Premier Christy Clark has promised logging contractors on B.C.’s coast some help with their most intractable problem, how to get consistent work at high enough rates from major forest companies to keep their firms viable.
Contractors couch the discussion as “contractor sustainability,” and Clark, in a luncheon speech Thursday, said Forest Minister Steve Thomson has already begun a sweeping review of the sector’s problems.
The Truck Loggers Association, the sector’s key industry body, argues that a couple of dozen contractors have been squeezed out of the business in recent years, either folding or going bankrupt, so Clark’s promise was welcome.
“It’s time that we make sure the relationships that are so profoundly important to making sure the forest industry works are strengthened,” Clark said in her remarks to the B.C. TLA convention, which earned a standing ovation from the crowd.
David Elstone, the TLA’s executive director, characterized Clark’s promise as “the biggest announcement for these businesses in over a decade.”
The association represents more than 450 independent logging contractors, small sawmills and log brokers that employ some 8,000 workers in communities throughout the coast, which do almost all of the timber harvesting for the coast’s major forest companies.
However, Elstone said those contractors haven’t had a chance to repair their finances during the overall recovery of the forest industry following the 2009 downturn, while many forest-products-producers have.
And they don’t want to be in a more precarious position now as the U.S. Department of Commerce has reignited the softwood lumber dispute by launching a new investigation into allegations that Canada is dumping lumber into its market, which carries the threat of steep duties on B.C.’s lumber exports.
“My members don’t have the ability to absorb and tighten their belts if the pain (from duties) has to be passed down the supply chain instead of the customers,” Elstone said.
Thomson is expected to flesh out details of the government review in his speech to the TLA convention scheduled for Friday, but Clark said its first task will be to evaluate the economics of logging contracting and the overall forestry supply chain, which will be completed before March 31.
Then Thomson will appoint an independent facilitator to make recommendations on what needs to be fixed in the system.
Clark had another pre-election gift for the truck loggers, the promise of a training tax credit to help the industry replace an expected wave of retirements in the sector, in remarks that were a full-on stump speech for the election 110 days away.
The premier vowed she would “be a fighter” on behalf of the forest industry when it comes to securing a fair trade deal out of the U.S., arguing that Americans need B.C. lumber if they expect to bolster their own economy.
And she accused NDP opposition leader John Horgan of doing little to address the concerns of forest communities having only raised the softwood lumber issue itself once in the legislature.
NDP trade critic Bruce Ralston said the accusation was “a bit rich” considering that Clark didn’t hold a fall sitting of the legislature and argued that besides making strong statements, she hasn’t followed up with actions.
And he questioned the government’s commitment to the industry when it is only choosing to address the many concerns three months before an election.
“That says volumes about the premier’s sincerity and commitment to the issue,” he said.