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'Look at what people are going through': Port McNeil mayor challenges government to end forestry strike

Last Updated Dec 19, 2019 at 10:41 pm PDT

It seems barely a day goes by without an announcement about layoffs, temporary closures or permanent mill shut downs in British Columbia's struggling forest industry. Softwood lumber is pictured at Tolko Industries in Heffley Creek, B.C., Sunday, April, 1, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Port McNeill Mayor Gaby Wickstrom says she and other mayors are desperate for the provincial government to help

Wickstrom says people are pulling together for the forestry workers, including city hall

3,000 Western Forest Products workers will have to celebrate Christmas not having had a paycheque in half a year

PORT HARDY (NEWS 1130) — With less than a week to go before Christmas, people affected by a lengthy forestry workers strike gathered in Port Hardy Thursday to hear how the government proposes to ease the pain of empty wallets.

Doug Donaldson, Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, announced some funding for contractors who are close to bankruptcy due to the lengthy strike. He is promising “bridge financing” to people like logging truck drivers who are about to get their equipment repossessed.

The strike affects 1,500 Western Forest Products hourly employees and another 1,500 employees working for the company’s timberland operations and contractors.

Port McNeill Mayor Gaby Wickstrom, who attended the public meeting in Port Hardy, and another private one with Donaldson in Port McNeill earlier in the day, says she and other mayors are desperate for the provincial government to intervene. Earlier this month, they penned a letter to Labour Minister Harry Bains, asking for an industrial inquiry commission, to suggest ways to end the strike.

“This is affecting the public. This is affecting people and something needs to be done,” she says. “We have one loud, very strong voice, and we are sending the message to the government to help us out.”

Wickstrom says she came away from both meetings feeling that the province was not prepared to legislate the employees back to work.

“That alone doesn’t fill me with great hope,” she says, noting that it was a powerful and heated discussion.

She describes the public gathering as emotional with the head of the Chamber of Commerce, Jessica McLaughlin, summing up to the crowd how the labour stand-off has crushed the local economy.

“The thing that she said at the end and it got a rousing applause from the audience was ‘Don’t mistake my tears for weakness. I get emotional when I’m angry and I’m pissed right now’ and everyone applauded to that.”

Meantime, Wickstrom says she sees how the strike is impacting the community.

“I volunteered at a toy drive wrapping gifts, and I get emotional every time I tell this story. I saw a woman come in with a baby in her arms and she was weeping and she kept saying she was sorry.”

She says the women who organized the toy drive ended up offering impromptu counselling.

“I challenge the chief negotiators – come to these kinds of things and look at people in the eyes and see what they are going through. Premier Horgan, come to these things and look at that young mom in the eye who doesn’t know how she’s going to provide for her family.”

But Wickstrom says people are pulling together for the forestry workers, including city hall.

“We gave up our Christmas party,” she says. “The money wasn’t very much for a small municipality, $1000, but we gave that to the North Island Gazette Hamper Fund this year because we knew there would be people in crisis.”

Earlier this week, the City of Campbell River donated $20,000 to Loonies for Loggers, which is preparing hampers for forestry families.

Western Forest Products says negotiations ended this week at an impasse and no future mediation dates have been scheduled.

The United Steelworkers Local 1-1937 says alternate shift schedules and contracting out continue to be sticking points.

The strike began July 1.