Hopes are high in B.C.’s forestry sector that Premier David Eby might be ready to offer up some sort of financial assistance to a beleaguered industry that is shutting down mills and laying off hundreds of people.
If he decides to do so – and that’s a big if – it would be a remarkable reversal of New Democrat forest policy over the last five years, which has mainly consisted of studied indifference toward a sector that used to be the lifeblood of the party.
The latest bad news came this week from Canfor, which announced it was permanently shutting down the pulp side of its Prince George pulp and paper mill.
Canfor cited the low availability and high cost of fibre for the mill. But those in the sector also say companies are hamstrung by the uncertainty surrounding provincial forestry policies, including government’s expanding old growth protection plans and First Nations reconciliation efforts – the sum total of which have created instability in longterm land-use planning for logging, milling and silviculture.
The Prince George closure cost 300 people their jobs. It was a double kick in the teeth, as some local media pointed out, because Canfor had recently reported healthy corporate profits.
“This is obviously devastating news for those 300 individuals who have lost their jobs, for their families,” said Eby.
“These are people with mortgages, with car payments. An incredibly stressful time for them and for the whole community in Prince George. We see that, I understand that, and so government is deploying a crisis response team to Prince George.”
A crisis response team is not nothing – though, it’s close. The pulp and paper sector has been for almost a year trying to work with the NDP government on an assistance package that would prevent such mill closures, to no avail.
The core principles of the pitch, made by the BC Pulp & Paper Coalition, is for a roughly $40 million fund that companies could draw upon to make it more economical to harvest wood waste leftover from logging, and dead wood (damaged by fires and the pine beetle infestation) for use as feed in pulp and paper mills.
That would dovetail with provincial and federal assistance to retool some of the existing mills from lower-value paper products in decline (like newsprint) into growth areas, such as packaging for the booming online shopping industry, as well as tissue paper.
The return on the government investment would be to save more than 23,000 jobs in 16 pulp and paper mills across the province, along with the millions in municipal and provincial tax revenue, the millions spent annually on BC Hydro power for the mills, and the millions more in spinoff effects for contractor companies, logging companies and silviculture.
It’s not a bad deal for the NDP government. It can find $40 million in the couch cushions of an almost $70 billion provincial budget. And it makes sense politically, given that what the New Democrats would be doing is saving the hard-hat-wearing, small-town, union mill-worker jobs that formed the backbone of the party’s movements for a generation.
“I'm aware of the proposal and government's been working closely with industry on innovation, on transition, so that they can do more value added products, keep jobs in the province,” said Eby.
“But, in terms of the specific proposals around support for innovation, we'll have more to say in the coming days on that, and I'm very interested in this opportunity of making a sustainable forest industry, recognizing that with pine beetle kill, and the failure of previous governments to replant, we do have a shortage of timber and feedstock. So we need to get more jobs out of the trees that we do have and that will only come through innovation and using materials wisely.”
Eby is set to speak to the Natural Resources Forum in Prince George on Wednesday, and then the BC Truckloggers convention in Vancouver on Thursday. He’d get standing ovations at both if he committed to some sort of government assistance.
Instead, more than likely, he’ll do what premiers since Gordon Campbell have done at these events – stall for time by making vague promises about boosting the “value-added” sector of the industry through “innovation.”
It sounds good, but it never happens.
It requires forest companies to invest millions in retooling their mills to produce those new “value-added” products, and they seize up with hesitancy because they can’t get straight answers out of the province on key issues of forest policy.
That hesitancy by the big multinational forest companies then builds resentment within the NDP, who then watch the companies invest in value-added upgrades to mills in other provinces and countries where they get government breaks on payrolls, taxes, fibre supply and electricity.
Someone should break the cycle of dysfunction between the New Democrat administration and the major players of B.C.’s forestry sector. There’s thousands of jobs at stake. It requires a fresh set of eyes on the problem, perhaps in the form of the province’s new premier.
Rob Shaw has spent more than 14 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.