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No hard feelings

Liberal forestry critic John Rustad (left) and Forest Minister Doug Donaldson just before taking the stage at the Mackenzie Matters rally August 22. Bill Phillips photo

BY BILL PHILLIPS

Writer’s Block

Nechako Lakes MLA John Rustad has been an outspoken critic of Forests Minister Doug Donaldson … to put it mildly.

Rustad, the Liberal forestry critic, and the Liberals have basically said he’s incompetent and have called for his resignation after the forest industry started hitting the skids. So when the two were about to share a stage at the Mackenzie Matters rally a couple of weeks back, some (basically me) were wondering whether there would be fireworks.

I teased them about it when they were heading on stage and, as you can see by the accompanying photo, they might be mistaken for long-lost buds.

And when it came time for the speeches, they played nice … more or less.

Donaldson kicked it off by saying he wasn’t there to lay blame or point fingers. However, he couldn’t resist a jab:

“To be blunt about it, we’re cleaning up a mess that likely wouldn’t exist if action would have been taken 10, or even five years ago, to diversify and get more value from the trees that are harvested,” he said.

Rustad, to his credit, put the muckraking aside and focused on the issues at hand.

“Action like this is what is needed,” he told the 1,000 people at the rally. “We need our voices heard. There are so many issues.”

He talked of how small businesses in places like Fort St. James and Houston are feeling the pinch because of the uncertainty in the forest industry. He could have blamed the NDP government for the uncertainty, but he didn’t.

“It’s not just the mills, it’s not just the workers,” he said. “The contractors, everybody feels what’s going on here and we need help.”

He told the rally-goers that their actions let powers-that-be know that these issues need to be addressed. He said stumpage is an issue. He’s right. The fact that stumpage lags several months behind market prices have been an issue for decades. Donaldson pointed out that making changes to the stumpage rates right now will undoubtedly trigger retaliatory action from the U.S. He’s right too.

“We have to change how we work in the forests, we have to change how we grow and how we utilize fibre,” Rustad said. “We have to make sure that local communities are supported by our local resources. That is a critical piece.”

I choked a little bit on that one given that Rustad was an MLA in the Gordon Campbell government that changed the Forest Act, allowing forest resources to leak out of communities.

“Our logs, our jobs,” was the rallying cry in Mackenzie and the seeds of losing logs and subsequent jobs were planted when the Forest Act was changed.

Rustad called for programs to support workers, to support communities to ensure people can stay in communities. He played nice with Donaldson on the stage and called on government to get serious about helping.

“When we’re in trouble, it’s time for the province to step up and say ‘you guys matter and we’re going to do everything we can to keep you whole.’”

His speech, however, got lost in translation somewhere between Mackenzie and Liberal public relations headquarters.

“After months of being absent, today marks one of the first times the forest minister has shown his face in these hard-hit communities,” was Rustad’s quote in the Liberal press release that hit my in-box 19 minutes after the official end of the rally. “I was expecting some good news today, but it turns out the NDP still have no plan of action for the forestry sector going forward, just empty words. Families and communities are hurting and need relief. The NDP have the power to help, so why aren’t they?”

Funny, he said nothing of the sort when Donaldson was within earshot and he must have missed it when Donaldson said the government, through BC Timber Sales is working with Conifex to address short-term fibre access issues in Mackenzie, that the province is leading community transition responses for communities like Mackenzie with job fairs and skills counselling and that he has pressed the federal government to actually resolve the softwood lumber dispute with the U.S. (although good luck with that one).

He must have also missed it when Mackenzie Mayor Joan Atkinson said the province has been in “constant communication” with the district to help deal with the economic crisis.

News flash for journalists: Quotes in press releases may be just for effect.

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