Hundreds of forestry workers convoy to Vancouver, calling for industry change
Forestry workers from across the province, including those from the Interior and northern B.C., are taking part in a vehicle convoy that could be hundreds strong Wednesday as they take their call for industry change to the premier in downtown Vancouver.
Workers from the forestry and logging industry met in Merritt around 9 a.m., before driving to Hope, where more vehicles were expected to join them.
From there, they drove along Highway 1 into Vancouver, where they took the Hastings Street exit and continued on to the Vancouver Convention Centre where the annual Union of BC Municipalities convention is being held.
Their hope is to send a message to the premier and forestry minister.
"Small-town B.C. forest communities are fed up, we’re done," said convoy co-organizer Howard McKimmon, who runs a trucking company in Merritt. "It's time for the government to take some action and take some measures to get this province back working in the forest industry."
The workers are describing a dire situation and are asking for several changes.
One of their first concerns is stumpage fees paid to the province on harvested trees. Convoy organizers say the current system does not reflect market conditions and makes the cost of logging prohibitive.
They would like to see a system similar to what is used in Alberta, where they say the rates better reflect the market.
They are also calling for changes that they believe would lead to a more stable wood supply for mills and other businesses.
"The solution offered is to eliminate and/or restrict the transfer and/or sale of wood outside of communities that have operating mills, and that first rights of refusal is provided to the local mills," organizers of the BC Logger Rally said in a statement.
The convoy comes just a day after the BC Liberals criticized the NDP's aid package for the forestry industry. Of the $69 million package, $25 million is coming from a program meant to help rural communities diversify their economies or create more activity. That program is now on hold.
Speaking at the convention centre in downtown Vancouver, BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson told CTV News the NDP government "seems to be writing off whole sections of British Columbia."
"The NDP and John Horgan have written off the Interior of British Columbia," Wilkinson said. "They don’t seem to give a hoot about the forest industry. They’ve been robbing from one fund to pay for another fund for foresters, and the people have had enough."
As an alternative, the Liberal leader pointed to the "five-point plan" his party outlined in a letter to Horgan in June, which included the following recommendations:
- Ask the federal government for assistance in helping affected forestry workers
- Establish a "forestry competitiveness committee"
- Negotiate a new softwood lumber deal with the United States
- Reduce stumpage fees and the carbon tax
- And create a fund for affected communities to use to hire out-of-work forestry workers for wildfire mitigation projects
Also at the convention centre, Forestry Minister Doug Donaldson defended the NDP government's handling of the issue, saying changes to stumpage fees are something the government is looking at, but adding that changing them immediately would harm the ongoing legal case against the United States' tariffs on softwood lumber.
"Stumpage fees are a part of what we’re looking at in the overall solution, but political intervention in the stumpage system at this point would cause more damage than good," Donaldson said.
As for the criticism of the decision to repurpose $25 million from its "Rural Dividend Fund," the minister argued the decision was the right one given the significance of the challenges the industry is facing.
"We made a decision to repurpose funds from across a number of ministries in order to support workers and that’s because we want workers and communities and contractors to be at the front of the line in the Interior when it comes to the situation they’re facing," Donaldson said.
Walt Cobb, the mayor of Williams Lake, said the provincial government doesn't seem to be listening to the concerns of rural municipalities. He said his city had planned on using money from the Rural Dividend Fund for a water project, but that money was shifted to the province's forestry relief package.
Cobb said forestry is a critical industry that should have received funds from elsewhere in the provincial budget.
"I agree that we have to support the forest industry but they had the ability to take the money from elsewhere," he said.
As for the impact of the slowdown on his city, Cobb said he considers Williams Lake "lucky" because it hasn't faced a permanent mill closure yet. That said, shutdowns in surrounding communities and partial closures in Williams Lake will have an effect on the rest of the local economy, he said.
"We depend on those communities for our small retail businesses," he said. "We’re a small community in Williams Lake but our service area is huge … This is going to spin off and we’re looking at a pretty grim Christmas."
The truckers planned to use a single-lane of traffic along their 300-kilometre route.
Cpl. Mike Halskov with BC RCMP Traffic Services said the truckers would have a police escort all the way from Merritt into Vancouver, and there would be a tow truck with the convoy ready to respond in case any vehicles break down. Haskalov said he didn't expect significant traffic problems from the convoy.
"It will draw some attention obviously," he told CTV News Wednesday morning. "I don't anticipate there will be too much of an issue."
With files from CTV News Vancouver's Ben Miljure