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Province unveils $69-million plan to help forest workers

Forests Minister Doug Donaldson announces help for laid off forest workers while his parliamentary secretary Ravi Kahlon, Mayor Lyn Hall, and Labour Minister Harry Bains look on. Bill Phillips photo

Victoria has unveiled a $69 million plan to help British Columbia forest workers impacted by mill closures and shift reductions in several B.C. Interior communities

“Our government has consistently said we’re committed to supporting forestry workers and other parts of the Interior in dealing with job losses,” said Forest Minister Doug Donaldson, announcing the program this morning in Prince George. “… We recognize the urgency of the situation.”

Over the past six months there have been four permanent mill closures in four different communities affecting 500-700 workers, 13 indefinite mill closures in 13 different communities affecting 1,000 workers, and temporary closures affecting approximately 750 workers. Overall, Donaldson said, the measures unveiled could help 3,000 workers.

Those measures 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;
  • $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; and
  • Community support grants aimed at providing short-term assistance to communities more profoundly impacted by the closure of a major forest employer.

The opposition Liberals have been hammering the government for months to provide help to forest communities and Donaldson said the measures unveiled today are the culmination of months of work.

“We’ve had community transition teams on the ground since the closures have been announced,” he said, adding those teams have coordinating services in affected communities. “The announcement today is building on that work of the community transition response teams. What we wanted to make sure is that we tailored this program to the actual needs of the community and we wanted to get it right. This is a continuum.”

Prince George-Mackenzie MLA Mike Morris. Bill Phillips photo

Prince George-Mackenzie MLA Mike Morris is taking a wait-and-see approach to the program and reiterated that the package should have been ready much sooner.

“The time they’ve taken has been hurtful to families,” he said. “… There are families that have been hurting for months and months, they’ve been out of work, missed their mortgage payments. There’s some good programs, but it will be interesting to see how long it’s going to take to roll out and what criteria they’re going to put around it to qualify for the benefits.”

He added that expecting help from the federal government during an election campaign, isn’t going to happen and he was critical of the government plan to ask industry, which is hurting, to pitch in and help.

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.

The Liberals have also called on government to reduce stumpage fees to help the ailing industry, something Donaldson flatly ruled out.

“There are no plans to reduce stumpage at this time,” he said.

He added, however, that the current stumpage fee system is one of the reasons Canada always wins when it challenges U.S. tariffs in court.

“We have a stumpage system that’s based not just on lumber prices, but also on log costs and log costs have risen because of a lack of supply … The stumpage system reflects both the declining lumber prices as well as the increased log costs … To intervene with that, at this time, would be very risky because we have our appeals before the courts right now.”

The Interior forest industry has been reducing production in an effort to adjust to the end of the mountain pine beetle harvest and the devastating 2017 and 2018 fire seasons.

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