Community job coordination offices are opening to help B.C. Interior forest workers laid off in the industry downturn, Forests Minister Doug Donaldson says.
Donaldson spoke to Black Press Thursday, after a raucous last day of the B.C. legislature session where he was again pressed for action on logging and sawmill shutdowns across the province. Opposition critics reported multiple cases where forestry-dependent families are looking at a bleak Christmas season.
The assistance office in 100 Mile House has opened, and others are preparing to open in Clearwater, Fort St. James, Mackenzie and Fort St. John, he said.
“That’s to give direct one-to-one service for workers, trying to connect them with retraining opportunities, and the other four are on their way to being opened,” Donaldson said.
For workers who are looking for retirement rather than retraining, there have been more than 500 applications so far to a retirement bridging program that offers up to $75,000 for qualifying workers. It’s open to full-time mill workers who are 55 or older, have worked in a mill for the last two consecutive years, and meet other criteria.
“It’s a $40 million program over two years, so it takes a little while to implement,” Donaldson said. “We have more than 500 applications in, and they’re being dealt with on an individual basis.”
For loggers who have been idled, the Forest Enhancement Society of B.C. is delivering a $27 million program to reduce fire risk and improve forest health by removing burned trees or wood debris.
“Some of the contracts that have been awarded in the Cariboo, for instance, $707,000 to Cariboo Pulp and Paper for bringing in about 74,000 cubic metres of wood out near 100 Mile House,” Donaldson said. “In Cariboo North, $160,000 to Barkerville Historic Town and Park to bring about 9,000 cubic metres out.”
In the legislature, Prince George-Valemount MLA Shirley Bond called for action on one of the latest layoffs, 50 people including mechanics, welders and hauling contractors for Western Canadian Timber Products in the Fraser Valley. The problem cited by this and other employers is stumpage rates are too high, she said.
“That’s exactly the same for first nations woodland tenures as well, which is why nobody is operating on them at the moment,” Bond said. “It’s all talk and no action.”
Donaldson noted that stumpage, the province’s fee for Crown timber, was reduced Oct. 1 by 12 per cent for Interior forests and 24 per cent for Coastal logs, to reflect a sharp decline in lumber prices this year. Additional reductions would only raise more protests from U.S. “lumber barons,” who have called B.C. stumpage rates a subsidy in the current trade dispute and previous ones.
Donaldson said he scheduled to meet next week with Seamus O’Regan, the new federal natural resources minister. He will be asking Ottawa for “flexibility” in its Employment Insurance rules to make more laid-off workers eligible for payments.
“With the different curtailments we’ve had this year, some might not have been able to acquire the number of weeks required for EI eligibility,” Donaldson said. “That’s something the federal government has looked at before.”