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BC Politics

Eby Pledges Unions Will Help Shape BC’s Forestry Future

Premier tells summit it ‘stings a bit’ to learn workers feel sidelined as Indigenous rights and environment become priorities.

Andrew MacLeod 14 Mar 2024The Tyee

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's legislative bureau chief in Victoria and the author of All Together Healthy (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018). Find him on X or reach him at .

The B.C. government is committed to including forestry workers in discussions about the industry’s future, Premier David Eby told a union-organized meeting Tuesday, while saying it “stings a bit” to hear they’ve felt sidelined.

“Forestry has a bright future in British Columbia,” Eby said. “We are in a challenging time right now, but we are going to get there, and the only way we can get there is together, and my commitment to you here today is we’re going to do that.”

The premier was speaking at a summit at a Victoria hotel organized by three unions representing workers in the sector: Unifor, United Steelworkers District 3 and the Public and Private Workers of Canada.

The unions had just released “A Better Future for B.C. Forestry: A Sector Strategy for Sustainable Value-Added Forest Industries,” a 50-page report describing the crisis in the industry and what they see as the solutions.

“The point of this conference is to send a strong message to the government that they need to do more,” said Gavin McGarrigle, Unifor’s western regional director.

The unions understand the industry has to change, McGarrigle said, citing reconciliation with First Nations and the need to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“We also understand the strong sentiment in the province around conservation, around the anxiety around old growth,” he said. “We understand that the industry is also going to do a transition, that the rip-it-and-ship-it mentality of the past is no longer effective, it doesn’t make sense for jobs, it doesn’t make sense for the concerns of British Columbians.”

The government is slowly implementing an old-growth strategy that calls for a “paradigm shift” to maintaining ecological integrity and increasing the role of First Nations in decisions on their traditional territories. It has also pledged to protect 30 per cent of the province’s land base by 2030.

The unions accept all the goals the government is balancing, McGarrigle said. “But our key point is why are workers who built the industry and their unions sort of an afterthought. They should be central to any strategy.”

Many in the audience wore clothes with union logos, thick plaid shirts, jeans, T-shirts and ball caps. BC Federation of Labour president Sussanne Skidmore and other officials from the umbrella group were there.

Eby told them he had received the unions’ new report that morning and had read it.

“I take it very seriously,” he said. “We are going to take the specific suggestions from this report, we’re going to put them into practice, we’re going to support the industry, but more importantly we’re going to support all the families who depend on it.”

Eby cited sections of the report several times in his speech and in responses to questions from audience members.

“I am very receptive to the feedback that you outlined in your report that we haven’t done a good enough job of including you in our responses to the crisis that the industry faces,” he said. “We’re going to fix that.”

The report described a “never-ending crisis” that included the long-running softwood lumber dispute between Canada and the United States, the gutting of forestry policy two decades ago by the former BC Liberal government, the mountain pine beetle infestation, the 2008 financial crisis and collapse in housing construction, the drop in demand for newsprint, the slowdown in home building in response to high interest rates and two years of record wildfire seasons.

Between 2001 and 2023 the number of direct jobs in the sector dropped by about 45 per cent to 44,000.

While that’s a relatively small number of jobs in a province with a total workforce of more than two million people, several speakers noted that in many rural communities forestry is the only industry and many other jobs depend on the sector’s health.

It was a point made in the report as well. “It is especially important in dozens of regional and remote communities that rely on forestry as their economic foundation,” it said. “Without forestry, some of those communities will ultimately disappear. The social, health and fiscal costs of simply allowing forestry to wither away are unacceptable and unfair.”

Eby began his remarks by acknowledging that he represents an urban Vancouver constituency and had limited opportunities to live in rural B.C. until the COVID pandemic when his wife took a medical training position in Port McNeill on northern Vancouver Island.

While there he met people who work in the forestry industry, he said, and he recognizes it remains a backbone of the provincial economy that provides jobs that support families, in large part thanks to union efforts over decades.

The government, Eby said, has a key role bringing people together and decreasing the rhetoric in debates over logging and conservation.

“Despite a lot of the noise around environmental issues... there’s also a clear understanding that wood products are part of our low-carbon future,” he said, noting that the environment and protecting old growth are important to people where he lives. “The same people who are anxious about old growth also want us to use wood instead of concrete or steel in construction to drive down the carbon footprint of buildings.”

The unions’ report called for creating a permanent provincewide forestry sector council that includes all key stakeholders, developing a plan to have a stable amount of wood available to manufacturers and maximizing the value from what’s logged.

Eby said that the province does have a strategy for the sector but needed to do a better job communicating it to workers.

He talked about some of what the government has already done, including streamlining the Forests Ministry by taking away responsibility for water management and appointing Andrew Mercier as the minister of state for sustainable forestry innovation.

Mercier, who was in the audience, is charged with finding trees to keep the industry working in the near term, Eby said. His job is to “get that fibre flowing to make sure jobs are protected and communities are protected.”

Bruce Ralston, the forests minister, spoke at the summit later Tuesday. He told The Tyee it’s good the three unions are working together and the government will study their report.

“Generally the tone is constructive and positive,” he said. “I think it’s important that we work together, and the voice of labour and the workers they represent is really an important component of how we might find better ways to do forestry in British Columbia.”

Ralston said he speaks regularly with union leaders and understands the challenges the industry faces. “I sense the urgency and that’s how I conduct myself and that’s the view of the government as well.”

Asked how the government can strike a balance as it implements the old-growth strategy and meets its conservation commitments, Ralston said forestry companies and the people who work for them want assurance that allowable annual cut levels will be predictable.

“I think people can live with a little bit lower annual cut,” he said. “What they have difficulty adjusting to is unpredictable policy changes and volatile markets. We don’t control the markets, but the policy environment, obviously we have some influence on that, and that’s what we’re endeavouring to do.”

One government policy Eby mentioned in his remarks was the creation of a process to connect companies that have licences to log on public lands and value-added manufacturers that struggle to find wood to buy.

It’s best if the parties work out a solution together, he said, but “if they don’t deliver the results that we’re looking for, then we will step in more aggressively.”

There was an added $60 million in the February budget, on top of an earlier $50 million, to move wood waste rotting in slash piles to mills where it can be used, he said. There’s also a $180-million jobs fund available for projects that keep people working.

Eby also talked about the importance of community-level planning. He said he has learned repeatedly that any solutions that are forced from the top down won’t be successful and it is important to involve people who are on the frontlines.

There are 12 tables working across the province that bring together communities, First Nations and labour to make land-use plans, he said. Having those conversations around the table at the local community level is working and will be positive for both increasing understanding and what he and other speakers referred to as “the fibre supply.”

“This is where the certainty is going to come from, that community-level planning,” he said, adding that local communities know what’s best for them and people with different perspectives need to live together and be accountable to each other for their decisions.

“They have to go to the same grocery store together,” he said. “You’ve got to look the person in the eye and say, ‘Yeah, I’m making a decision that’s going to mean you and your family can’t have a job here.’ Or I’m going to look you in the eye and say, ‘No, I want to log the watershed that our whole town depends on.’”

There was strong applause for Eby when he was done and about half the audience stood in ovation while the other half remained seated.

Scott Lunny, director for the United Steelworkers District 3, which covers Western Canada, said he was pleased with what the summit heard from Eby.

“I’m really optimistic that the premier has heard the frustration and the concerns of forest workers and forest communities,” Lunny said.

“We hear about conserving and preserving land and biodiversity and things like that, which is great, we all support that kind of stuff, but we need to preserve the forestry workforce and the forestry communities” that depend on the industry, he said. “We need to not let them fall and collapse in the meantime while we’re striving for a different kind of industry in the long term.”

The interests of workers in the industry are different in significant ways from the interests of the companies they work for, Lunny said.

The companies have business goals and want to maximize profit, he said. “Our goal here is to really get the workers’ voice out front and centre and into the debate,” he said. “We also want sustainable communities. Our folks live in the community, they have families, they have kids.... We want jobs in the community to come from trees in the community.”

Everyone knows changes are coming to the industry, but getting through the short-term crisis to the long-term solutions will take leadership from the government, said Lunny.

“It’s just a matter of how do we get there and what happens in the meantime, how much damage is done to workers and communities.”  [Tyee]

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