Cariboo North MLA Coralee Oakes introduces her colleagues, from left, Fraser-Nicola MLA Jackie Tegart, Nechako Lakes MLA John Rustad and Cariboo-Prince George MP Todd Doherty, during the Forestry Sector Crisis Response meeting June 24 at the Royal Canadian Legion. Lindsay Chung photo

Community members raise concerns at packed forestry meeting in Quesnel

North Cariboo MLA Coralee Oakes hopes community feels heard

John Rustad, the MLA for Nechako Lakes and the provincial Official Opposition’s critic on Forest, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations, doesn’t hesitate to say B.C. forestry sector is in crisis when asked.

He was in Quesnel Monday, June 24 to take part in a community meeting to address forestry in our region, along with Cariboo North MLA Coralee Oakes, Cariboo-Prince George MP Todd Doherty and Fraser-Nicola MLA Jackie Tegart.

Hosted by Oakes, the Forestry Sector Crisis Response meeting at the Royal Canadian Legion attracted a standing-room-only crowd of local politicians, contractors, mill employees, foresters, First Nations representatives and representatives from organizations like the Quesnel and District Chamber of Commerce and Community Futures North Cariboo.

Oakes hoped the meeting was a chance to come up with ideas and solutions.

“I know there’s a lot of nervousness and a lot of concern in communities across British Columbia around the forest sector, but I think that there’s some tools and takeaways that we can implement,” said Oakes. “I think the one message I’ll deliver today is I think there is certainly items that we can bring forward in a positive fashion that I think will make a real change for community. We’ve been through this before, our small businesses and our contractors, and we’ve learned some incredibly valuable lessons in that.”

The meeting was a chance for community members to share their ideas, their concerns and what they think some next steps could be.

“I’ve certainly heard from a lot of the logging contractors; I think that it’s critically important that we acknowledge the fact that for logging contractors and small businesses, it’s not just about a mill closure in our community,” said Oakes. “We’ve learned in the past things like expedient Work Share programs, expediting the EI benefits for the employees of Tolko, making sure we have Pension Bridging programs in place. These are the types of things today that we hope we can have that conversation on.”

During the meeting, Oakes and her colleagues also encouraged community members to get in touch with the government and media write letters to make it clear what they want.

“We are trying our absolute best to bring the message forward, and we are as frustrated as you because we often feel that the Lower Mainland or Victoria or Ottawa aren’t listening,” said Oakes.

Oakes handed out information sheets with key government contacts and key media contacts. The sheet also shares that based on experience from past closures and conversations she has had with local small businesses, contractors and employees, some of the requests to government could include: expedited Work Share program for businesses impacted by curtailments, that could include local businesses with contracts in other regions of the province; expedited and extended EI benefits for the forest sector; ensuring there are Pension Bridging Programs for employees and management impacted by mills that are closing; expedited Grade 12 education and local training options; address the current Employer Health Tax challenges to businesses; Small Business Financing options; support Community Futures applications through Western Diversification to support small businesses and contractors; support people wanting to start their own business; work with the Chamber of Commerce and Business Improvement Areas on a Shop Local campaign; and work with local governments on infrastructure investment.

“How are social benefits going to help someone who is self-employed who has their own equipment?” one person asked. “It doesn’t.”

Al Waters, a professional forester who works with United Way to FireSmart homes, told the panel we need to have a personal income tax break on both federal and provincial taxes if you do FireSmart work on your home.

“Every one of us is faced with the threat of wildfires on our homes, especially those living in rural areas,” he said, noting more FireSmart work would give those in forestry who are losing their jobs employment opportunities.

Taxes also came up with severance pay, and one man who will get a severance when Tolko closes asked why the federal government can’t give them a tax break on their severance pay.

A woman who works for RBC told the MLAs that without any firm steps from the government stating this is a crisis, the financial institutions can’t to anything to help their clients with things like skip payments. They want to help, but they are waiting for the official word.

“These asks need to go in immediately,” agreed Oakes. “The group that has been set up by the government to do the transition needs to put the asks in.”

The need for a softwood lumber agreement and the need to diversity mills were also among the concerns brought forward, along with the need for funding for skills training for the employees who are losing their jobs and the need to support contractors.

“Stop giving the mills the tax break; look after your contractors,” said one woman.

Following the meeting, Oakes said she hopes people feel heard and know that the politicians who represent them are frustrated too, and she emphasized the need for the asks to the provincial and federal governments to come soon for things like programs to help small businesses and support for financial institutions to help their clients.

“Those programs will not be put in place until the local working group asks the provincial government,” she said. “Also, financial institutions need to ask Toronto for support, and they need provincial government support. There are legitimate things that could be done immediately to help contractors.”

“A lot of times, small businesses and contractors feel left out of this conversation,” she added. “I hope they realize we get it, and we are going to work to make sure programs are in place.”

Mayor Bob Simpson says there is a transition team in place. They have had one round-table meeting, and he has had subsequent conversations with the government.

“We need to get together as a community and move forward as a community,” he said. “There is a lot of stuff in play, and we are going to work that as hard as we can in the next few months.”

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