Tears, handshakes and uncertainty as B.C. mill workers walk off the job for the last time

After finishing her final shift at the Tolko sawmill in Quesnel, B.C., this week, Jenn Johnson went out for dinner with her now-former colleagues.

With the sawmill permanently closed, Johnson and roughly150 other people in Quesnel are out of work, part of an estimated 3,900 workers across the province affected by a summer of closures and curtailments in B.C.’s forest industry.

Tolko, along with other forestry companies, blames the shutdowns on a combination of poor market conditions and log shortages due to the mountain pine beetle and wildfires.

All of which leaves people like Johnson wondering what comes next.

‘I should be going to work’

“I feel like I should be going to work tonight,” Johnson told CBC Thursday — her first day without a job.

Johnson said her final shift was “surreal,” full of handshakes, words of support and a few tears.

She and her husband have abandoned plans to buy a new home, instead moving in with her in-laws while plotting their next move.

Jenn Johnson hopes to get a job outside the forest industry after being laid off from Tolko Industries in Quesnel, B.C. (Jenn Johnson)

She plans to take advantage of funding from WorkBC, a provincial agency aimed at helping people find jobs, to gain new skills outside the forest industry.

But for now, Johnson said, she’ll be relying on her severance cheque to keep her going.

“It’s going to be a little rough,” she said. 

Calls for help

B.C. Forests Minister Doug Donaldson is calling on Justin Trudeau to pay more attention to job losses in the province’s mill towns, citing the prime minister’s purported commitment to preserving jobs.

“There was an inordinate amount of attention paid to the potential job loss at a large corporation like SNC-Lavalin,” Donaldson said this week

Mackenzie’s pulp mill is still operating. Mackenzie’s mayor fears hundreds more people could be out of work if the pulp mill shuts down because it can’t access the sawdust it needs from local mills. (MacKenzie Pulp Mill Corporation)

“I think with the number of workers affected … we need the same kind of attention for an important industry in B.C.”

In Mackenzie, B.C., with three mills shut down for the summer, more than 10 per cent of the workforce is unemployed, and the community of Fort St. James has declared a state of financial crisis, as the result of job losses there.

More than 20 mayors from B.C’s Interior sent a public letter to the federal government asking for guidance on accessing financial support and a group of Conservative MPs in B.C. also released a public letter, calling the situation an “emergency for B.C. rural communities.”

Donaldson said he’s asked for federal bridge funding to help facilitate early retirements, as well as changes that will make it easier for laid-off employees to access EI and retraining assistance to help support those affected.

But though federal Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi said he’s aware of the frustration in B.C., Sanjay Jeram, a political science lecturer at Simon Fraser University, said with an election just months away, new money for B.C. forest towns is unlikely.

‘Unfortunately I don’t have that crystal ball’

Meanwhile, union leaders are doing what they can to help, said United Steelworkers Local 1-2017 president Brian O’Rourke.

But he said while some employees may be able to get work in other parts of the industry, he expects many more will have to leave forestry altogether.

“The footprint of the forest industry is going to look a whole lot different,” he said. “Hopefully, it can maintain some steady employment … unfortunately I don’t have that crystal ball.”

With files from Nicole Oud and Pamela McCall for CBC Daybreak North.

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