'Doom and gloom' for sidelined Mackenzie forestry workers despite aid announcement

An infusion of $875,000 from the provincial government this week is expected to provide direct aid and transition support to workers and families affected by sawmill shutdowns in 11 Interior B.C. communities. 

But one local union president says while the aid will help with food banks and counselling, the longer-term prospects for laid-off workers remain uncertain. 

Peter Merkley, the president of Local 18 of the Public and Private Workers of Canada, was among 200 workers laid off when the Canfor sawmill in Mackenzie closed indefinitely, along with two other mills in town. 

"It's definitely kind of doom and gloom," Merkley told Early Edition guest host Margaret Gallagher. 

Chris Corday/CBC

Despite that, he said, residents retain hope other mills in the area can get enough raw material to keep operating. 

Merkley is among the laid-off workers who have taken advantage of the B.C. government's $12 million in funding for retraining. It is part of a $69 million transition package announced in September that also includes a $40 million early retirement bridging program for older workers.

"It's not a whole lot, I think, when you look at the grand scheme of things," Merkel said.

Few training options were offered locally, he said, so he and other laid-off workers had to pay for travel for upgrading programs, then travel again to look for new employment options. 

"Just doing this upgrading and programs have still cost me $500, $600 out of pocket, easily," he said. "And when you're on [Employment Insurance], I mean, that's a lot of money for us right now."

Retraining urged

Nonetheless, Merkley is encouraging colleagues to take other jobs or retraining if they are eligible, because it's not certain whether the mill will ever reopen at its previous staffing levels, if at all. 

"I'm encouraging people to do what they've got to do to support their families, because the last time this happened in Mackenzie the mill was down for a long time," he said. "And even when they started up they started up with one shift."

The town of Mackenzie, with a population of about 3,200, is eligible for $75,000 in provincial support because of its indefinite mill closure.

Communities with permanent mill closures are eligible for $100,000 in assistance and those with permanent shift reductions can receive $50,000. 

With files from Deborah Wilson and The Early Edition