British Columbia

'A devastating blow': Rural community mayors react to cancellation of rural grant program

Mayors of small towns, villages and communities in rural B.C. have expressed disappointment over the indefinite suspension of the Rural Dividend Fund, which helps smaller communities with projects ranging from skills training to infrastructure.

Money from fund will be redirected to new forest worker support program

'From the rural side of it, [there's] a lot of disappointment because it's a fund that we've tried to utilize throughout the years and we've been very successful...and now it's gone,' said David Wilks, mayor of Sparwood, B.C. at the UBCM convention in Vancouver. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Mayors of small communities across B.C. say they're disappointed a rural grant program that helps smaller communities with projects ranging from skills training to infrastructure has been indefinitely suspended.

The $25-million provincial Rural Dividend Fund is aimed at communities with populations of less than 25,000. The money will now be redirected to help pay for the $69 million in aid that is being given to communities suffering from the impact of mill closures and curtailments due to the declining forestry industry. 

However, the Liberal opposition and mayors of some Interior communities have been highly critical of this shift of money. Some mayors say they've already applied for funding for projects next year.

Premier Horgan said the $25 million from the fund is "going toward rural communities to keep people home' in light of all of the recent job losses due to sawmill closures." (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

"This has been a devastating blow for our community," said Kevin Acton, mayor of the village of Lumby at a press conference hosted by the B.C. Liberals on Tuesday.

"We've been using the Rural Dividend Fund to build diversity in our community over the years and things have been working very well for us."

Premier John Horgan defended the decision, saying that the money is being used to help communities where people have lost their jobs because of mill closures.

"We don't want to leave people behind. The $25 million in the Rural Development Fund is going toward rural communities to keep people home. Not to have them dissipate throughout the province," said Horgan.

Doug Donaldson, the minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, and Rural Development, said the $69 million is made up of funds from across different ministries.

However, B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson questioned why the province couldn't use contingency money to assist affected communities.

"We have said quite clearly that when you have the lightest forest fire season in a decade, about $300 million is left on the table. Why isn't that funding available for the forest sector when it was dedicated to the forest sector for wildfire control?" asked Wilkinson.

Potential projects lost

Acton said he already has heard from people in Lumby who are upset because they had hoped to access $500,000 from the grant fund to create 63 new daycare spots there.

Karl Sterzer, mayor of Canal Flats, said the Rural Dividend Fund helped the village after a sawmill closed there in 2015

"This funding is key and critical and I can't imagine the communities that are going through what we went through in 2015 and 2016 not being able to have the ability to draw from that kind of resource," said Sterzer.

'Unfair,' says Sparwood mayor

Sparwood Mayor David Wilks told Radio West host Sarah Penton that cancelling the fund after applications have already been made by communities was unfair, and they now must consider tapping into their own reserve funds or raise taxes to pay for projects.

At the Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM) conference underway in Vancouver, Wilks said there is a lot of chatter about what this could mean for many small communities. 

"Not so much from the urban side, but from the rural side of it, [there's] a lot of disappointment because it's a fund that we've tried to utilize throughout the years and we've been very successful...and now it's gone."

With files from Radio West and Andrew Kurjata

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