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Tumbler Ridge Residents Fear for Town's Future

'It's not nice' in region that brought in foreign workers.

By Jeremy J. Nuttall 18 Nov 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee's Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

This coverage of Canadian national issues is made possible because of generous financial support from our Tyee Builders.

Two years after politicians rushed to defend a mining company that was hiring workers from China over locals in Tumbler Ridge, B.C., residents are worried about their town's future after layoffs at two nearby mines.

"It's not nice," said Clayton Knowles, who lost his job at Wolverine mine seven months ago. "Every day I'm counting the hours I get to make sure I can pay my mortgage."

As residents fret about their economic futures, local politicians are conspicuously silent.

"The federal government, the provincial government are not going to help this town," Knowles said. "They haven't yet, have they?"

A local newspaper recently quoted Tumbler Ridge's deputy mayor as estimating that the unemployment rate in the town of 2,700 was as high as 70 per cent. And some local residents told The Tyee that people are leaving their homes behind as they flee the desperate economic circumstances of the town.

In April, Tumbler Ridge was walloped with news that Walter Energy's Wolverine coal mine would be idled due to poor coal prices. Months later, Peace River Coal said it would follow suit at the end of the year, also citing low prices and a need for maintenance.

According to Statistics Canada, the amount of people on unemployment benefits in the district has tripled since May to 190. The rate of people on benefits is now the highest it's been in at least 18 years.

Knowles is one of hundreds of workers who have lost their jobs in the layoffs.

On April 15, after arriving at work in a new truck he'd purchased a day before, Knowles said he and his coworkers were handed garbage bags and told to clean out their lockers.

"Right up until the day before they closed the doors they were telling us 'Way to go guys' and patting us on the back," Knowles said in a phone interview from Tumbler Ridge. "You don't expect when they tell you that everything's good... you don't expect that they're lying. But that's what they did."

Today, Knowles supports his wife and daughter by taking construction jobs he can find -- no easy task considering the area's unemployment rate.

The local Chamber of Commerce manager, Carmen Drapeau, said that families have been split up as one parent leaves town looking for work elsewhere. Local food bank manager, Shirley Durand, said many people have moved away.

"There's a lot of homes empty here, there's nothing in the windows, no curtains, no furniture -- nothing," Durand said.

Says Canadians aren't qualified

Tumbler Ridge was the scene of a large controversy two years ago about temporary foreign workers when it was discovered that HD Mining International, a B.C. company backed by Chinese partners, would bring in 201 workers from China to conduct bulk sampling at its Murray River coal project.

The company argued that it needed to hire foreign workers because the Canadians who applied for the mining jobs weren't qualified. HD argued that it planned to extract coal using a method called long walling, in which coal is extracted from the wall of the mine. In job advertisements, the company listed Mandarin as a language requirement.

But a group of unions disagreed with the company's argument and said the jobs should go to Canadian miners. The Construction and Specialized Workers Union and the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 115 took the company and federal government to court looking for an injunction to stop the company from using Chinese miners.

The unions lost, and partly blamed the judge's refusal to enter the unions' evidence that suggested that the mine wasn't using the "specialized" mining method it claimed as the reason for defeat.

Peace River Coal and Wolverine did not hire temporary foreign workers. Their unions have argued, however, that if the HD mine had hired local workers in the first place, the impact of layoffs at Wolverine and Peace River Coal would have been less traumatic.

In a September news release, the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 115 said the high jobless rate in Tumbler Ridge shows the consequences of hiring foreign temporary workers. The union argued that in the past the kind of mining planned by HD was not specialized, requiring Chinese miners as the firm claimed, but rather was a more commonplace method for which local miners were qualified.

The province, federal government and Tumbler Ridge mayor all defended the company during the uproar.

Victoria boasted that the mine would create 6,700 jobs. Outgoing Tumbler Ridge mayor Darwin Wren attended ribbon cuttings with HD Mining brass, while telling unions to back off, and Ottawa tried to convince a judge it had no power over the company.

Lee Loftus, the president of the B.C. Building Trades Council, was part of the consortium of labour groups that launched the lawsuit in autumn 2012.

In a recent interview, Loftus said he remembers the mine's defenders accusing the unions of being greedy and "picking" on the mining company.

Loftus said Tumbler Ridge has become a worst-case scenario for the temporary foreign workers program, with local workers shut out of 201 jobs and being forced to leave town to look for work. Although HD Mining was given the green light to hire 201 foreign workers, it's not known how many of those workers have been brought to Tumbler Ridge to date.

It also reflects poor government policy when it comes to resource management, he added.

"Tumbler Ridge is a perfect example of a whole imposed, 'Here you are, fill your boots Jack. Don't worry about us, we'll take the scraps,'" Loftus said. "I think that's fundamentally wrong."

Loftus noted that tax dollars have been spent on roads and other infrastructure inadvertently used by foreign resource companies who don't want to employ Canadians.

"If we really are going to be exporters of our natural resources then Canadians should be taken care of first," he said. "If they can't do that then they can go somewhere else."

Politicians shy away

Local Conservative Member of Parliament Bob Zimmer's staff initially responded to an interview request, but after being told the topic was Tumbler Ridge's employment situation did not answer emails or schedule an interview.

The B.C. Ministry of Jobs sent an email touting what it said is dedication to British Columbian workers, but said Minister Shirley Bond's schedule did not allow for an interview.

Pat Bell, now retired from politics, was the provincial minister of employment at the time of the controversy and said he didn't want to comment because he hasn't kept up with the situation.

In September, the union representing 300 miners from Peace River Coal asked HD Mining to hire some of the workers. The company did not respond to a query that asked if the company had employed any Canadians.

Tumbler Ridge's economic development officer, Jordan Wall, said the province has been receptive to helping out the town economically, and has even arranged meetings with ministers to discuss the district's economy.

Ideas include growing tourism, wind power projects and expanding the community forest's allowable cut, but Wall said nothing could replace the mines.

"The coal mines represented about 800 full time well paying jobs and nothing that we do will every replace that," Wall said. "We're just trying to grow our economy in other directions to keep us going until the coal mines are up."

Speaking to The Tyee before heading out of town for a weekend job, Knowles said he doesn't know if he'll be part of the future of Tumbler Ridge whatever it may be.

But unlike Wall, he isn't optimistic the governments that defended the hiring of temporary foreign workers in 2012 will come to the aid of Tumbler Ridge.  [Tyee]

Read more: Labour + Industry

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