BC government 'very concerned and troubled' by impact of mill closures, minister says

| May 22, 2024 in Provincial

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BC’s minister of forests says he was surprised by Canfor’s recent decision to curtail operations in three communities in Northern BC.

Earlier this month, the forestry company said it was closing a sawmill in Bear Lake, shutting down a production line at the Northwood Pulp Mill in Prince George and suspending a future investment in Houston.

At the time, the company said there wasn’t enough fibre for the Northwood Pulp Mill in Prince George but it also blamed policy and regulation changes that it claimed was the cause of a decline in harvest levels.

However, Bruce Ralston told NowMedia in an exclusive interview that was not the case.

The minister of forests said he met with Canfor’s CEO and board of directors to discuss securing fibre for the Northwood Pulp Mill.

“What they wanted (were) some very strong assurances, which we gave them,” Ralston said.

”You can't guarantee something 100%, but I would say it was 99% guaranteed fibre for the long term for that mill. So, for them to say now that there was no fibre availability, that is not the message they accepted, that's not the message that they received and that’s not the message they acted upon when they went forward with the decision to reinvest.”

Ralston said he was surprised about the Northwood closure but said the Polar mill in Bear Lake had been “down” for about six months before the closure was announced.

The minister said he and the BC NDP government were “very concerned and troubled” by the impact the mill closures will have on those small northern communities.

“It's a big decision and it's a decision that has a real impact,” he said.

He added that the BC government has transitional programs in place.

On Friday, in a separate statement to NowMedia, Ralston said there were community rapid response teams in place to help people navigate skills training, short-term employment opportunities, employment assistance, retirement transition and more.

Photo Credit: Google
About 220 jobs have been impacted with the curtailment of a production line at the Northwood Pulp Mill in Prince George.

NowMedia asked if there was an opportunity to reopen discussion to reverse the closures.

Ralston said those discussions could be had and reversals could be made, but it would come down to Canfor.

“I think it's unlikely that those decisions would be reversed immediately,” he said.

“As I said, the fibre supply assurance that they wanted for the long term is one that they got and it still continues. We haven't pulled the rug away from that. It's still there. And so they could revisit that if they chose to.”

Job opportunities are available in other sectors, minister says

Earlier this month, NowMedia spoke with BC Council of Forest Industries (CoFI) president and CEO Linda Coady about the impact these closures have had on communities, not just this spring but over the past year across the province.

During that interview, Coady referred to an economic study that found 10,000 forestry jobs were lost in 2023.

NowMedia asked Ralston what the future looks like for forestry workers who have lost their jobs, including the estimated 700 jobs lost through the Canfor closures.

”It's hard to know exactly what to say, because people want to work,” Ralston said.

“They don't want a transitional program, they don't necessarily want to transition to retirement. People have told me that.”

However, he pointed to other jobs in forest management and in other sectors, including the mining sector.

“It is a question of transition to other industries,” he added.

He pointed to the Artemis gold mine west of Quesnel that is nearly ready to open, which could offer up to a couple hundred jobs.

NowMedia asked what forestry will look like in BC moving forward and what plan the NDP government had for that sector.

Ralston said a shift from “high volume” to “high value” timber products was happening.

“The basic idea is to get more value from every single tree that's harvested, which means rather than simply logging a tree and then shipping it out processed, we try to encourage industry to make more sophisticated, higher end, more expensive products and thereby earn more revenue from each tree that's harvested.”

Ralston said there are still opportunities for the forest industry, including new jobs.

“Prices will come back and we are looking at the value added sector and making those investments in manufacturing that I think will generate new jobs in the future,” he said.

Last week, Ralston said that the NDP were also working to speed up salvage logging permit approvals, funding local forestry manufacturing projects as well as partnering with organizations to bring more fibre out of the bush for pulp mills.

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