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B.C. labour minister now involved in island forestry strike talks, but Liberals say more needed

Surrey-Newton NDP MLA Harry Bains arrives to the start of the debate at B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C., in this file photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

B.C. Labour Minister Harry Bains has asked the mediators tasked with finding an end to the six-month forestry strike on Vancouver Island to report to him, marking the first sign of government intervention in the job dispute.

But the opposition B.C. Liberals say much more needs to be done by the NDP government to bring relief to families facing bankruptcy and repossessions heading into Christmas.

Bains met with the heads of Western Forest Products (WFP) and United Steelworkers (USW) late last week after resumed talks broke down again Tuesday.

READ MORE: ‘It’s getting desperate’: Mayor calls on B.C. government to end island forestry strike

On Friday, the minister sent a follow-up letter to WFP president and CEO Don Demens and USW president Brian Butler outlining the next steps in the process.

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“I have asked mediators Vince Ready and Amanda Rogers to call you both back to mediation as soon as possible over the holiday season and to stay at the table for as long as it takes to get an agreement,” Bains wrote.

“Mediators Ready and Rogers will keep me informed of your progress.”

Minister Letter WFP Strike by Sean Boynton on Scribd

No details on what’s being proposed at the bargaining table will be released publicly, Bains said, in order “to allow everyone to focus on bargaining.”

“I am confident in the mediators’ abilities to provide support to you both to reach a settlement,” he concluded.

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Global News has reached out to both Demens and Butler for comment but has not heard back.

Bains’ letter comes shortly after he made clear to Port McNeill Mayor Gaby Wickstrom in another letter that he still has faith a deal can be reached through negotiations, despite multiple breakdowns.

Wickstrom herself didn’t appear to see much hope in the letter, but admitted on social media that “nothing would fill me with more joy to be able to say I was wrong.”

B.C. Liberal MLA and forestry critic John Rustad said Bains is not using everything at his disposal to compel both sides to reach a deal.

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“I’m not sure if this is going to be enough to help these negotiations along,” he said Sunday.

“Where the impacts become unreasonable, and are creating this kind of devastation, it’s incumbent on government to be that voice of reason and find a way toward a solution. This government has ignored doing that, unfortunately, and the damage is enormous at this point.”

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Rustad said Bains should strike up an an Industrial Inquiry Commission “with a very short timeframe” that can find solutions to finally break the impasse.

Barring those recommendations being accepted, he said legislation similar to one introduced by the then-Liberal government to end the 2001 Metro Vancouver transit strike would be in order.

Despite the legislature being in recess until February, Rustad said Bains could still order the commission now if he deems it necessary. Rustad argues that moment has come.

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READ MORE: ‘It’s overwhelming’: Families face cold Christmas as B.C. logging strike talks break down again

“I fully believe in the collective bargaining process, but the challenge is that the union speaks for the union and the company speaks for the company,” he said.

“Who speaks for the people being impacted? That’s where the government needs to step in.”

Roughly 3,000 unionized contractors and employees are nearing six months off the job due to the dispute.

The union has accused the company of not addressing “fatigue-inducing” alternate shifts or severance during permanent partial closures for members working for contractors.

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Volunteers have been stuffing Christmas hampers for families impacted by the strike, some of whom have had equipment repossessed due to missed payments.

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At meetings with forestry contractors on Thursday, Forests Minister Doug Donaldson promised short-term financial packages for those families and others facing bankruptcy, to be approved in January.

But Rustad said more is needed.

“There are so many others being impacted, whether directly with forestry workers or indirectly impacted outside the industry. People are going to food banks, and they need help immediately.

“I just can’t understand why government won’t step up to the plate and provide help to these families and these people.”

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