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Hundreds rally in Mackenzie over job losses

"Our logs, our jobs, Mackenzie Matters" was the chant coming from hundreds of people as they marched from the Forest Ministry office to the front of the recreation centre Thursday afternoon to start the Mackenzie Matters rally.

"Our logs, our jobs, Mackenzie Matters" was the chant coming from hundreds of people as they marched from the Forest Ministry office to the front of the recreation centre Thursday afternoon to start the Mackenzie Matters rally.

Organizers created the rally in reaction to more than 250 workers losing their jobs when Canfor sawmill closed for an indefinite curtailment July 19, while Conifex is on a temporary curtailment and, as a result of the shutdowns, the Parallell 55 finger joint mill had to close because they couldn't get the wood they need from the other mills.

First at the podium was forests minister Doug Donaldson standing in front of about 1,000 people to say the province is looking for ways to make forestry a more sustainable industry so towns like Mackenzie can thrive, but offered no immediate support from either the provincial government or the federal government.

Philip Wysoski, a Conifex sawmill worker who is currently laid off, along with his wife Danielle Hildebrand, brought all four of their children with them on the march leading up to the rally.

"We were told we'd be called back to work Sept. 3 but we know we don't have enough logs here to go back for double shifts," Wysoski said, who grew up in Mackenzie.

Wysoski said he hoped the march and rally would draw enough attention to the plight of the logging town to ensure it's still around when his children are adults so they can have thriving careers in Mackenzie.

"The message we want to send is that we want to keep our logs in our town and not be sent off to other mills," Wysoski said.

"I've already lost two co-workers - they've already left to go work in other industries."

And he knows they won't come back.

"We need the government to open their eyes and realize what they're doing to small communities like Mackenzie," Wysoski said.

Retired Canfor sawmill worker Mike Broadbent brought his own chair to watch the rally in comfort.

He's been in Mackenzie for the last 42 years.

"I am definitely disillusioned about what's happening in Mackenzie," he said.

"The government seems happy to take our tax dollars when things are good but when we run into trouble they seem to just forget about us."

Broadbent hopes the sawmills will consider value-added products as a solution to the shutdowns so that when the logs stay in Mackenzie it won't just be making two by fours and two by sixes.

"To me that is really forward thinking," he said. "That's something we have to look into more."

Carrying an 'our logs, our jobs' sign, David Christianson, a millwright for Conifex, who was laid off four weeks ago, said he was seriously considering moving away after his 30-year stay in Mackenzie.

During the 2007-08 lumber industry crash, Christianson said it was tough but it's something that seems to go in cycles and this time he was prepared.

"I structured my finances around E.I. (employment insurance) and I could've gone out and bought quads and trailers and all that kind of stuff but I held back on that," Christianson said.

"Here I am now and I could actually survive the winter on E.I. if I needed to but, of course, being a millwright, I am looking for work elsewhere. I am considering leaving Mackenzie."

The reason he was at the rally was because his heart goes out to the town.

"We're here because it's about the people, right?" Christianson said. "And it's about this town. B.C. forests have been slaughtered by these big companies and it needs a rest - the forest needs a rest, the environment needs a rest."

Other speakers besides Donaldson included MLAs Mike Morris and Donna Barnett; Mackenzie Mayor Joan Atkinson; MP Bob Zimmer; Peter Ewert of Stand up for the North; regional district representative Pat Crook; Vince Lucas from Unifor; Fort St. John Acting Mayor Tony Zabinsky; Dawson Creek Mayor Dale Bumstead; Mike Whalley from the Resource Municipalities Coalition and Northern Coalition, United Steelworkers; Cam Shiel from the Forest Stewardship Council; District of Mackenzie Coun. Andy Barnes; Gary Fiege and Todd Smith for Public and Private Workers of Canada (PPWC).

"I just want to say it's not easy for a politician to stand in front a community talking about tough times and challenges ahead but that's what your community and others are dealing with," Donaldson said. "You don't need me to tell you that the interior forest industry is facing some challenging circumstances and you and your community are feeling the brunt of it."

He said it's easy to suggest the government can simply reduce stumpage rates as a solution.

"But one needs to only take a look at the latest trade news to see how the current U.S. government would likely respond if our government or any government in Canada lowered stumpage rates," Donaldson said. "A long and protracted trade war with our neighbours to the south is certainly not going to help B.C.'s forest industry."

The government is committed to being there for impacted workers and their community, he repeated.

"We'll do everything we can to ensure support systems are in place on behalf of forestry workers and their families and we are taking action," Donaldson said.

He said BC Timber Sales is currently in talks with Conifex, one of the Mackenzie mills under a temporary curtailment and is said it will reopen on Sept. 3.

"Restarting (the) Conifex sawmill will provide support not only for mill workers but also downstream for businesses in the area that rely on the mill residuals, including Conifex Power, Fraser Fibre and Paper Excellence," he added. "And that's why we're doing everything we can to ensure there is fibre available for the Conifex mill. BC Timber Sales is working with Conifex to address some short term fibre-access issues and we are confident that those details will be worked out by the end of this month."