With the new year charging onward, Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo MLA Peter Milobar wants to see more tangible support for workers affected by the province’s forestry crisis. He’d also like to know whether or not the BC Rural Dividend program will be reinstated to help small communities.
Since the government’s suspension of the program in 2019 and subsequent reallocation of its funds to support BC forestry workers, some small municipalities have expressed concerns about the decision and its potential effect on local economies.
“People expected there would have been more of a rollout after the announcement,” said Milobar, referencing government support promised to forestry workers.
Previously, the BC Rural Dividend program provided up to $25 million a year to help diversify the economies of communities with a population of 25,000 or less.
“That’s a fund that Barriere has accessed in the past as well as Clearwater and Sun Peaks,” said Milobar. “It’s quite an important area for them for funding.”
Milobar is two years into his position as Liberal MLA for the riding and said that he will continue to focus on helping small communities gain support for economic diversification in 2020.
However, if the BC Rural Dividend program isn’t reinstated, he isn’t sure where those communities will turn for funding.
“That’s the big problem. The reality is that there isn’t another source to go to for that same type of funding for these communities, so it’s imperative that we do see it reinstated and hopefully with a bit of catch up, given that the first quarter of this year was scrubbed completely.”
Milobar estimates that the province received approximately $35 million worth of applications for the program in 2019.
“Missing a whole year out of that cycle, we could reasonably expect $70 or $80 million worth of projects. That’s a big concern with no other place to go for that type of money.”
Last year, residents in the North Thompson Valley felt the fall-out of a struggling forest industry first-hand when Canfor’s Vavenby mill shut down.
Today, Milobar believes that locals are growing more frustrated with a lack of tangible support.
“The help for those workers and communities needs to be actually kept moving out the door in a meaningful way, not just a continued press release about how they’ve created this fund, but no one actually knows what value the fund is going to be for anyone in the real world.”
The Liberal MLA visited the communities of Barriere and Clearwater last week, where members of local government expressed concern about a lack of clarity around how affected workers can expect to see support from the province.
“The clock’s been ticking. There’s not a lot of confidence that we’ll see meaningful distribution and access for people and communities in the new year. I guess one can always be hopeful but you know, it’s time to get on with this.”
The industry has not rebounded and likely won’t turn around anytime soon, he added.
“The reality is that BC is facing these challenges [and] Alberta isn’t, Saskatchewan isn’t, Oregon isn’t, Washington State isn’t, just BC. So there’s obviously a made-in BC, governmental, regulatory, cost burden-mix in play here that needs to be addressed.”
“It’s gonna be tough,” he said. “Let’s not kid ourselves.”
Despite the challenges ahead, Milobar is hopeful that short-term opportunities like the Trans Mountain Pipeline will help forestry workers affected by recent mill closures and curtailments.
He also pointed to a missed opportunity that the local economy could easily capitalize on.
“There’s a lot of [preventative] wildfire type work that could be done,” said Milobar. “It’s been talked about for two years now but no one has seen any meaningful scope of work done in the North Thompson Valley. So here we have mills closing in May. We’re in January now and there still hasn’t been any meaningful wildfire mitigation work undertaken or planned to have those people employed at least in the short term.”
That creates problems, he said, with the region six months away from the start of fire season.
“The work needs to get started now… six months disappears in a hurry. That just ties into an overall feeling in the valley. I think that no one really knows what direction or can pinpoint where exactly any of this program is helping.”
Milobar plans to continue asking questions and pressing leaders on these issues. However, at some point, he thinks that the Premier or Forest Minister should step up.
“Take a leadership role on this file and actually do what taxpayers in this province expect them to do. Take an issue, get control of it, and actually start getting [something done].”
Milobar is also concerned about the Yellowhead Highway, which he said has been studied more than enough times to know what remedies are needed for problem areas.
“Are we ready to get back to actually having projects and budget for some work to be continued in the corridor or not? Dunn Lake Road remains a perpetual thorn in everybody’s side. Is their money finally in this year’s budget to address [those] issues?”
In the year ahead, Milobar plans to continue working closely with local governments to support their various projects and applications in the North Thompson Valley.
“Barriere is looking for a way to try to bring in more affordable housing especially for seniors, and I’m sure Clearwater would like to put [in] more as well, so we’ll try to move some of those issues along.”
Freelance Multimedia Journalist