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Lack of fibre has forest industry and communities in 'crisis,' unions say

Forest industry unions Unifor, United Steelworkers and Public and Private Workers of Canada say they want to be part of key reforms in the industry

Nick Morrison is married with two young sons and a mortgage on a home in Crofton.

But every day, the 42-year-old welder at the Paper Excellence pulp mill wonders if he will wake up to a layoff or permanent job loss — and may have to start commuting to remote job sites in the oil and gas sector, or just pull up stakes and leave the community he calls home.

“It’s definitely hard and it does wear on you personally,” Morrison said Tuesday, as about 200 unionized forestry workers gathered at a Victoria hotel for a sobering look at a deepening crisis in the industry.

“All of us just want to see improvements in the industry because it seems right now like there’s no time. There’s urgency to it.”

In what was called an “unprecedented summit,” the forest industry’s three major unions in B.C. — Unifor, United Steelworkers and Public and Private Workers of Canada — released a report outlining mill closures, continuing job losses, fibre supply shortages and issues related to old growth and logging tenures that have been eroding the province’s harvesting, pulp and paper, and wood manufacturing sectors.

The unions say they want to be part of key reforms for a modern, value-added and sustainable provincial forest industry.

The union report documents a stark decline in B.C.’s forest industry, where the province’s share of wood products has gone from half of all Canadian production to a third, as mills shutter permanently or are curtailed for long periods. More than 10,000 direct and indirect jobs have been lost over the past decade alone, including 3,000 across the industry in the past year.

Thirteen mills in B.C. were either closed permanently or went through lengthily curtailments over the past 14 months, including the permanent closures of the Catalyst paper operation in Crofton and Western Forest Products’ Port Alberni sawmill.

The 80,000 people who were directly employed in the B.C. forest industry at the turn of the last century is now down to almost half at 43,000, said economist Jim Stanford, who co-authored the report with Ken Delaney.

A number of factors brought the industry to the current “crisis” point, according to the report, which cites the ongoing softwood lumber dispute with the U.S and, starting in 2003, a B.C. Liberal government that gutted the Forest Lands Reserve Act and Forest Practices Code, which “handed over power to industry owners to self regulate.”

But there were other issues — peak infestations of the mountain pine beetle, the 2008 financial crisis in the U.S. mortgage industry, high interest rates that stalled building, the global demand for newsprint falling by two thirds and some of the most destructive forest fires in B.C. history. Last year, wildfires destroyed three million hectares of forest. Much of it was harvestable and the losses further tightened the shortage of fibre.

Combined, the shocks resulted in a 50% decline in total softwood harvesting from 2016 to last year, which affected pulp and paper operations, sawmills, engineered wood and other manufacturing, the report said.

“Because it’s dependent on the fibre from the forests, the whole sector rises and falls together,” said Stanford. “But it’s been one disaster after another, some related to the environment, world affairs and technology.”

The unions are proposing four key measures to stop the tailspin:

• Create a permanent province-wide forestry council with participation from all key stakeholders, including government, businesses, unions, universities and utilities, to work with the province.

• Develop a province-wide plan for a sustainable fibre ­supply.

• Create a Forest Adjustment Bureau that would also include income security, relocation incentives and other measures to adjust to changing forestry employment patterns.

• Develop a strategy to maximize the value-added sector with measures to support innovative and high-tech manufacturing, training and skills investments, clean energy joint ventures and the development of new markets, and research and development into new forms of engineered woods and paper.

Premier David Eby told the union members his government recognizes the challenges in the industry, saying “forestry is and must be a continued backbone of the province … too many communities and families depend on it.”

He said there is steep price competition in pulp and paper, lumber prices are at historic lows and two of the worst forest fire seasons in the province’s history have happened in the past 36 months. “This on top of the challenges of the loss of jobs and the disastrous decision of the previous government to pass control of the industry to the industry itself,” he said.

Eby said he takes the union’s stinging report “very seriously,” but noted the government is already taking steps to help the sector.

He said taking water licensing out of the Forests Ministry, for example, allows it to focus entirely on stabilizing fibre supply.

The province has also appointed Andrew Mercier minister of state for sustainable forestry innovation.

“We want to put in place the long-term strategy to ensure fibre supply is predictable and companies and communities can count on it.”

Last fall, Forests Minister Bruce Ralston announced three “accelerator tables” for value-added wood manufacturers, designed to expand the value-added lumber industry amid turbulence in the sector.

The tables for the north, south and coast regions are hosted by the province with the First Nations Forestry Council, B.C. Value-Added Wood Coalition and the Council of Forest Industries. Their aim is to keep fibre in the province and expand production of high-value wood products for domestic and international markets.

“Those tables are showing some success and my message to major tenure-holders was quite straightforward — it’s better to sit at a table and work things out than the government stepping in with some sort of regulation,” said Eby. “But if you can’t work it out around the table, we will ensure those trees are flowing to the employers in our province.”

Union members voiced concerns that massive amounts of wood are being left to rot or are burned in slash piles when the fibre should be flowing to mills. Eby said last month’s budget contained $60 million to retrieve that fibre on top of the $50 million already invested to move the fibre to mills.

Eby said Mercier is working with the minister of forests to collect salvageable wood burned in forest fires.

He said there is $178 million in the province’s manufacturing jobs fund, which has helped some mills buy new equipment to retool mills.

Eby said he agrees that it’s important to include unions in responding to the crisis the industry faces. “My whole career I’ve learned again and again that solutions that are delivered from the top down without involving people on the front lines will not be successful … so it stings a little bit.”

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