Premier David Eby said the province can no longer rely on “high-volume” exports of raw logs to support forest-dependent communities, when asked about the state of the provincial forest industry, which he said is currently undergoing a “fundamental” restructuring.
“We need to get more jobs per tree and mass timber is part of our response to that,” he said. Mass timber products are solid, load-bearing components such as columns, beams and panels, and some industry experts see it as a profitable alternative. Jagrup Brar, minister of state for trade, recently promoted the industry during a visit to the United States.
Eby made these comments Tuesday (May 2) when announcing the StrongerBC: Future Ready Action Plan for post-secondary education.
It includes increased training for forest-sector workers and communities. The so-called New Forest Worker Transition Support program focuses on new training options for impacted workers, employers and communities. According to a technical briefing, it will serve more than 1,800 people over the next three years. Eby also used the occasion to highlight opportunities in mass timber, pointing to interest from Japan.
“We’ll be building our relationships with our international trade partners, but we’ve got to get our house in order here in B.C. first and that’s exactly what we’re doing with our work with industry right now.”
Eby’s comment comes after Sinclar Group Forest Products lumber operations announced Monday curtailments in Fort St. James, Prince George and Vanderhoof starting later this spring.
Sinclar president Greg Stewart cited the high cost of fibre and poor market conditions for the curtailments. They are the latest evidence of a sector in crisis, which has been shedding hundreds of jobs around northern and rural B.C. with effects disproportionately felt by smaller communities, both economically and psychologically.
“Economic closures have significant impacts on individuals, families, communities, as well as local and regional economies,” Greg Halseth, professor of the geography program at University of Northern British Columbia and Canada Research chair in rural and small town studies, said in an interview earlier this year.
“Even when a closure or curtailment may be expected, the sudden announcement always brings a shock and introduces uncertainty – this uncertainty quickly generates stress, worry, and anxiety.”
While differences between temporary curtailments and final closures exist, both jeopardize the health and well-being of workers, families, and communities, Halseth added.
“The size of the community is important as larger places will have more local supports, while smaller places will have fewer alternative local employment opportunities,” he said. “The isolation or relative proximity of small towns to other urban centres can also shape the ability of these places to absorb these impacts.”
Economic closures impact not only workers and their families, but also the workers and the families of businesses and services that support the primary industry, he added. “The personal, community, and economic impacts are, in other words, widespread and reverberate from the moment of the announcement to long after the actual closure.”
The Official Opposition has also seized on the curtailments. BC United shadow minister for forests Mike Bernier said government is abandoning the sector.
“With the right vision, direction, and support, our forest sector could have a bright future, but instead this NDP government has chosen to manage its decline,” Bernier said. “It’s time for Premier David Eby and his NDP government to step up and show some leadership on forestry — before it’s too late.”
Eby acknowledged the curtailments, adding that the sector finds itself in the middle of what he called a “perfect storm” consisting of low timber supply caused by wildfire, pine beetle kill and previous “mismanagement” and low prices.
“So we are seeing curtailments right now, which means that there are people who are put out of work,” he said. “It’s a profound impact on families and on communities that are forest-dependent, which is why our government has been working closely with the forest sector to mitigate those impacts.”
But Eby’s comments also signalled that the industry will have to look different, and if it does not, government will make sure it does.
“My message to these two groups, the people who have the trees and the people who are producing the jobs from the trees, is very straightforward — if they can’t come to a creative solution on their own to ensure that that the value-added sector gets access to those trees, the government will have to intervene,” Eby said. “So there is a fundamental restructuring happening in our forest industry. The approach of previous governments of just letting her rip and hoping for the best didn’t work out.”