Last week, I attended the annual conference of the Council of Forest Industries (COFI) in Prince George.
The COFI meeting is always a good forum to hear from a wide spectrum of experts and stakeholders, as well as an opportunity to meet up with some of the many local government officials that come from all over British Columbia.
Small communities dependent on the sector, such as Midway, Houston and Chetwynd, have been hard hit as reduced fibre supply and low timber prices have combined to force the closure of mills, and I had expected an overall mood of gloom considering the challenges and big changes the forest industry is facing. But I was encouraged by strong elements of optimism that came up in discussions around First Nations partnerships, the need for more environmental sustainability, and opportunities for getting more value and jobs out of fewer trees.
One topic that came up repeatedly as a way to increase that value was the increasing use of mass timber in large buildings. This region has led the continent in this technology, first by Structurlam in Penticton and more recently by Kalesnikoff in South Slocan.
Mass timber technology has many benefits. It produces beautiful, safe, long-lasting buildings that sequester carbon in their wood materials. And the construction process is much quicker that traditional building projects—panels and beams are created indoors to exact specifications and then moved to the site for assembly. Speakers at the conference highlighted the fact that new housing is increasingly built in large, multi-unit projects that are ideal for mass timber construction.
I’ve been pressing the federal government for the last seven years to support mass timber efforts through procurement projects, modernized building codes and training for architects and builders.
My private members bill doing just that is now through committee in the House of Commons and will likely pass unanimously to become law before our summer recess.
Added to all the challenges for the forest sector here in Canada are the illegal tariffs charged on lumber exports to the United States. The calculations made by the Americans to set these tariffs have the insidious characteristic of increasing fines when lumber prices are low and decreasing when prices are high.
We’ve been through a phase of high prices and relatively low dumping fines but are now faced with low prices—only a quarter of what they were last year. Those low prices have triggered the closure of several mills across the province, including the Vaagen mill in Midway, and now the remaining operations will likely face higher tariffs when exporting to the United States.
I discussed the softwood lumber dispute in Prince George with industry representatives and with Global Affairs Canada officials, who are negotiating with the American government.
I’ll be travelling to Washington D.C. in May with the House of Commons International Trade Committee and softwood lumber will certainly be on our agenda. We will continue to make the case that the tariffs are illegal and point out that the only Americans that benefit from them are wealthy timber barons—most Americans feel them only through significantly higher prices for building materials and housing.
We must ensure forestry practices are truly sustainable and take into account that forests provide essential services other than growing fibre. They provide us with clean water, clean air and support rich biodiversity that is the basis of the healthy environment we enjoy in Canada.
For too long, we’ve been wastefully clear-cutting, burning huge slash piles at the end of the season. We have to be more selective and leave less waste. Communities and First Nations must be involved in forest planning and receive more of the benefits of the harvest of what is after all an incredibly valuable resource that belongs to all of us.
The forest industry is changing. Change is always uncomfortable, but with honest, respectful dialogue we can create a forest industry that will benefit everyone for centuries to come.
Richard Cannings is the NDP MP for South Okanagan-West Kootenay.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.