Sunday, February 08, 2009

Harper Budget: A Profound Lack of Vision for Forestry

Federal Budget - A Profound Lack of Vision for Forestry

By Peter Ewart & Dawn Hemingway
Sunday, February 08, 2009 03:45 AM

Federal budget – A profound lack of vision for forestry
By Peter Ewart & Dawn Hemingway

It is ground zero for forestry in this country. Tens of thousands of jobs have been lost, over 200 mills have been closed, and many companies are teetering on the edge of shut down or bankruptcy.

This crisis began long before the current economic downturn, and, as a result, many workers and forestry-based communities in Canada have been facing this grim situation for two or three years, or even longer.

They have made repeated calls for assistance over these last several years, but little has been forthcoming from the Federal Government. Now the Government says that, with its new budget, it is ready to take “action.”

Why has it taken so long to respond while thousands of laid-off workers and dozens of forestry communities have been “twisting in the wind” over these last several years? Only Stephen Harper and his government know the answer to that one.

In any case, the Federal Government has now put forth its much anticipated budget. So what is the verdict on it?

The first thing that we would say is that there is a profound lack of vision for the forest industry as a whole. This is reflected in the fact that the amount designated for “forestry” is a paltry $170 million (allocated mainly for research into new products and marketing) out of a total budget, according to the Ministry of Finance, of over $50 billion . That amounts to less than ½ of 1%. Looking at the budget document itself, the section devoted to forestry is barely ½ page in length, contained within a 360 page document. Is there a message being sent here?

In any case, if the Government had a genuine vision for forestry, it would start with the workers, contractors and truck drivers who every day work hard, in often difficult and dangerous conditions, shipping, planting, harvesting, and processing forest products.

These workers who, through their labour over many decades, are the source of a substantial part of the wealth of the country, have been decimated by massive, unprecedented layoffs. These layoffs have caused great hardship for many workers and their families, resulting in loss of homes, property, savings, and well-being.

Various economic analysts are suggesting that this crisis could go on for several years or more. Yet, the Government has only increased the maximum Employment Insurance coverage for these laid-off workers by five weeks to 50 weeks (for the Workshare Program, the weeks have been extended by 14 weeks to 52). Furthermore, the Government has not removed the two week waiting period nor has it raised benefits even by one penny, even though it is well aware that being laid off is a time of great economic dislocation and need for workers and their families.

For forestry based communities, the lack of vision is just as apparent. Several years ago, the Federal Government promised $1 billion over ten years to help communities cope with the devastating effects of the massive pine beetle infestation in the Interior and North of British Columbia.

But, poof! Now you see it, now you don’t. As Gord Hoekstra notes in the PG Citizen (Jan. 28), the Federal Government has indicated in its new budget that the pine beetle funding “will be put on hold for the next two years” and folded into a $1 billion “Community Adjustment Fund” which will be open to all communities across the country. So it appears that, contrary to what Conservative MPs are saying, communities in Northern BC affected by the pine beetle will get little or no new benefit from this Community Adjustment Fund, just repackaged old funding.

The fact that the Federal Government can arbitrarily and so easily suspend an entire ten year, $1 billion forestry funding program that is already in place reveals that it had no vision in the first place as to where forestry communities and the industry itself should go.

A further problem with the “new” funding to communities is that a lot of it requires that municipalities and provincial governments also put up funding for projects. How are communities like Mackenzie, Fort St. James, Kapuskasing and Grand Falls that are already reeling from several years of mill closures supposed to raise substantial amounts of money? Indeed, it appears that the Federal Government is not only planning to go into massive debt over five years ($84 billion), it wants to drag municipalities and provinces down with it. No wonder a number of mayors across the country are worried.

We have entered volatile even tumultuous times, when the livelihood of entire communities and future of entire industries could be at stake. The one lesson that comes out of this Federal Government budget debacle, is that forestry workers and forestry-based communities need to develop their own vision for the years ahead and fight for it. There is no other way forward.

Peter Ewart is a writer and college instructor who can be contacted at: Dawn Hemingway is a writer and university professor who can be contacted at: . They are both based in Prince George, BC.

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