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Mill closures threaten to punch holes in fabric of rural B.C. towns

Mill closures - what next?

When Mayor Shane Brienen of Houston, B.C., thinks about the impact of the impending closure of the town's sawmill, he worries not only about the economic fallout.

He thinks about the holes that the workers and their spouses will leave in the community.

"Maybe in their spare time they were coaching or running your hiking club. Maybe the spouse is a school teacher or ambulance driver," Brienen said.

A range of pressures on British Columbia forests are reverberating this spring through Houston and other rural and northern communities, where sawmill, pellet and pulp closures are affecting hundreds of workers. Mayors say there's still a future in the industry, but they will need support to realize it.

Brienen, who works at Canfor's Houston mill along with more than 300 others, said he considers the town better prepared than others because it has experience getting through the permanent closure of a mill owned by a different company in 2014.

Last month, Canfor announced its mill would shut down in April or May, a move it said would be temporary while it plans a new facility in the northern community with a population of about 3,000 people. Brienen said he's optimistic about the plan, but in the meantime, workers are facing a gap of at least two years.

The situation is different about 600 kilometres northeast in Chetwynd, named the nation's "Forestry Capital" by the Canadian Forestry Association in 1992.

Canfor is permanently closing its sawmill and pellet plant there, putting nearly 160 people out of work in the municipality with a census population of 2,300.

"It was devastating to hear it because that was my employment for 41 years," Mayor Allen Courtoreille said a week after the Jan. 25 announcement.

While B.C. officials promise support and a modernized vision for the industry, with the goal of creating more jobs per tree, Courtoreille is worried about the workers' immediate needs.

"Once the initial shock is over, and the dust settles, we're going to look at it and say, OK, what do we do now?"

Small communities like his are resilient, and there's a future for forestry in Chetwynd, but right now, the vision is "pretty cloudy," he said.

Word of the Chetwynd and Houston closures came two weeks after Canfor announced it plans to permanently shut the pulp line at its facility in Prince George, affecting an estimated 300 workers. A company statement cited "challenges accessing cost-competitive fibre."

On Vancouver Island, Western Forest Products said last month it will not restart work at its Port Alberni sawmill, where work had been curtailed since autumn.

It's a familiar story, as Statistics Canada numbers show B.C. has lost more than 40,000 forest-sector jobs since the early 1990s.

But with many factors coming to a head, the sector has "never been under greater stress," Premier David Eby wrote in his December mandate letter for newly appointed Forests Minister Bruce Ralston.

The factors include severe wildfires, fluctuating lumber prices and the long-standing Canada-U. S. dispute over the softwood lumber trade.

A tiny insect has also had a massive effect on B.C.'s forests. Years of mountain pine beetle infestations spurred by warmer winters killed swaths of trees, which were then logged at high rates as the province and the industry tried to salvage some economic value rather than let the wood rot.

Eby's letter to the minister of water, land and resource stewardship, meanwhile, states "short-term thinking" in land management has led to "exhausted forests."

A statement from Canfor president Don Kayne said the company made the "difficult but necessary decisions" to close its operations in Chetwynd and Houston in order to "create a more sustainable operating footprint in B.C.," with the goal of matching mill capacity with the supply of fibre that's economically available to harvest.

The company is "committed to supporting displaced employees," and where possible, they would top the list for hiring at other mills, it said.

Courtoreille noted hundreds of workers could be competing for the same jobs, given three Canfor facilities in northern B.C. are closing this spring.

Some workers who are 55 or older may benefit from the province's bridging-to-retirement program, but others face tough decisions, he said. They could try to find employment at two nearby coal mines or another sawmill still operating in Chetwynd, or they could choose to leave.

The forests minister said B.C. is also supporting affected workers through initiatives including community response teams.

"What I am told is going to happen and what I want to happen is that there be individual support (to) help workers make a plan based on their work history, their skills, their aspirations and their family situation," Ralston said in an interview.

"That might involve re-education, it might involve support to move to another community, it might involve working elsewhere in the forest industry for Canfor."

B.C.'s last budget earmarked $185 million over three years for initiatives to support the industry and its workers, and last month the premier announced an additional $90 million to support new industrial and manufacturing projects in affected areas.

The province has also appointed a council to advise on the development and delivery of new programs related to innovation, infrastructure development and economic diversification in communities affected by pressures on the sector.

Brienen said priorities in Houston include assessing the workforce to see who might be eligible for bridging to retirement and who could benefit from skills training.

There's a shortage of skilled trades workers in B.C.'s northwest, he said, and the municipality is working with nearby colleges regarding training.

Looking ahead, communities like his can't continue as one-industry towns, Brienen said.

"As forestry goes forward, and almost every industry, we're going to modernize more and more, so you're going to have less of a workforce," he said.

"It helps to have a major industry, but you've got to start separating from that a little bit as well."

Yet economic diversification is challenging for communities that don't have a large enough tax base to provide the money needed to spur it on, Brienen said.

Houston is part of the Northwest British Columbia Resource Benefits Alliance, a group of nearly two dozen local governments advocating for a revenue-sharing agreement with the province that would provide communities with sustainable funding for infrastructure repairs and efforts to attract new residents and workers.

"I think we're often looked upon as a drain on taxpayers in the south, and the real story is, there are billions of dollars pouring out of this region," Brienen said.

"We're trying to get a little share of that back to invest in these communities and diversify and just be able to weather these kinds of shocks a little easier."

Despite the challenges, the forest minister said he believes the future is bright.

As B.C.'s annual allowable cut declines, Ralston said he wants to see a strong primary industry working in tandem with a revitalized value-added sector.



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