B.C.’s forest industry faces a ‘reckoning,’ premier says, amid disagreement over who to blame

By Andrew Kurjata

Premier David Eby says B.C.'s forest industry is facing a “reckoning” following last week’s announcement that 300 jobs will be lost at a Prince George pulp and paper mill.

Eby is in the city to deliver remarks at the B.C. Natural Resources Forum, an annual gathering of industry and political leaders.

While there, he’ll meet with workers and face questions from people directly impacted by the downturn in the forest industry, which has seen several hundred people affected by closures and curtailments at both pulp and sawmills in recent months.

In an interview on CBC Daybreak North Monday, Eby addressed remarks made by union representative Chuck LeBlanc blaming the cuts in part on the provincial government’s decision to temporarily defer logging in about one million hectares of forest while it comes up with an old-growth management plan.

“That had a real [bearing] on Canfor’s decision to close our mill,” said LeBlanc, a millwright and president of the Public and Private Workers of Canada Local 9.

“It’s all great and beautiful to say we’re going to protect these areas, but it comes at a real cost.”

Eby countered by saying the deferrals are just a small part of a decade of challenges which include massive forest fires and the rise of the mountain pine beetle in the late 1990s.

“This reckoning in the forest sector has been coming for a long time,” he said.

Eby said his goal is to develop a long-term plan that recognizes the challenges facing the industry and the communities that rely on the jobs it creates.

“Sustainability doesn’t mean looking to the remaining old growth and saying that that’s how we’re going to fuel the industry going forward.”

Industry accountability

Old growth protection, pine beetles and forest fires aren’t the only culprits being blamed for the industry downturn, as companies, conservation groups and politicians all share their own narratives on why jobs are disappearing.

In a written statement released last week, Canfor president Kevin Edgson kept things simple, pointing to the lack of timber available for harvest without assigning responsibility.

“In recent years, several sawmills have permanently closed in the Prince George region due to deductions in the allowable annual cut and challenges accessing cost-competitive fibre,” he said.

In his remarks, LeBlanc also said the export of raw logs is an issue as manufacturing jobs are shipped elsewhere rather than staying in-province.

Meanwhile, Michelle Connolly, director of the Prince George-based advocacy group Conservation North, said the real issue is 40 years of industry consolidation, allowing a handful of multinational corporations like Canfor to take control of most of B.C.'s timber supply, reducing jobs and community accountability in the process.

Adam Olsen of the B.C. Green Party echoed that sentiment, saying that for decades industry and the province have been focused on maximizing short-term profits rather than long-term ecosystem management and more secure, community-based jobs.

“Canfor is a company that in 2021 profited $1.5 billion,” he said as part of a panel discussion on CBC’s The Early Edition. “It’s still profitable.”

Mo Sihota, a former NDP cabinet minister and a current lobbyist whose clients include pulp and paper manufacturer Paper Excellence agreed to an extent, saying he was disappointed the company wasn’t taking a “home team discount” to try to preserve jobs in B.C. while seeking new markets for its paper products.

But he said it was too simple to blame corporate greed for the problems, pointing out demand for B.C. forest products has declined, making it difficult to operate.

Dianne Watts, a member of the B.C. Liberal Party executive and a Canfor board director said the company had, in fact, done “everything it could possibly do” to try to avoid job losses.

Instead, she argued the cost of doing business in B.C. is too high, pointing out other companies have been making cuts in recent months.

Calls for community control

In Prince George Tuesday, a rally organized by conservation and labour groups is planned for outside the Natural Resources Forum while Eby is speaking inside.

Among the demands is more community control over forests, something Eby said “resonates with me.”

Asked if he was worried taking control away from major corporations might lead to pushback, Eby acknowledged the tension between industry leaders and the province.

"You know, the big forestry companies are beholden to their shareholders getting maximum return on their investment, which may mean processing trees in other places.

“For our province, our goal is making sure that we’re getting as many jobs as possible out of the woods.”