British Columbia

Forestry job losses just as important as SNC-Lavalin and auto sector, B.C. leaders argue

The B.C. government joins mayors and local MPs in calling for federal assistance for thousands of workers affected by sawmill shutdowns across the province.

B.C. Forest Minister Doug Donaldson set to meet with federal government this week

Calls are growing for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister of Natural Resources Amarjeet Sohi to assist struggling forestry communities in B.C. (The Canadian Press)

The B.C. government says the federal government should treat forestry job losses in B.C. with the same importance it gives to industries in Ontario and Quebec.

Forests Minister Doug Donaldson will meet with federal representatives at this week's Canadian Council of Forest Ministers meeting in Saskatchewan.

According to Donaldson, more than 3,900 workers have been affected by sawmill closures and curtailments.

"There was an inordinate amount of attention paid to the potential job loss at a large corporation like SNC-Lavalin," Donaldson said. 

"I think with the number of workers affected ... we need the same kind of attention for an important industry in B.C."

Forests ministry staff are holding meetings around the province in communities affected by sawmill shutdowns.

Donaldson said people are asking for immediate help.

"Things like bridging funding for early retirement, tweaks to the employment insurance criteria and assistance with retraining."

Sanjay Jeram, a political science lecturer at Simon Fraser University, said the federal government has directly intervened in struggling industries in the past. 

One example is the $13.7 billion injection of Canadian taxpayer money into the auto sector after the 2009 global financial meltdown.

"Things like that are not unprecedented," said Jeram. "The federal government does have wide reach to intervene with federal funds in time of economic crisis in certain parts of the country."

However, he said the Liberal government may not want to make a big investment with a federal election just a few months away. 

"Emergency for B.C. rural communities"

Last month, more than 20 mayors from B.C's Interior sent a public letter to the federal government asking for guidance on accessing financial support. 

A group of Conservative MPs in B.C. also released a public letter, calling the situation an "emergency for B.C. rural communities."

Cariboo-Prince George MP Todd Doherty said he doesn't think the federal government fully comprehends the situation in B.C.

"This is a crisis that we're in that hasn't been seen to [this] level in approximately four decades," he said.

For his part, federal Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi, said he's acutely aware of the frustration in B.C.

"We take this challenge very, very seriously, because we know when layoffs happen, it not only impacts the workers and their families, it affects the entire community." 

Sohi said, in 2017, the federal government announced $867 million for its softwood lumber action plan to support workers, communities and the forestry sector. 

Federal Minister of Natural Resources Amarjeet Sohi said Canada is currently appealing to the WTO and NAFTA dispute panels over what he calls "unfair" softwood lumber trade policies. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The Trudeau government could have its most direct impact on B.C's forestry sector by negotiating a new softwood lumber agreement with the United States. 

Currently, most Canadian lumber companies pay duties of more than 20 per cent on softwood exports to the U.S.

"What the U.S. is doing is unfair to our industry [and] unfair to our workers," said Sohi, adding his department is supporting negotiation efforts led by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.

However, even Conservative MPs in B.C. are aware of the challenge in securing a deal at this time. 

"We do need a [softwood lumber agreement,] but I think under [President Trump] that's not likely," said Prince George-Peace River-Northern Rockies MP Bob Zimmer.

About the Author

Nicole Oud

@Nicole_Oud

Nicole Oud is a journalist with CBC British Columbia. You can email her at nicole.oud@cbc.ca.