During the annual Canadian Forest Ministers Conference in Saskatchewan, this week, B.C.’s forestry minister voiced the urgent need for federal government support for workers and communities impacted by the downturn in the forest sector.
Calling on the federal government, Doug Donaldson proposed the province’s deputy ministers and Canada’s deputy ministers develop an action plan that sets out the details for further federal funding.
“I took advantage of the fact there were federal officials at this meeting and used it as a forum to let other provinces know the really important urgent situation that B.C. is in,” Donaldson told the Tribune.
“The deputy minister informed me she already had discussions with Minister Sohi, as well as other ministries involved in the targeted interventions that we are seeking support for.”
Donaldson also hand delivered a three-page letter addressed to the Honourable Amarjeet Sohi, minister of natural resources, and met with the deputy minister, Christyne Tremblay, while at the conference.
“Across B.C., the industry has announced current and future reductions at 22 locations, including three permanent facility closures, 12 temporary facility shift reductions or closures, and eight indefinite facility shift reductions or closures,” he stated in the letter. “Collectively, more than 3,900 employees are impacted across 16 communities.”
Donaldson said he will be speaking again with Minister Sohi next week.
After meeting in communities most-impacted by the downturn, Donaldson said his ministry came up with a number of interventions to cover the ‘varied circumstances’ found in those communities.
“In some instances the work force is older,” he said. “In one community a third of the work force that is impacted is about 55 years old so some of those people are looking for bridging funding between now and retirement pension kicking in so we are looking at early retirement.”
While visiting another community, Donaldson learned when a mill in that community had to curtail its operations, that left the employees short in the number of weeks needed for employment insurance benefits.
“We are asking for some flexibility on those with the federal government,” he said.
“Then there is general assistance around the co-ordination of efforts in communities and the transition of the forest industry from conventional products to products that are newer and have a different future.”
MLA Donna Barnett in her weekly column titled Where is the forest minister? in the Wednesday, Aug. 14 edition of the Tribune, criticized Premier John Horgan’s recent appointment of Lower Mainland MLA Ravi Kahlon as Donaldson’s parliamentary secretary.
Kahlon will be responsible for launching a public relations campaign in communities hardest hit by mill closures.
“Born and raised in Victoria, Kahlon is a nice young man with an impressive background in field hockey, but he’s sadly lacking of any knowledge about the forest industry or rural communities in general,” Barnett noted in the column.
Responding, Donaldson described Barnett’s comment as ‘unfair, unfortunate, a ‘personal attack and unhelpful.’
“It’s not the kind of effort we need to assist communities and workers and First Nations and the issues they are facing because of mill curtailments and closures. I am more than happy that parliamentary secretary Ravi Kahlon has been appointed to my ministry. This is a very large file. It shows the importance we are putting towards it and he will get full support of my ministry staff.”
Kahlon, he added, has personal experience in his own family with his father being a mill worker and having to struggle during those years when he was laid off from mills.
Donaldson said the forest sector has a major role to play currently and an exciting future.
“We have to deal with the short-term impacts on workers and communities and that’s why we are taking the actions we are taking and why we have been active in communities on that front through rural development teams,” he said.
“We also have to take action in the mid-term and long-term by switching our emphasis on the value versus volume and the ability to use the fibre that’s left in the forest for higher value uses is why the future is so bright for B.C.”