Logging-truck protest convoy driven by plea for help
When log-haul contractor Levi Brownscombe left his home in Hixon, 60 kilometres south of Prince George, at 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday, there were already logging trucks on the road driving south to join the protest convoy headed to Downtown Vancouver.
More trucks joined at Quesnel, Williams Lake and other towns along Highway 97 to a rally point in Merritt, with supporters showing up at the side of the road holding ‘We Love Loggers’ signs to cheer them on.
“We’re talking four in the morning, and they got up to wave us on, and it hasn’t stopped,” Brownscombe said, “We feel supported.”
Brownscombe, 24, is an independent contractor with two trucks and is a five-year veteran of the industry. He hasn’t lost work yet, but knows many other drivers who have run out of contracting jobs during what has become a long summer of production curtailments and closures at more than 20 Interior sawmills. He is nervous enough about the future to take part in the effort.
Some 3,000 mill workers have lost work in direct employment this summer, 500 permanently and another 750 indefinitely, according to the province’s last count. Indirect job losses among contractors and logging-truck drivers haven’t been tallied.
Logging-truck drivers are hardworking people, Brownscombe said, and “it speaks volumes” when upwards of 200 of them have the time to take part in the convoy. The protest aimed to make the point that small-town B.C. is hurting, and needs help.
“We don’t want to see smalltown B.C. die,” Brownscombe said, and he wanted to join the effort because “small-town B.C. needs forestry.”
The number of trucks turned into something around 300 in a convoy that stretched 17 km, said organizer Howard McKinnon, a Merritt-based trucking contractor.
McKinnon, along with coorganizer Frank Etchart, started planning the protest six days ago and the idea spread rapidly on social media.
“Last Friday, Frank Etchart and I, over coffee, were wondering when we were going to go back to work,” said McKinnon, a secondgeneration trucking operator with 40 years in the business. “And we thought we’ve got to do something – do something to support the towns like Vavenby and 100 Mile House that have lost their mills in a permanent capacity.”
Having taken part in a 1994 convoy of trucks to Victoria in a previous downturn, McKinnon said “let’s do a rally.”
From the rallying point in Merritt, the convoy culminated in a boisterous procession of logging trucks rumbling in a circuit past the Vancouver Convention Centre, honking their horns in a staccato cacophony as they passed by.
“We’re not here for a handout,” McKinnon said. “I want to make that perfectly clear, we’re here to secure jobs in the forest industry.”
Loggers are looking for changes to B.C.’s stumpage system that he believes the province can make. Stumpage is the fee paid by forestry companies for the rights to cut timber on Crown land. Stumpage rates are calculated quarterly, using a formula that reflects market prices for lumber, which is important because of the Canada-U.S. softwood lumber dispute.
Forest Minister Doug Donaldson, in announcing a $69-million aid package for the beleaguered industry last week, said he wasn’t prepared to alter stumpage because of the risk to Canada’s position that provinces don’t subsidize the industry. McKinnon, however, argued that if stumpage rates were calculated more frequently, it might more accurately reflect the type and amount of wood being cut, potentially reducing costs for lumber companies.
Donaldson met with the convoy late Wednesday afternoon.
“I know that (mill closures) is a terrible situation for these smallbusiness people to be facing, and our government is working with them to address their short-term needs,” he said. “We talked about the $69-million assistance package… and committed to meet with the contractors again next week to discuss other ways to assist their sector.”
McKinnon said he knows of B.C. loggers who have gone to Alberta to work, because mills there “are operating flat out.”
B.C.’s Interior mills are also running into timber shortages in the aftermath of the mountain pine beetle infestation and record years for forest fires in 2017 and 2018.
McKinnon said the industry has known that timber shortages were coming, but more mills could still be operating now if the province could step in to help reduce the costs of their timber supplies.
“We don’t have the luxury of time anymore,” McKinnon said.
“We have run out of money and we refuse to just sit by silent and watch it all come crashing down.”
Brownscombe followed his father into the industry and wants to maintain his hope for a long-term future. In the short term, however,
“I’m as unsure and uneasy as anyone,” Brownscombe said.
The sawmill near Hixon that he contracts to is still running, but Brownscombe worries whether it might have to take downtime in 2020.
Brownscombe travelled to the Vancouver rally with his girlfriend, Paige Johnston, a fourth-year forest ecology student at the University of Northern B.C. Johnston crammed in extra work to finish assignments early so she could miss a few days of class because she felt it was important enough for her to take part.
“It’s a little bit nerve-racking,” Johnston said about being in a class that graduates next spring facing an industry in turmoil.
Starting last May, companies have listed five sawmills – four in the Interior – for permanent closure, cut the number of shifts at three mills and indefinitely curtailed four more.
Johnston said the summer jobs for some of her classmates ended early because of closures, “and we haven’t gotten into the workforce yet.”
She added that “a lot of people close to me” drive logging trucks or are involved in logging contracting, including her father and brother.
“I want to support people like me looking for a future, hopping for a better one,” Johnston said.
Logging truck drivers stand outside their trucks after a convoy of logging trucks arrived in downtown Vancouver on Wednesday. A convoy of approximately 200 logging trucks drove to Vancouver from Merritt as owners and drivers hoped to highlight the effects from dozens of mill closures and thousands of layoffs in British Columbia’s forest industry.