Wednesday, October 16, 2002

Softwood aid too little; time for some provincial action
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Too little, too late.
Ottawa's response to the softwood crisis in B.C. shows again how badly out of touch the federal government is with the needs of people in this province.
Knock off the money destined for a special project in Quebec, and the pine beetle aid, and your left with $71 million to help workers and $110 million to help communities and the industry.
But that's not for B.C. That's for all of Canada, with the split still to be determined.
Figure $30 million for B.C. workers, maybe $40 million for communities, through existing programs. That's not nearly enough to cope with the crisis they face.
Forget all the politicians' predictions of doom, and turn to BC Stats, the highly professional B.C. government agency. BC Stats looked at the softwood dispute and projected 16,000 direct job losses in B.C., concentrated in communities that are both already in trouble and hugely dependent on the forest industry. Add at least that many in indirect job losses to get a glimpse of what lies ahead.
Even those numbers are too abstract. To really understand the extent of the problem, consider BC Stats' analysis of the impact on one area, the Alberni Regional District on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Alberni will lost 1,000 forest industry jobs and another 1,500 jobs.
That means one of every six jobs in the region will be gone. Apply the same ratio to Greater Vancouver, and the result would be more than 165,000 lost jobs.
Given those numbers, how significant is the $30 million for workers? That's about $1,800 per worker who will lose his job - enough for an extra five or six weeks of employment insurance.
Government bailouts are most often a waste of money that do little but postpone a day of reckoning. If an industry can't compete, or sell its products, handing it government cash won't change that.
And employees working in those industries are ill-served by programs that keep them hanging on, hoping for a better day that will likely never come.
But the softwood case is different. The current crisis comes because the U.S. and Canada have failed to reach a trade agreement. Both Canadian and B.C. governments continue to insist the 27-per-cent duties will be eliminated, either through negotiations or legal actions. That means aid is appropriate.
What people in forest communities also deserve is some candour, about the prospects for a resolution to the dispute and about the future of the industry.
With or without a deal, there are going to be significant job losses in the industry. Workers deserve candid information from the provincial government and companies about what the industry will look like in B.C. in five years. How many inefficient mills will close? How many operations will be mechanized? How many jobs lost?
People have to decide if it is time to move on.
Ottawa's handling of this issue has been, and continues to be, shameful. They stalled and dragged their feet on an aid package, mishandled negotiations and mocked industry and workers. A claque of federal ministers - including David Anderson - even refused to meet with Forests Minister Mike de Jong and a union-industry delegation that went to Ottawa last week.
But the B.C. government has to accept its responsibility as well. Smaller communities have been hit hardest by government cuts. They now face more job losses, and an inadequate federal response.
The province needs to step in, starting with a rural summit to set out actions that can be taken quickly to strengthen the economic base of rural of B.C. People in smaller cities and towns deserve an active, targeted response to their problems from their provincial government.

Paul Willcocks can be reached at