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MLA calls for strong response following Houston mill closure announcement

Support needed for workers, local government, says John Rustad
Canfor announced Jan. 25 it is closing its Houston sawmill but has a plan, if approved, to build a new one. (Black Press file photo)

The provincial government and Canfor both have a responsibility to the workers that’ll be out of a job when the company closes its Houston sawmill in April, says the Independent MLA for Nechako Lakes.

Speaking the day after Canfor announced what it calls a temporary closure of the mill pending a decision to build a new one, John Rustad said he was “incredibly angry” that nearly 350 Canfor workers will be affected along with hundreds more in the harvesting and hauling sector.

He doesn’t question the need for a new mill more suited to process the size of trees now being logged but says he would have thought Canfor would have kept the current mill working while the replacement was underway.

“This really takes me by surprise,” Rustad said of the Jan. 25 closure announcement that was not accompanied by an immediate commitment for a rebuild.

Canfor says its board of directors won’t be in a position to decide on a rebuild until the end of June.

“If it is two years, and we don’t know how long the closure will be, what do you suppose this will do to the workers?” Rustad asked. “They’re going to leave the community. Who’s going to hang around for two years?”

“You need three things to have a sawmill. A workforce, access to the fibre supply and the capital to run the operation.”

What needs to be in place is a program whereby Canfor tops up financial assistance provided by both the provincial and federal governments, Rustad said.

“Definitely. Canfor needs to be part of the solution here,” Rustad said in noting the company made record profits during the pandemic.

“There needs to be similar programs to the ones where EI pays two-thirds and Canfor tops that up.”

Worker support is one of three items Rustad said he’ll be fighting for on behalf of the workers and the community.

Topping his list is having the province establish the right conditions so that a rebuild decision makes economic sense.

“It’s the high cost of fibre,” said Rustad. “And the policies put in place. B.C. is the highest cost producer in North America. We have to stop this nonsense and drive down the cost.”

“It’s time for the government to get its head out of its ass.”

Rustad’s third item concerns financial support for the District of Houston which will lose a major part of its property tax revenue when the mill closes down.

“The province is going to need to alleviate the impact this will have [on the District],” he said.

Rustad also said Canfor has to be very clear about what it’ll do with the trees it has under licence that it won’t be cutting for the sawmill.

“I don’t want to see any logs leaving the community. I think the province is going to have to have some very tough conversations with Canfor,” he continued.

“There’s a social contract here. When the first forest licences were given there was the understanding they were to support local manufacturing. So we need to ask what’s going on here.”

Rustad further sees an opportunity for the Dungate Community Forest, which is owned by the District of Houston, to acquire more wood should Canfor not be using it.

“I’m a big fan of community forests,” said Rustad.

Meanwhile, Canfor says it is too early in planning a rebuild to determine how many of its 333 employees face a lay off.

”We have excellent people as part of our Houston team and want to support them. In addition to potential relocations to other Canfor operations during this transition, we will also be working closely with our union, the United Steelworkers, to fully explore creative options to keep as many people as possible working,” said Canfor official Michelle Ward.

About the Author: Rod Link

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