British Columbia

'It was a hell of a fight for all of us': B.C. logging town emerges from months-long strike to face COVID-19

Communities across across the country are bracing for hard times ahead because of the COVID-19 outbreak. But towns on the north end of Vancouver Island have been dealing with extraordinary circumstances for months.

The 7-month strike at Western Forest Products had a tremendous impact on the town of Port McNeill

Port McNeill, a town of just over 2,000 people, is located on the north end of Vancouver Island. Its predominant industry is logging. (Kathryn Marlow/CBC)

Communities across across the country are bracing for hard times ahead because of the COVID-19 outbreak, but Port McNeill, a small logging town on the north end of Vancouver Island, has been dealing with extraordinary circumstances for months.

Many of the residents of the town, population 2,064, have been deeply affected by more than seven months of a labour dispute between the forestry workers and Western Forest Products. 

Although the strike ended in February, life in the town is still only slowly returning back to normal. 

And now, another challenge emerges with coronavirus.

Natasha Woo, a daycare worker whose husband Chad worked as a contractor with Western Forest Products, said it was even difficult to celebrate the end of the strike.

"The outcome for us was devastating. I'm so much money in debt now," Woo said. "It's great that [the strike] is over and we're back to work, but it feels like it was for nothing. It kind of hurts a little."

Natasha Woo's husband was a contractor for Western Forestry Products. The strike had extreme financial consequences for her family. (Kathryn Marlow/CBC)

Their family, much like other logging families, had to cut costs, often to the bone, just to keep up with mortgage payments and utility bills. They relied on the kindness of charities, like Loonies for Loggers, for food and toys during Christmas.

Woo said her daughters, aged 7 and 8, gave up afterschool activities and their yearly back-to-school shopping trip in order to make ends meet. Their savings are completely depleted.

"We had to explain to them why and what not. They were okay, but it's hard. It's tough."

Listen to an interview with Natasha Woo:

Port McNeill, B.C., was hit hard by the strike at Western Forest Products, which lasted for more than 7 months before it ended in February. All Points West host Kathryn Marlow spent a day in the north Island town in early March, to see how people were doing after the strike ended. She met Natasha Woo, whose husband was out of work during the strike. 7:19

But it's not just the logger families that were affected by the strike.  Ceri Parkinson, who owns a welding company with her husband, also saw their business dwindle to almost nothing during the strike. 

Parkinson took up a job at the local grocer to supplement their income. 

"It's never enough. It doesn't support a household, even at 40 hours a week with one income," she said. 

"We certainly didn't think it would last this long, but I don't think any of us did."

A convoy of logging trucks drive through downtown Vancouver, British Columbia on Wednesday, September 25, 2019. The strike against Western Forest Products started on July 1, 2019 and lasted until Feb. 15, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Macrina Richards, who has owned Tia's Cafe in Port McNeill for eight years, said she had to cut down the hours of her cafe and cut her staff of 10 people to just one. 

"I've never been this broke."

Even now, Parkinson says, the strike doesn't feel over. People may be slowly returning to work, but everyone is still feeling the pinch. 

"It was a hell of a fight for all of us," she said. "Everybody's been affected. And we all came together. We all did our best with what we had."

Listen to interviews with Ceri Parkinson and Macrina Richards:

Port McNeill, B.C., was hit hard by the strike at Western Forest Products, which lasted for more than 7 months before it ended in February. All Points West host Kathryn Marlow spent a day in the north Island town in early March, to see how people were doing after the strike ended. She met Ceri Parkinson, who runs a welding and fabricating business with her husband.  6:13
Port McNeill, B.C., was hit hard by the strike at Western Forest Products, which lasted for more than 7 months before it ended in February. All Points West host Kathryn Marlow spent a day in the north Island town in early March, to see how people were doing after the strike ended. She met Macrina Richards, who owns Tia's Cafe, right in the heart of the town. 8:12

But for a town that's already worn down, it makes the prospect of what's coming around the horizon even more daunting. 

Mayor Gabriele Wickstrom says the coronavirus is just compounding the already fragile state in the town. A business owner she spoke to was in tears, worried about whether or not they could weather yet another storm. 

"It just feels like we're taking a hit upon hit upon hit," Wickstrom said. "Everybody else is feeling what we've lived in the last eight months."

Gabriele (Gaby) Wickstrom is the mayor of Port McNeill. She says facing COVID-19 so soon after a devastating forestry strike is going to be tough for many family in her community. (Kathryn Marlow/CBC)

Listen to an interview with Mayor Gabriele Wickstrom:

Port McNeill, B.C., was hit hard by the strike at Western Forest Products, which lasted for more than 7 months before it ended in February. All Points West host Kathryn Marlow spoke with mayor Gaby Wickstrom to find out what it will take for the town to recover, and what COVID-19 means for that recovery.  7:57

Wickstrom says facing the virus will be different than the strike, especially because everything feels out of control. 

"[But] you really have to give something back to the community. Some sort of a hope. Some sort of sense of stability in the madness we find ourselves in."

Bonus | Listen to an interview with the founders of Loonies for Loggers:

Port McNeill, B.C., was hit hard by the strike at Western Forest Products, which lasted for more than 7 months before it ended in February. All Points West host Kathryn Marlow spent a day in the north Island town in early March, to see how people were doing after the strike ended. She met with Tamara Meggitt and Rona Doucette, who started Loonies for Loggers is response to the strike.  7:23

With files from Kathryn Marlow, All Points West

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