UPDATE: Restore Rural Dividend Fund, Wilkinson tells NDP

Keeping workers in communities during mill closures comes first: premier, forest minister

B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson Sept. 24 called on Premier John Horgan to restore the Rural Dividend Fund that many interior communities rely on for development in infrastructure needs.

Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development Doug Donaldson announced earlier this month a $69 million support package for workers displaced in the forestry sector downturn.

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What he left out, Wilkinson said, is that the funding came partially from the suspension of the $25 million fund.

The previous Liberal government established the fund to strengthen and diversify smaller communities. It has provided some $73 million to communities, First Nations and organizations over time.

But, Wilkinson called the transition program “half-baked.”

“This is an insult to every single community that has lost its primary forestry employment, and now the NDP is taking away their only real hope of diversification,” he said.

Donaldson, however, said the government made a decision that workers affected by temporary or permanent mill closures need help so they could remain in their communities.

“That’s why we temporarily repurposed the funding in the Regional Development Program just to fund in part the $69 million.”

But, say leaders in those communities, their development and community health are threatened by the financial hit.

Williams Lake Mayor Walt Cobb said his city was going to use funds to build a water treatment plant as the community is on a boil-water order due to manganese contamination. That plan is now on hold.

Horgan said Cobb could have called him to discuss the infrastructure project.

“We’ll certainly be working with Williams Lake on that significant investment,” Horgan said. “There are other places where that funding can be accessed.”

Lumby Mayor Kevin Acton said the program had been used to do planning and economic diversification work.

“This has been a devastating blow to our community,” Acton said.

Fort Nelson regional District Coun. Danny Soles said the funds are being used to help people with the same problems people in his region are already experiencing.

“We need things like the R&D for development purposes,” he said.

MLA for Cariboo-Chilcotin and opposition critic for rural development Donna Barnett called rural communities the backbone of the province.

“For this government to take this away from our rural communities, to take them backward, is absolutely disgraceful,” Barnett said.

She said the funding removal would alienate small communities, drive away economic growth and put towns at risk.

The Prince George-based United Steelworkers Local 1-2017 said the Liberals and mayors shouldn’t be questioning help being given to out-of-work employees in affected communities.

“These same people have been slamming government for not taking action to assist forest workers and communities,” local president

Brian O’Rourke said. “What they’re saying now makes no sense. This funding diversion will be grouped with additional funding to help dozens of affected communities and thousands of workers and families in the forest sector.”

He said thousands of workers are currently not earning an income, a similar situation to 2009 when thousands of forest workers received financial assistance to get through that economic downturn under the then-Liberal government.

“We fully support the government’s current actions to assist forest workers,” O’Rourke said. “It may mean a short term setback for local special projects, but this funding will by far reach and benefit more workers and communities through these challenging times.”

jhainsworth@glaciermedia.ca

@jhainswo

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