Norm MacDonald wonders where the plan is in the wake of Canfor and West Fraser's announcement that they are swapping large tracts of harvesting rights and closing smaller milld in order to keep a major mill each working in the towns of Houston and Quesnel.
The NDP forestry critic and the co-chair of the recent legislative committee analyzing the Central Interior's timber supply said the mountain pine beetle effects were clear, to an extent, but he is underwhelmed by the social safety net being offered to the two towns facing 400-plus job loses.
"We saw with Burns Lake [the fatal explosion of Babine Forest Products sawmill] the government scramble with an ad-hoc response," he said. "We want to see government response formalized so when a major employer goes down there is a clear action plan. For Quesnel and Houston this is going to have a major impact, regardless of all attempts to put a pretty face on it."
The MLA for both Houston and Burns Lake, John Rustad, MacDonald's co-chair on the timber supply committee, said there were significant differences between the two situations. Babine was a sudden, mysterious and catastrophic event whereas the mill closures are being handled with months of prior notice and labour transition the only fallout.
"No one wants to see mills closed. The impact this will bring in on the two communities is obviously very significant," he said. "My take on what I have read is, pretty much the same amount of wood that would have been harvested will still be harvested, so I don't anticipate much impact on the harvesting side. The impact is on the production side. I am hoping that most of those jobs will result in placement within their current companies or with their competitor companies. There is certainly a demand for workers, but my main concern is that it is not necessarily going to be in the immediate area and that might put stress on families and communities."
Coralee Oakes, the MLA for Quesnel, said a plan has been in place at the civic level since 2008 after the closure of the Northstar Lumber mill owned by West Fraser. That plan is already being implemented, she said.
"We have a labour market partnership team and it has proven very successful," said Oakes who was a Quesnel city councillor in 2008. "When we lost Northstar in 2008 and you look at the next census, the Quesnel population actually went up. The stakeholders got together and worked out a plan for those people. We are doing it again. Some of the early meetings have already happened. We aren't just looking at finding new work for our millworkers, we are looking at keeping them in our own town or at least the region, in jobs with similar pay."
Industry officials from across the Cariboo will be called to the table, as well as the post-secondary and school district representatives. Focus will be put on transfer opportunities and what training might be necessary to access alternative jobs. Bridging programs might also be needed to tide over transition time periods.
Oakes said a small, local group will be getting together on Monday to start the process and about 40 people from around the province will meet on Wednesday to expand the discussion.
"Also, Minister [of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training and Labour Shirley] Bond will be leading a cross-ministerial team that will be on the ground in Quesnel and Houston both, next week," Oakes said. "The community adjustment team that is coming in is working based on lessons learned and plans developed from the incident in Burns Lake and the economic crisis that happened with Mackenzie. Those experiences were very informative and we have their combined best practices working for these new situations."