The NDP has accused Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson of acting in a way that "hampered the local economy" in Prince Rupert,by helping the Chinese company Sun Wave Forest Products acquire the Skeena Cellulose pulp mill for about $9 million in 2006. The Liberals, in return, say NDP leader and Premier John Horgan has ignored the resource sector, thereby letting towns dependent on the forestry sector "suffer."
The NDP say that Wilkinson in 2005 facilitated the deal for Sun Wave Forest Products to reopen the pulp mill, which had been shuttered since 2001, when he was a senior civil servant. He then represented the company in a lawsuit against Prince Rupert between 2010 and 2012, which cost the city $3.5 million in legal fees, the NDP said.
The lawsuit stemmed from Sun Wave not reopening the mill as soon as promised, after the company bought the troubled business, prompting the city of Prince Rupert to expropriate the site in 2009.
Ni Ritao, the main stakeholder of Sun Wave, however, told BIV in 2018 that the delay in getting the mill started was caused by several factors out of his control, including the fractured state of the mill's operations, which prevented Sun Wave from readily getting the raw materials and the labour needed to quickly restart, and the two-year period required to legally get investment funding out of China and into Canada.
He said his experience of what he considered “negotiations in bad faith” by municipalities such as Prince Rupert could severely damage the reputations of B.C. and the rest of Canada as destinations for overseas business investment, which would hamper the province’s economic growth in a globalized marketplace.
Officials from the City of Prince Rupert did not respond to BIV's request for an interview at the time, nor did representatives of rural economic development group Community Futures British Columbia, citing ongoing litigation between Ni and the municipality.
According to court documents, Prince Rupert and Sun Wave reached a “partnership agreement” that exempted the company from municipal taxes for an extended period of time (Ni said the agreed period was 25 years). The agreement also called for the factory to be restarted at full operational capacity by December 31, 2007. When that failed to materialize, the city moved to terminate the agreement and collect the taxes that were previously exempt.
The BC Liberals, meanwhile, say Premier John Horgan "ignores" the resource sector.
Wilkinson claimed that under the NDP, 45 mills either closed permanently or severely curtailed operations – a phenomenon that directly impacted 10,000 workers.
“We had the minister of forests say there was no crisis and the parliamentary secretary for forests say there were too many mills,” Wilkinson said.
“The NDP simply threw in the towel and let forestry workers and forestry-dependent communities suffer on their own. That was the wrong approach and when we raised it in the Legislature John Horgan told Fraser-Nicola candidate Jackie Tegart to stop whining. Resource communities deserve better and under a BC Liberal government they will get it.”
BC Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau, meanwhile, spent the day promising to protect forests.
“We can’t continue to liquidate our natural resources for the benefit of shareholders of massive corporations, while continuing to shed local jobs in communities across B.C. as mills close,” she said.
“Our forests are a public resource that belong to the people of B.C., and we need to start managing them that way. This means establishing the health and biodiversity of BC’s forests as the overarching priority and restoring science in decision-making. It means undertaking tenure reform, generating far more jobs and revenue from what we harvest, and giving more authority to local communities and First Nations."
– With a file from Chuck Chiang