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Unifor: ‘After decades of exploitation and inaction, we need to get forestry right in B.C.’

By Gavin McGarrigle , Unifor Western Regional Director
Gavin McGarrigle, Unifor Western Regional Director

By Gavin McGarrigle, Unifor Western Regional Director

Before the ‘atmospheric river’ rained down on southern B.C. – causing historic flooding, washing away highways and cutting off entire communities – another environmental and economic disaster was already unfolding.

After decades of false starts, half measures, and ‘talk and log’ politics, B.C.’s forestry policy is at a crossroads. Forestry policy is complex and involves a number of players and vested interests: local and provincial governments, Indigenous leaders, forestry companies, academics, industry experts, conservationists and of course, forestry workers and their communities.

It’s clear the provincial government is ready to take significant action and develop a new and comprehensive approach to managing forests that will try to address the concerns of all these players, to protect and preserve the province’s forests for generations to come. Yet workers and forestry-dependent communities are deeply concerned they will be left behind as the provincial government transitions toward a new sustainable working forest policy.

Earlier this month the provincial government announced a temporary pause in logging of its most at risk old growth forests. While we agree with the need to protect old growth forests and develop a sustainable and responsible forestry policy in partnership with Indigenous communities, we are concerned that the government’s sense of urgency is causing them to risk leaving forestry workers and their communities without adequate protection and support in place.

Although we’ve had some initial discussions with government, we are still left asking what is the plan to support the thousands of affected workers as their sector goes through this transformation? What kind of transitional funding, training supports, and other resources will be made available? Some of these workers may be near retirement but many others have young families to raise. Significant funding to support workers and their communities during the transition is urgently needed so they don’t bear the individual or community costs of what is ultimately a societal transition.

For those of us in the forestry sector, nothing in the current proposed deferral should come as a surprise. The writing has been on the wall for years, as well as in countless expert studies, government reports, and endless consultation sessions. You could probably re-open several pulp and paper mills just to print copies of the mountains of reports that have been generated over the years.

Previous governments have sat on this information, now the BCNDP government is finally taking action and Forestry Minister Katrine Conroy knows the challenges she faces in driving real change.

While decades of government inaction contributed to the current crisis, the real story of logging in B.C. has been one of systematic over-harvesting, short-term profits over long-term sustainability, and broken promises from the forestry companies themselves.

Simply put, the B.C. forestry sector is struggling and the forestry industry itself has been the co-author of its own demise.

But B.C.’s forestry sector is far from a sunset industry, and we are confident that this provincial government can course-correct and ensure that workers and their communities will not be left without significant support. The recent appointment of veteran mediators Vince Ready and Amanda Rogers to report to the Minister of Labour by February 2022 on how to protect workers when licenses change is a welcome but overdue step. New legislation tabled to give the government more say in forestry is a good thing, but vested interests will not be happy and may try to use workers and communities as pawns to avoid change.

We need to build an approach together based around a simple premise – what should a working forest look like in B.C.? How do we protect our old growth forests, prioritize long-term sustainability and address climate change, while also providing community-sustaining employment and good, long-term union jobs and economic benefits for British Columbians?

When it comes to the question of sustainable forestry management in B.C., no one should doubt the desperate need to finally get it right. The stakes are extraordinarily high. Thousands of jobs and the future of many small towns hang in the balance.

Times of crisis demand effective and responsible leadership, and we call on Premier John Horgan, and Minister Conroy and their government to build a new, sustainable and inclusive foundation for B.C.’s forestry sector for generations to come.

Gavin McGarrigle is Unifor’s Western Regional Director. Unifor represents 24,000 forestry workers in Canada, including about 3,500 in B.C.