Monday, March 2, 2009

NDP slams government for lack of forestry aid

By Lindsay Kines, Canwest News Service
February 27, 2009

The B.C. government offered sympathy Thursday but no extra money for forest workers who lost their jobs in mill closures at Campbell River and Crofton this week.

The NDP urged government to pump more money into the Community Development Trust that helps forest workers and communities hit by changes in the forest industry. The trust was established last year with $129 million from the federal government, but the NDP says that money will quickly vanish without additional cash from the province.

"It's becoming almost impossible to track the daily mill closure announcements and the number of people who have lost their jobs from this sector," NDP forests critic Bob Simpson told the legislature.

"Yet in the budget, there is not one penny of provincial money being put into the community development trust to assist these forest workers through this very difficult transition -- not one penny."

Community Development Minister Kevin Krueger said the government "feels tremendous empathy" for the 750 workers affected by Catalyst Paper's decision to close pulp mills in Crofton and Campbell River for an indefinite period. But Krueger gave no indication of a forthcoming cash infusion for the development trust.

Simpson also pressed government to re-open part of the trust that helped older forest workers who want to retire.

The government stopped accepting applications for the trust's transition fund last August.

But Forests Minister Pat Bell said government hopes the mill shutdowns on Vancouver Island will be temporary. He said laid-off workers should take advantage of tuition assistance from the development trust, rather than leaving the industry entirely.

"These are not permanent closures at the pulp mills," Bell said. "We're hopeful that it will be a relatively short period, but in today's market, who knows? So I don't want to underestimate.

"What I would encourage employees to think about is participating in our re-training programs. Upgrading their skills means they'll get back to work that much quicker."

Krueger said more than 1,000 workers will receive tuition money under the retraining program. In addition, his ministry reports that the trust's job opportunities program has approved 65 projects and created 500 jobs in forest-dependent communities.

"People are working, and hundreds of people have jobs in the forest sector as a result of that," Krueger said.

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