British Columbia

How the pandemic could be an opportunity to revive B.C.'s forestry industry

A global pandemic means there are more people using disposable products such as cups, bags and masks, which creates an opportunity for the B.C. forestry industry to make a comeback, according to Quesnel Mayor Bob Simpson.

More disposable paper cups, masks, bags being used during pandemic

A sawmill in Quesnel that employed 150 people closed in 2019, but the city's mayor thinks the pandemic could be a good time to start a new mill. (Christer Waara/CBC)

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Canadians to use more disposable products such as cups, bags and masks, which has created a unique opportunity for the B.C. forestry industry to make a comeback, according to Quesnel Mayor Bob Simpson. 

Last year, the city lost its sawmill, which employed 150 people. Though Simpson doesn't necessarily see old mills being revived, he said the pandemic has created a situation where new mills producing different materials — like pulp and fibre board to help make single-use products — could be started in communities like his. 

"We've been asking the question of how do we have to pivot on the manufacturing side," he told Daybreak North host Carolina de Ryk. 

"We're looking at more domestic markets and especially domestic sourcing, going back to one-time-use disposable products, whether it's personal protective equipment or grocery bags or coffee cups."

Other mills in the province, including a pulp mill in Nanaimo, are already working on providing materials for those single-use products. Simpson would like to see investment from the provincial and federal governments to help innovate within the forestry sector in all parts of the province. 

"If we can subsidize the heck out of an oil and gas industry that the economics don't work for anymore, I would argue we can take some of that money and divert it into an industry that we could grow and it would be sustainable," he said. 

It's important that British Columbia be prepared to make materials locally, Simpson said, so that the province isn't susceptible to possible border closures or any other issues that could arise with international manufacturers.

"I think most national governments are now looking at reinvigorating domestic markets," he said. 

Susan Yurkovich, CEO and president of the B.C. Council of Forest Industries, agrees that the pandemic could be the push the industry needs, but first, the cost of fibre in B.C. needs to be lowered.

Although the province has highly skilled manufacturers and a good understanding of the market, Yurkovich said access to reasonably priced fibre is the "single biggest determinant" of whether local companies will be able to take advantage of new opportunities.

"We have an opportunity to be one of the sectors that helps lift our economy up," Yurkovich said.  

"We've got to get our cost structure right so we can participate in that economic recovery."

Regardless of what happens when it comes to costs and investments, Simpson remains confident that this will be a turning point for forestry in the province, and more specifically, in Quesnel.

"I think this push the pandemic has created for getting back to domestic markets and looking for alternative products is the push that we've been needing to get the reinvention wheels going and to reinvent the forest sector," he said.

With files from Daybreak North and Andrew Kurjata