British Columbia·Analysis

'Nothing lasts forever': small towns in B.C. concerned this spate of mill closures won't be last

For decades, it was said that forestry was responsible for fifty cents of every dollar generated in British Columbia. Those days are likely gone, no matter what political parties promise to do.

Too many local communities and too many outside market forces for easy solution

Sawmills across British Columbia have been closed, or had hours of work for employees significantly decreased over the past decade. (Canadian Press)

For decades, it was said that forestry was responsible for fifty cents of every dollar generated in British Columbia. 

"It wasn't that high, but it was really major," said Bob Williams, B.C.'s forestry minister for three of those years in the 1970s.

Over the last month, Williams has looked on in sadness as the announcements of mill closures or slowdowns have piled up across the province.

But he also knows that the forest industry has been in perpetual decline in the province for decades, a once great bulwark being chipped away at year after year. 

"It's the chickens coming home to roost … it's a scandalous waste of riches and it's been true for the last 50 years," Williams said.

In the past week, both the government and opposition party have pledged support and offered policy proposals to help the battered industry and the towns across B.C. reliant on it. 

Yet people in those towns have seen this story play out again and again, and know promising a recovery is easier said than done. 

Uncertain futures

100 Mile House is like a lot of places in British Columbia: it was settled to help support the gold rush — its name literally refers to a distance marker for prospectors travelling from the Lower Mainland — and has survived since then in large part due to people chopping down trees. 

Mayor Mitch Campsall learned this week Norbord Inc. would be indefinitely suspending operations at the town mill.

"Our community is going to suffer drastically because of this," Campsall said.

Both B.C. Liberal and NDP governments have failed to improve market conditions for Norbord, he said. A similar lament is heard by people 150 kilometres east in Vavenby. 

"The mills have been closing down for years and it just seems nobody seems to have the heart to stop it," says Madeleine Devooght. 

Devooght worked at the mill for 30 years, and part of her wonders what will happen to the small community around it when it closes in July. 

But part of her already knows. 

"Every time a mill is shut down in this valley, from Valemount to Kamloops, the school goes with it," she said. 

William Capostinsky, a log hauler who lives in the neighbouring community of Clearwater, echoes the sentiment. 

"The crimes are going to go up. The children are not going to have proper food. They're not going to have the support system needed," Capostinsky said.

"We all have to realize that nothing lasts forever. But to pull the plug and watch it go down the drain like you're flushing the toilet is not fair."

Madeleine Devooght has worked at the Vavenby sawmill for decades, and says "nobody seems to have the heart to stop" the industry's decline. (Jen Norwell/CBC)

NDP, Liberals point fingers

In response to the crisis this week, the province's main political parties blamed each other. 

"It's very unfortunate that more action wasn't taken to address the transition that communities will be undergoing," said forestry minister Doug Donaldson. 

"The NDP and John Horgan are not paying attention at all. They have not addressed the issue of what's going to happen to all these forest workers," said opposition leader Andrew Wilkinson. 

Wilkinson's party called on the government to take five immediate actions — three of which were to lobby other levels of government or set up a committee, and two of which were to lower taxes or give people more money.

Those measures won't help 100 Mile House or Vavenby. It might help dozens of other small towns across British Columbia, which don't have the size or infrastructure to easily deal with a mill closure.

Whatever the case, the headlines in Vancouver about mills in the Interior may fade. 

The questions in those communities about what the future holds won't. 

"[It] was the basis of how this community was built: right, wrong or otherwise," said Capostinsky.

"It's a sense of loss and a sense of uncertainty that just hits you to the core."

With files from Jennifer Norwell