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  • Industry is the real culprit behind mill closures

    James Steidle

    Today’s mill closures trace back directly to 2003 and 20 years of bad forest legislation.



    Canfor recently announced the permanent closure of the Polar Sawmill at Bear Lake (above) north of Prince George and the loss of 180 jobs, along with indefinite curtailment of one line of the Northwood Pulp Mill in Prince George.


    IF THERE IS ONE THING we can trace these mill closures back to, it’s the disastrous BC Liberal/BC United forestry policies of the early 2000s.

    And if there is one way to describe these changes, it was sweeping deregulation.

    This not only included lesser-known things like how we made it easier to directly spray small wetlands with herbicides. It also included things like the elimination of appurtenancy.

    Appurtenancy was the name we had for the old mantra: “jobs for logs”. Appurtenancy meant the logs in a particular timber supply area had to milled by the local sawmill. If you closed the mill, well you couldn’t log the wood. It was part of the social contract.

    Most of the sawmills are now scrap iron, having been sold out from under us. But those rusting remnants were the only payment we ever got for handing out the timber tenures.

    None of this seemed to matter back in 2003. The BC Liberals inherited a forestry regime where the hated Forest Practices Code had started to require responsible forestry. The industry was livid. These environmental regulations were blamed for a series mill shut downs and around 13,000 job losses under the last years of the 1990’s NDP.

    The response, naturally, was to massively deregulate the industry. We let industry write the rules. We were given “professional reliance”. The fox would guard the henhouse. And the supermills were free to consolidate.

    Somehow, by eliminating the requirement of local logs for local jobs, we’d get more jobs.

    During second reading of the Forest Revitalization Amendment Act back on May 6, 2003, known as Bill 29 at the time, Nanaimo BC Liberal MLA Mike Hunter articulated this delusion:

    “It seems to me that the best social contract we can ask for and the best job protection we can find is through a profitable industry—an industry that makes profits that we’ll plow back into our communities.”

    Funny how that is working out.

    Since the elimination of appurtenancy, the record profits have been invested in offshore forestry empires while our communities lost another 30,000 odd jobs. We lost most of our forests. We lost many more mills. And now we face another round of catastrophic mill closures here in Prince George.

    The consequences are increasingly hard to deny. The revolutionary changes to forestry ushered in under the BC Liberals have been an unmitigated catastrophe for this province and our town.

    And let’s not forget local MLA’s Shirley Bond and Pat Bell were party to these changes. They voted for Bill 29. So did Kevin Falcon.

    The worst part about it is that the elimination of appurtenancy has been interpreted to mean that a corporation can own timber tenures as a stand-alone asset, disconnected from any responsibility to the public. It apparently now means that a company like Canfor can shut down our mills then sell off the timber rights to whoever it wants. It has been interpreted to mean we the public will have to compensate timber corporations if we ever wanted those timber rights back.

    But why should we?

    At no time did any politician or piece of legislation say that the goal was to hand over public assets to global corporate giants with nothing in return. If I was being generous, not even the BC Liberals intended that.

    The final irony in all of this is that the investor class is blaming the crisis on over-regulation. We need more of that 2003 medicine. We need to give more stuff away for free.

    The way forward won’t require deregulation. It will require a political leader who puts the public in the driver’s seat, not the metropolitan investor class.

    And good luck with finding that on your ballot this fall.

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