The provincial government should have been better prepared to deal with the fallout from impending mill closures in Quesnel and Houston, according to outgoing NDP leader Adrian Dix.
"[The government] signed off on these license changes, they signed off on the closure of these mills without having any plan in place for the communities," Dix said on Wednesday during a two-day visit to Prince George to talk about issues ranging from skills development to the future of forestry.
Last week, Canfor announced it would be shuttering its mill in Quesnel and West Fraser said it would be closing its facility in Houston. When both plants officially shut down next spring, more than 400 people will be out of work.
The companies also announced they would swap timber licenses, with West Fraser picking up Canfor's existing tenure in Quesnel and vice versa in Houston.
Both companies cited the impact of the mountain pine beetle on the timber supply in the region as reasons they will be closing their mills, but Dix said the government should have been ready with a transition plan for the communities right away.
"They should have been prepared on day one as to what their plans were to support the communities of Houston and Quesnel," he said. "It was an afterthought, and we know it was an afterthought because the next day after we criticized them they hustled out a release saying that they were going to do things."
Forest, Lands and Natural Resource Operations minister Steve Thomson said the government is committed to helping out those affected by the closures. He said services will be provided as needed, but first the government is waiting to see the result of the adjustment plans being put together by the companies to help soon-to-be displaced workers.
"The province has moved quickly with respect the announcements in both these communities," he said on a conference call to discuss his recent trade mission to Asia. "We've established inter-ministry teams that have visited and have already engaged with the communities at the beginning of this week."
Thomson said his ministry will look at any competition issues that could arise from the swap of the licenses and could also call on the federal Competition Bureau to take a look.
"The assessment is to look whether the transfer creates competition concerns or issues," he said. "At this point it's premature to say whether they do or don't."
Also on Wednesday, the City of Quesnel announced the creation of its transition team, which will include city officials as well representatives from the provincial government, Canfor and the United Steelworkers union.
Dix called on the government to take three steps to ensure the forest industry can continue to thrive in the province: name a jobs protection commissioner; make significant investments in silviculture to ensure the long-term viability of the industry and implement suggestions made in reports, like last year's all-party Special Committee on Timber Supply.
"They knew this was coming before the election, they shouldn't be - frankly - deceiving people about the circumstances of the industry and what needs to be done," Dix said.
Thomson said the government has been trying to mitigate the impact of the pine beetle, but he also acknowledged that the Quesnel and Houston mill closures may not be the only ones caused by the lack of timber supply.
"We know it's possible that there may be some other mills may need to close, but the timing and location of those will be business decisions by companies," he said.
At the same time, Thomson said the industry is showing signs of strength in light of his trade tour to Japan and China. Although the pine beetle will inflict some pain on the industry in the coming years, he noted it's not all doom and gloom in the central interior.
"If you look at Prince George for example, we've had the decision with the Lakeland mill to rebuild, so that means that people still see a strong future in the industry," he said.