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Minister seeks more federal help for ailing forest sector

B.C. Forests Minister Doug Donaldson is seeking more help from the federal government for the province's struggling forests sector.

B.C. Forests Minister Doug Donaldson is seeking more help from the federal government for the province's struggling forests sector.

While attending a meeting in Saskatchewan this week of federal, provincial and territorial forests ministers, Donaldson delivered a letter to federal Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi outlining a five-point plan for further collaboration between the two levels of government.

The proposals include:

- Enhancing and extending the Softwood Lumber Assistance Program to address the urgent needs of mill workers, independent contractors and affected communities;

- Developing a bridging program to allow older workers to take early retirements. It would apply to both those put out of work by a mill closure and those whose job could be filled by someone from another mill.

- Establishing a centrally-operated "worker transition coordination office" to oversee support services and coordinate placement opportunities;

- Fine tuning Employment Insurance eligibility for rural, forestry-dependent workers;

- Expanding and extending support for converting mills from producing conventional products to engineered wood, pulp, bioenergy and composite products.

In an interview, Donaldson said the proposals amount to a mixture of immediate and longer-term "targeted interventions" reached after "being in communities, on the ground, talking to union workers, talking to contractors, talking to communities and First Nations."

Donaldson declined to say how much in a dollar amount he is seeking from Ottawa.

"I'm not going to negotiate publicly at this point," he said. "Our deputy ministers have those figures in mind and will be discussing that over the next few days."

That the proposals have been raised just as the writ is to be dropped for the federal election is a benefit, Donaldson said, in the sense that it raises the urgency to respond.

"From a political sense, it could be something that the federal government might be interested in announcing as a lead up to an election," he said.

Heather Sapergia and Tracy Calogheros, respectively the NDP and Liberal candidates in Cariboo-Prince George, both expect the ailing forest sector to be an issue in the coming federal election. It would make sense for the federal Liberals to roll out some help before the writ is dropped, Calogheros said.

Cariboo-Prince George Conservative MP Todd Doherty did not return a request for comment on Wednesday.

Opposition forests critic John Rustad said Donaldson could have taken the step much sooner.

"Has he been asleep all this spring and summer? I mean, this has been going on now for many months," Rustad said.

The MLA for Nechako-Lakes disputed the governing New Democrats' claim that the previous B.C. Liberal government had no plan for dealing with the looming crisis. He said strategies had been drafted to diversify the economy through mining, liquified natural gas and petrochemicals while also working with local governments through the so-called beetle action coalitions.

And he said community engagement process was ready to go right after the election.

"For whatever reason, the NDP didn't follow up with that," he said. "They decided to just let it sit, I don't know why."

He noted the government ran a $1.5-billion surplus, yet has not put any additional money into helping the forest sectors.

The ministers met in Elk Ridge, known as the "heart of Saskatchewan's boreal forest."

Donaldson said the "unjust and unfair" tariffs on softwood lumber was among the topics discussed and noted the on-average 20-per-cent levy is delivering an even bigger impact due to rising log costs and declining prices for dimensional lumber.

He said data is being collected through the B.C. Timber Sales program to support Canada's appeal of the tariffs. Using the tack has been successful in the past, Donaldson said, "and that's why to fiddle with stumpage rates, which some are suggesting to do at this point, (would) definitely hurt our cause in these appeals and is something that would be seen with great suspicion by the U.S. lobbyists and lawyers."

But Rustad said B.C. could take a page from Alberta's playbook and calculate stumpage on a monthly rather than quartely basis.

"It's not a matter of subsidizing or dropping stumpage, it's just a matter of bringing stumpage in line with more realistic, current-market conditions," he said.

- with files from Yorkton This Week

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