The District of Fort St. James held a community engagement session around forestry on August 7. Some speakers included the vice-president of Hampton Lumber, Conifex, provincial representatives, mayor of Fort St. James and chief of Nak’azdli Whut’en.
The idea of the community engagement session was to provide answers in regard to Conifex selling their sawmill and forest license to Hampton Lumber. Over 50 residents came for the community session held at the Fort St. James community centre.
Dave Salmon, vice president of human resources for Hampton was at the session and engaged residents in a compelling speech about the workings of Hampton Lumber. He addressed why Hampton wanted to take over the sawmill in the District, what they were looking to do, how they are going to do it and who the people behind their operations are.
Even though Conifex and Hampton have reached a Purchase Agreement, they have a 90-day period to close the sale agreement. Because the deal hasn’t gone through, Salmon said it is difficult for the company to provide answers in regard to specifics of the deal.
However, he said the company was inclined on re-building the sawmill in Fort St. James in a period of two-years after the sale agreement with Conifex goes through. He said the reason behind two years as the time frame, is because that is the time they required to re-build the Babine Sawmill in Burns Lake after the deadly explosion in 2012 that left two workers dead and multiple injured.
Another issue he addressed was whether the employees currently working for Conifex would get preference when they re-build the new sawmill. As the employees are in a Collective Agreement with Conifex, Salmon explained the company would only be able to give decisions in regard to the hiring process once the sale goes through.
Another hindrance in the sale for forestry companies is Bill 22, he said. In May this year, B.C. legislators passed this bill which essentially creates a new obligation for companies to demonstrate public interest before they sell or transfer their licenses to harvest timber. Salmon said this bill is new for forestry companies and could create challenges through the way.
In terms of why they want to start operations in the District, Salmon said the company believes that there is a lot of future for the product that is produced with the wood in the area. He said Spruce Pine Fibre is great for building houses in Texas and there is a huge demand for the product in the United States.
Salmon said with their Babine and Decker Lake mills in Burns Lake, it would provide the perfect synergy between them and the new one they will re-build in the area.
Meanwhile, United Steelworkers — Local 1-2017 representative Francois Hamel spoke to the residents during the session. Considering this is the third time the sawmill has had a change in hand, Hamel said he believed there are more people sitting at the table this time round and discussing the sale than there were in the previous sales.
The issues that concern employees, he said are re-paying loans, mortgages and finding jobs amongst others.
Mayor Bev Playfair said on the whole she felt the community engagement session had answered a lot of questions residents had.
“Our main concern right now is the employees and contractors that are affected by this sale’s disposal. No matter what we can do to put them to work, we will advocate for that. And that is why we are looking for the provincial and federal government to step up to the plate and find us some funding to create some job opportunity, so we can get these people to work,” she said.
A rumor that has been circulating around town which has had different inputs from different individuals is the aspect of timber leaving the community. Several residents including Brenda Gouglas, former municipal councillor believe that a lot of logs have been leaving the area even after the sale.
Sandy Ferguson, vice president corporate affairs and business development for Conifex said the company is not doing any fresh logging in the Fort St. James area and they are not selling any standing lumber.
“When Conifex made the announcement of the sale of the sawmill facility and forest tenure to Hampton Lumber, our sawmill began its indefinite curtailment and the site began to wind down to prepare it for the new owners.”
“As a result, we had available in-progress wood that did move outside the community as part of trades to other parties for logs we use in our Mackenzie sawmill. Some of that available wood was also sold locally in Fort St. James. It is important to utilize the wood quickly to ensure it holds its value for manufacturing,” Ferguson told Vanderhoof Omineca Express.
Lastly, WorkSafeBC, Community Futures and RBC were at the community engagement session as well, offering programs that could help workers at this time.