Forestry industry workers in the Bulkley Valley and beyond are striking back against potential logging deferrals on 2.6 million hectares of old-growth forest around the province.
On Nov. 18, dozens of logging trucks and other vehicles made three loops of Smithers from Pacific Inland Resources via Railway Ave., Toronto Street, Hwy 16 and Tatlow Rd. honking horns and sporting signs such as “Forestry feeds my family” and “BC is built on forestry.”
Organizers said the demonstration was to raise awareness of how important the industry is to the Bulkley Valley and the devastating impact it could have the local economy.
They said they were impressed by the turnout and emotionally touched by the show of support from the community.
“We represented our industry well today,” said co-organizer Shari Smaha.
Primarily at issue, is the uncertainty of not knowing what the impact could be.
“We don’t know, lack of transparency and information coming from the government has kind of put everybody into a tailspin, because nobody knows how it’s going to affect us,” Smaha said.
While no permanent deferrals have been announced, Rick Fuerst, another co-organizer, worries the impact could be far-reaching.
“Even if you look at it at first blush there’s potential for massive job losses, in some places 50 per cent of the cut could be gone,” he said.
“There was zero consultation with anybody from industry, anybody from communities, anybody from our Indigenous communities around us. They put this kind of ad-hoc panel together and made this decision for all of BC, but specifically for 100,000 people with good-paying jobs in this industry and we didn’t have a voice.”
In addition to raising public awareness and drumming up community support, the forestry industry workers were also looking for support from the Town of Smithers.
Mayor Gladys Atrill attended the rally.
“The people that are here are residents of the town and the valley and they have a concern so I’m interested in what they say,” she said.
“I’m getting a sense that it might be a little early for massive concern, but at the same time I’m not making my living the way these folks are, and they’re feeling it in a more visceral way and I think we really need to respect that.
“What I heard today was do we recognize the significance of forestry in our local economy? The answer is, of course, we do, it is significant, it’s a part of the history, it’s a part of the culture and it’s part of the economy.”
Ideally, Fuerst would like to see the deferrals scrapped altogether, but would settle for a seat at the table.
“We just want to have a voice, we want to have a rational conversation about these issues, and help forestry move forward, but everybody needs to be included, we can’t make these decisions in Victoria and just drop them on the rest of the province.
“We tend to see ourselves up here as kind of a forgotten part of the province, it seems once you leave the greater Vancouver area that a lot gets forgotten. These politicians in Victoria need to realize that the economic benefits of our industry, we put billions of dollars into the economy every year; 30 per cent of our exports are forest products, 15 per cent of our overall economy comes from our forest industry and it seems to get short-shrift.”
One of those politicians, Nathan Cullen, the NDP MLA for Stikine, said he understands the frustration, but that the old-growth issue is part of a cumulative anxiety.
“That uncertainty existed before we were elected, after the pine beetle and after the fires, the certainty for a lot of communities as to whether there would be jobs there was not there,” he said.
“People watched 30,000 jobs disappear over the last 20 years, between 2000, 2016, so everyone’s got those stories, many people were displaced, and they were abandoned, the government wasn’t all that concerned about them, so I understand that worry.”
He promised, though, the conversations forestry workers, companies, communities and First Nations want to have are coming and the old growth piece is just part of a larger plan to transform the industry.
“There’s been work over a few years now to derive more value, be more value-focussed rather than just volume-focussed, to be thinking about workers and communities first,” he said.
“We’re going to work with local communities to make it make sense and for those that are affected there will be another puzzle piece dropped in about supporting folks and continuing the transformation of the industry that’s overdue from a lot of people’s perspective.”
And, at the end of the day, he said, his government would be there for anybody who is displaced by that transformation.
“I understand anxieties based on that feeling of abandonment when the sector went through a major downturn from 2000 on, we’re a very community- and people-focussed government so we’re going to be there for folks.”
He said there would be a support package rolled out when it is needed, but could not say exactly what would be in it.
“I think there’ll be a broad range based on the minister’s consultations with workers and companies to know what’s likely going to be needed,” he said. “Deferrals haven’t been announced, the maps are out there, but they’re contingent upon those conversations with rights and title holders so you wouldn’t go out and do a retraining or compensation package where nothing has happened yet.”
Two other rallies had been planned for Nov. 18, but were cancelled due to the flooding taking place in the south. Both were to be convoys — one from Burns Lake to Vancouver and the other from Campbell River to the Legislature in Victoria.
Smaha said those will likely be rescheduled and anticipates there will be other local rallies all over the province like the one in Smithers.