Eby takes forestry heat in stride, says community-level planning is solution

Written By Rob Shaw

“When these corporations get shut down, they get to keep the logs and sell them – that needs to stop.”

–Brian O’Rourke

Brian O’Rourke didn’t hold back when he was given a microphone and a chance to educate the premier of British Columbia on the harsh realities of the provincial forest industry. A forty-year veteran of the sector, around Prince George, he’s watched numerous mills shut down and hundreds of colleagues lose their jobs. 

Crowded into a tiny hotel meeting room in Victoria, at a union event with the premier this week, O’Rourke gave David Eby a history lesson on forest companies that “swap log tenures like two kids in school swapping hockey cards” and hoard logs — a public resource — even when they curtail mills and lay off employees.

“The other thing that really burns by ass,” he told the premier, “is when these corporations get shut down they get to keep the logs and sell them. That needs to stop.”

When mills shut down, timber companies should not be allowed to keep their forestry tenure and continue logging with no benefit to the community, Brian O’Rourke, president of the USW Local 1-2017, tells the premier this week. [Photo Brett Barden]

The room of more than 100 forestry union officials gave O’Rourke a boisterous round of applause for the point, but the logger, who is president of the United Steelworkers Local 1-2017, wasn’t done yet.

“That is not their logs,” he said, his voice rising steadily to stump-speech volume.

“That is not their logs.”

Brian O’Rourke

“They had to use those logs to provide jobs for members and communities in the rural areas. And when those mills shut down, that goes back to our pockets or to the government so that we can give it to somebody else to keep mills viable and running in this province.”

More applause from the crowd.

The premier, though, took the criticism in stride.

“I agree 100 per cent with your core point,” he said, outlining how he wants to better use new laws to prohibit the swapping of tenures, and let government buy back forest tenures so the wood can be better used.

“We’ve actually put those tools in place,” said Eby. “We just need to close the loop.”

Rare gathering together of forestry unions

Eby was speaking to a rare gathering of the forest sector’s three main unions — Unifor, the United Steelworkers and the PPWC (formerly the pulp and paper workers). Most of the time, they are competing for members, or guarding their turf. They’ve never held a tripartite public forum before. Nonetheless, they’ve co-authored a report for improvements in the sector titled “A Better Future for B.C. Forestry.”

“It’s completely unprecedented,” said Gavin McGarrigle, Unifor’s western regional director.

“We’ve never seen forestry workers and their unions come together as one group to demand action. And it’s amazing to see forest worker leaders from across the province coming forward to send a strong message that there’s a crisis.”

“We’ve never seen forestry workers and their unions come together as one group to demand action.”

Gavin McGarrigle

Eby, however, showed up prepared. 

He not only had read the 50-page union report, he cited specific sections by memory, repeatedly, on the fly, in response to questions from union members. 

“I’m 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.

“I’ll say it stings a little bit, to hear the perspective of your report, in your experience, that we’ve not adequately included you as people from the frontlines with solutions to this crisis that the industry faces

“It stings a little bit, to hear the perspective of your report.”

David Eby

“So my commitment to you here today is we’re going to fix that. We’re gonna make sure that we address the issues you’ve identified, around the tables where you’re sitting, to make sure that your voice is heard and then it turns into real change for your members on the ground.”

Industry has lost billions in output and revenue losses

Forest workers, though, have heard that before.

Successive BC Liberal and NDP governments promised help, only to watch softwood lumber production drop in half in the last decade, and more than 9,000 jobs disappear in the last five years alone. Thirteen mills have announced closures in the last year.

Although there’s still 44,000 people working in harvesting, hauling and processing B.C. wood, the industry has lost $5 billion in output, and $1 billion in tax revenue, since 2018, according to the report.

In addition to a permanent forestry sector council, the three unions want a stable and sustainable plan for fibre supply, a strategy to maximize value-added products from available fibre, and improvements to aid programs for laid-off workers.

Eby said he’s supportive of all the ideas, including incentives to bring out more wood waste from the bush after harvesting, provincial cash to help mills transition to more value-added manufacturing lines, and better coordination with industry players.

“We are working to ensure that fibre is being released as quickly as possible.”

David Eby

“For the immediate term, the report and government, we are completely in line,” he said.

“The immediate term, the issue is fibre supply. For Prince George, an area where the issue, I would say, is particularly acute, where BC Timber Sales has not put up a sale for way too long, we are working to ensure that fibre is being released as quickly as possible,” he said.

“It’s taken way too long.”

Slumping lumber prices, fibre uncertainty plague forestry sector

Eby announced an interim agreement with the Carrier Sekani First Nations to open up 460,000 cubic metres of timber in the Prince George area in January and said, “I hope to have some news to share about that soon.”

B.C.’s forest industry remains hard-hit by slumping U.S. lumber prices, and uncertainty over fibre supply — in part due to NDP policies on old growth protection and reconciliation agreements — that critics say is causing companies to invest outside of British Columbia. 

“I hope that what we get out of this right now is that we need fibre right now and I hope he gets that message loud and clear — because companies don’t want to invest if they don’t have that certainty,” Geoff Dawe, national first vice-president of PPWC.

“We need fibre right now and I hope he gets that message loud and clear.”

Geoff Dawe

“We need that certainty of having available, economical fibre to preserve jobs right now.”

Union leaders, on the whole, seemed impressed by Eby’s showing. Although he’s an urban lawyer from Vancouver, the premier started his speech admitting he’s faced a steep learning curve coming to understand forestry, and made some mistakes in learning the sector. Nonetheless, he came off as extremely well-briefed and engaged on the file.

Geoff Dawe, Gavin McGarrigle, Premier David Eby, Scott Lunny at the forestry union summit this week. [Photo Gavin McGarrigle X post]

“I was impressed with the premier showing up, taking questions, having already read the paper and heard some of our concerns,” said Scott Lunny, Western Canada director for the United Steelworkers.

“I was impressed with the premier showing up, taking questions, having already read the paper.”

Scott Lunny

“I think acknowledging there’s a crisis in the industry, that’s huge, and acknowledging that there are short-term measures that need to be front and centre while we’re building a longer term strategy for the sector.”

Fraser Lake mill closure ‘a wake-up call,’ says premier

Back to O’Rourke, he used his time at the microphone to remind Eby about West Fraser’s decision to close its Fraser Lake mill in January, throwing 175 people out of work.

“It’s basically a one-town economy,” he said. “They went from three shifts, to one shift and now of course it’s going to be closed.”

Eby called the Fraser Lake closure “a bit of a wake-up call” for government.

Brian Butler, Steelworkers president for local 1-1937, along Vancouver Island the coast, said the NDP’s priorities, at some point, need to return to actually designating areas for logging, not just for protection.

“You know, there’s a lot of movement in this province around old growth and preservation, but what we need to see is movement from government to protect the working forest,” said Butler.

“Where are we going to see you ultimately say this is your working forest, there’s no question about this, this is what you have to harvest to be able to create that certainty.”

“What we need to see is movement from government to protect the working forest.”

Brian Butler

Eby pointed to the 12 landscape planning tables in the province, where government, industry, workers and First Nations are trying to draft protected and harvestable local areas, to provide long-term certainty on where logging can occur.

“This is where certainty is going to come from, is that community-level planning,” said Eby. “It’s preferable to the model that we use traditionally, which is someone in an office in Victoria taking out a map and drawing things out.”

“We all have to be pushing in the same direction on a shared industrial strategy.”

David Eby

But the premier admitted, perhaps, not everyone in the forestry sector understands what government is trying to do with that approach.

“I feel responsible for ensuring that everybody understands that we work together, so that you understand, and clearly that’s not the case, what the strategy is,” he said.

“Because if you don’t know what the strategy is, and only government knows what the strategy is, then we’re not going to be successful. 

“We all have to be pushing in the same direction on a shared industrial strategy for the sector. And that will assist us in the short term and long term as well.”

With the adoption of the union report, and the rare public meeting of union leaders, perhaps, B.C. is one step closer to that outcome.