British Columbia

Vancouver Island communities hurt by forestry strike prepare for hard Christmas

About 3,000 Western Forest Products employees on Vancouver Island have been on strike since July 1. With Christmas just around the corner, many families will depend on the charitable help of others to put food on the table and gifts under the tree this year.

400 kids getting charity hampers as families struggle without work for 6 months

Strike shacks at Western Forest Products work sites where union employees have picketed since July have also become ad-hoc food banks for workers and their families with Christmas around the corner. (Facebook/USW 1-1937)

All Joe Strachan wants for Christmas is to go back to work.

The logging truck driver has worked for Western Forest Products (WFP) for three decades and is one of about 3,000 United Steelworkers union members on Vancouver Island who have been on strike since July. 

Negotiations between the company and the union collapsed this week and no future mediation dates are scheduled. As the holidays approach, forest industry workers like Strachan are growing increasingly frustrated with their employer, while wondering how they will keep the lights on at home.

For insight on the impact the strike is having on North Island communities, CBC's On The Island broadcast from Campbell River Friday to hear from those affected.

Vancouver Island union members show their discontent with Western Forest Products in November. (Facebook/USW 1-1937)

"We are just trying to make sure that kids have got a Christmas out of this whole thing and Western Forest Products is making it difficult," said Strachan, speaking from a strike shack at a WFP site north of the city where food baskets were being assembled for workers to take home for the holidays.

Strachan is worried he and his colleagues days at WFP could be numbered, saying the company is trying to cut costs and reduce the manpower and labour force.

"They've made hundreds of millions of dollars in profits over the last several years and we think they can certainly afford a few increases in costs in order to keep the province's economy healthy."

'The shifts that WFP is imposing on us are much too long, in many cases they are unsafe,' said Strachan, pictured right. (Gregor Craigie/CBC)

The strike shack has operated as an ad-hoc food bank for months and Strachan, a 35-year forestry veteran, said he is seeing young families going through divorces as their relationships suffer as the industry does too.

'"WFP has become an operation that just wants to harvest timber and they don't want any employees," said Strachan. 

CBC invited Western Forest Products to participate in the special broadcast of On The Island, but the company did not have anyone available. 

In September, a convoy of empty logging trucks travelled to Vancouver as a public statement about the state of the industry and the hardships facing families. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Campbell River residents Tamara Meggitt and Rona Doucette started the Loonies for Loggers campaign in September, organizing food drives to support people on the picket lines and their families.

"They have a lot of pride, and asking for help is a hard thing, but it's certainly going to make Christmas better for a lot of children," said Meggitt.

According to Meggitt, the campaign started with eight food drives that resulted in enough food to feed families in 18 communities. Twice.

With the help of a $20,000 contribution from city council, the women are preparing for a special round of holiday deliveries.

There are over 400 children on their Christmas hamper list.

Tamara Meggitt of Loonies for Loggers stands next to a truck loaded with charitable donations for affected families in North Island communities. Campbell River City Council voted on Dec. 16 to contribute $20,000 to the group's efforts. (Madeline Green/CBC News)

A town divided

Port McNeill Mayor Gaby Wickstrom said there have been generous charitable initiatives by locals in her community as well, such as toy drives and dinners, but the generosity is underpinned by serious tensions in town.

She said it is not just industry workers who are suffering, but many local business owners are feeling the trickle effect on the economy as well. 

"Our only coffee shop has laid off everyone but one employee," said Wickstrom."This whole thing has really divided people, it's not pretty anymore."

The mayor said the recent negotiation impasse left many people gutted and pointing fingers at each other.

"There is going to be a lot of repairing of relationships," she said, noting she is also concerned for people's safety if they return to work angry with each other.

At a stand still

Claire Trevena, MLA for North Island, spent the week hearing from politicians, union workers, contract workers, and First Nations in Port McNeill and further north in Port Hardy.

Trevena said she is hoping the federal government will offer financial help. She also wants to make loans available to contractors who can't cover the cost of their equipment sitting idle.

"There has been a huge amount of [community] generosity but that's not going to help people get through this crunch," said Trevena. "You never climb out of a strike this long."

With files from On The Island

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