC Council of Forest Industries (COFI) laid out 60 ideas as part of a plan to revitalize the province’s forestry sector on Monday.

Donaldson says there have been four permanent mill closures in the Interior affecting between 500 to 700 workers. The province is also dealing with 13 indefinite closures affecting around 1,000 workers. When the curtailments are added in, Donaldson says a total of around 3,000 workers could benefit from the province’s funding.

The early retirement bridging program will include workers who have lost their job or could be replaced by younger workers who have lost their job. The province is gathering data and working with companies to figure out future plans for workers.

WATCH (aired August 26): B.C. won’t slash stumpage fees to help struggling forestry sector

B.C. won’t slash stumpage fees to help struggling forestry sector
B.C. won’t slash stumpage fees to help struggling forestry sector

Donaldson says about a third of workers who have been laid off are age eligible for the retirement benefits.

“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.”

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The provincial government has asked the federal government for assistance. But the federal government did not respond before the federal elections kicked off.

WATCH: Growing calls for government help for floundering forest industry.

Growing calls for government help for floundering forest industry.
Growing calls for government help for floundering forest industry.

BC Liberal critic John Rustad says the government was far to slow to react asking for help and workers have been directly impacted because of it.

“This could have been done months ago. We sent a letter months ago. Part of that is the federal government stepping in. I don’t get why they are so slow to respond,” Rustad said.

The province has been criticized for not addressing the competitiveness of the industry. The Liberals point fingers at stumpage fees. Rustad says 60 per cent of the costs concerns are related to stumpage and 40 per cent is government policy.

“A big piece that Alberta does is they adjust the stumpage monthly and it’s up to date with market conditions. What B.C. does is adjust yearly with three minor quarterly updates,” Rustad said.

“At the end of the day the industry needs to be competitive. There seems to no acknowledgement from the government of this. When you look at the cost structure we have in British Columbia and compare it to Alberta we are significantly higher.”

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WATCH (aired AUGUST 3): B.C. mayors call on Ottawa to help forestry industry

B.C. mayors call on Ottawa to help forestry industry
B.C. mayors call on Ottawa to help forestry industry

But Donaldson says B.C.’s stumpage system is not just based on prices, which have declined, and log costs, which have risen. The government is reluctant to make any chance to stumpage because “it is tried and true.”

“It’s the main reason we have won in court on our softwood lumber appeals,” Donaldson said.

“Our market price system that the stumpage is based on is rigorous. To intervene at this time would be very risky because we have our appeal in front of the international courts right now with the softwood lumber dispute.”