Op-ed: B.C. Liberals should help resource-dependent towns

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By Norm Macdonald, Special to the Province.

The recent announcements by West Fraser Timber and Canfor that they would be closing mills in Houston and Quesnel are just the start of a very difficult period for the families and communities that rely on the forest industry.

They may have come as a shock to the public, but it was in no way surprising to anyone who has followed the impacts of the pine-beetle epidemic on B.C.’s forest sector. So why is it that the provincial government, which is tasked with acting in the public interest, has done virtually nothing to prepare for transition? Why is there no tangible evidence that they have any plan to protect jobs and support families?

For a government that claims to care about jobs, the Liberal government has done remarkably little to ensure that resource-dependent communities have a stable industrial base to serve as a local economic driver. It is not just jobs in the mills that will be lost, but jobs within the sub-industries that are supported by these mills.

The issue is not how these jobs came to be lost, but how government has responded to the downturn. In the last decade, the influx of beetle-kill wood meant that mills ramped up production to use that wood while it was still viable. With that wood now running out, forest companies are beginning to close those mills.

This was an entirely predictable outcome and should have resulted in a meaningful and comprehensive plan by government to assist the communities affected through the transition phase and to encourage other economic opportunities to ensure that workers and their families could stay in those communities.

New Democrats have proposed the establishment of a jobs protection commissioner, an office that would work with communities and their business leaders to examine options for economic development. It would help communities adapt and enhance the long-term viability of the forest industry. This was part of a comprehensive package to improve B.C.’s record on creating jobs in the industry, a package that also included increasing tree-replanting, increasing production of forest products in B.C. rather than exporting more of our raw logs and supporting industryled efforts to identify new global markets.

It is the role of the government to help communities whose major industry collapses. Yet in the time since the B.C. Liberals first took office, more than 30,000 well-paying, family supporting jobs in the forest industry simply vanished. And aside from a few exceptions, the B.C. Liberal government simply sat on its hands.

For generations, governments of all political stripes have understood the contribution made by rural B.C. to the province’s economy. In fact, B.C.’s economic success has come

primarily from resource extraction from rural areas. For example, W.A.C. Bennett helped open up vast regions of the province, in part by allowing private companies access to publicly owned natural resources in exchange for capital investment and jobs. And successive governments, including the New Democrat government of the 1990s, made targeted investments to help develop the gas-extraction industry in the Peace region.

Contrast that legacy with the record of the B.C. Liberals on forestry. This is an industry that has been the backbone of cities and towns, large and small, in all regions of the province. And this is an industry that has been built in partnership with the public because it relies on access to a publicly owned resource – the timber that is harvested from public lands.

While there are a number of factors that have caused serious downturns in the industry since 2005, policy changes implemented by the B.C. Liberals in 2003 led to a massive shift to concentrated ownership in the industry, and this definitely played a role in the ultimate problems faced by forestry.

B.C.’s publicly owned lands are one of our most valuable assets. And the forest lands included in the 94 per cent of B.C. that is Crown land must be managed with tremendous care, not just for today, but for future generations. When managed properly, our forests can provide not only environmental benefits, but economic ones. With the announcement of these mill closures, we are once again seeing an example of just how badly the Liberals’ choices have served the people of B.C. New Democrats believe that the Liberals’ collective shoulder shrug in response to the mill closures is unacceptable. There are options that government could access, some that have worked in the past.

While it is understood that developing a strategy for increasing community resilience through times of economic transition is a complicated process, it is also obvious to most that the best time to do this work would have been in the decade leading up to the crisis.

There is no time to lose. We cannot wait any longer to take action to support rural communities.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Province: http://www.theprovince.com/news/Libs+should+help+resource+dependent+towns/9141748/story.html