SpruceRoots Magazine - July, 1999
What if MacMillan Bloedel Disappeared from Haida Gwaii ... and what would the future look like.
by Ian Lordon
Tree Farm Licence 39, Block 6. It stretches from Louise Island in the south, north across parts of Moresby, and up through the heart of Graham Island to Ian Lake. It encompasses roughly 242,200 hectares of land and accounts for nearly 1,250,000 cubic metres of wood harvested on the islands every year.
For close to forty years TFL 39 has graced every forestry map of Haida Gwaii. And as long as it continues to do so, MacMillan Bloedel will be responsible for more forest, and more logging, than any other tenure-holder on the islands.
But what if it didn't? What if MacMillan Bloedel were to pack up and go, taking it's machines, it's jobs, and everything else along with it. How would Haida Gwaii change? What would happen to our communities and our economy if the familiar red and white were no longer part of the island landscape?
We put that question to a handful of local women and asked them to tell us, for better or worse, is there life after MacMillan Bloedel?
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"We'd probably lose the school, the clinic, and the post office. And those sorts of things are tough to lose because once they're gone, they don't come back."
Elaine Nyeholt, who owns and operates the gas station in Port Clements, believes if MacMillan Bloedel were to bid farewell to the islands, you could say goodbye to her community as well because half the people in town would be half a step behind.
"There would be a few of us who like it here who would just stay and watch the sun go down." As a retailer in Port, it's the stuff that nightmares are made of, and Nyeholt reckons she'd be struggling just to keep her head above water.
"Economically, for me, it would be much worse. It would be very, very difficult."
And for a village built on the logging industry, she thinks no MacMillian Bloedel would mean no village.
"It would be worse than the military leaving Masset because they wouldn't leave anything behind," Nyeholt says. "We're working people here, Port Clements is based on resource extraction and there is no way of getting around that."
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But only 20 minutes down the fastest stretch of highway on the islands, teacher and regional director Elizabeth Condrotte of Tlell envisions an MB-free Haida Gwaii light years distant from the one portrayed by Nyeholt.
"The communities would have more jobs and greater stability," she predicts. "The islands would boast a standard of living that would be the envy of the planet."
Condrotte contends that the local economy isn't driven by MB, it's driven by the woods where the company works, and because of that the company isn't irreplaceable.
"I think it's an illusion that MacMillan Bloedel is what provides us with jobs and money for the local economy. It's the trees that are worth the money."
With MB gone, Condrotte figures there would be more room for island operators, more local access and control of the resource, and the benefits of logging on Haida Gwaii would land closer to home.
"No worries about the bottom line of a shareholder in New York. No worries about supplying off-island mills with wood."
In short, a world turned upside-down.
"The local view says when I have enough, you get what's leftover. MB's view is when off-island mills have enough, we get what's left over."
Even Port Clements, the company town, would survive and thrive in the aftermath of the departure. But the news could be worse if you live further south.
"Port Clements wouldn't croak- Nanaimo might." Sure, some people would go with MB, but others "if they like living here, might like to work for a local company."
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Down in Sandspit, where outgoing companies are something of a way of life, Gail Henry also runs a gas station along with a garbage disposal business. And like fellow business-woman Elaine Nyeholt, Henry doesn't feel MB's exit would be cause for celebration.
"I think it would be shame if they weren't here," she says. "I know for us without TimberWest working this last year we had to work more and hire less. It's a ripple effect when you remove a major employer and people move away."
Enrollment in Sandspit's school is falling, business is slow everywhere, and although some workers returned from the mainland when J.S. Jones opened for business, evidence of over a year in limbo remains.
"People who stayed survived, dug into their RRSP's, and stuck it out."
Henry explains the problem with small scale logging is that it's often accompanied by small scale paycheques, and lacking some or all of the employee frills larger corporations can provide.
"I think you'd have to accept a change in lifestyle. Small companies are wonderful, but are people willing to work for less money and not have unions or benefits?"
Henry says salvage operations, small business loggers, and manufacturing help, but there has to be a balance among interests, including those of corporations, to sustain healthy communities.
"A lot of people complain about the big corporations, but they're so watchdogged that they aren't as bad as people make them out to be."
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In Old Massett, village administrator May Russ wouldn't miss the sight of the Haida Brave lumbering by with another load of logs bound for B.C.'s south coast. But she'd welcome a chance for her community to get in on the action.
"We'd probably participate in logging of some sort," she says. "Everyone has this idea that First Nations are all environmentalists, but we need the resources like everybody else. We'd be able to access the resource and everything associated with it."
Especially revenues. Russ says a little extra cash for community services would go a long way, and a larger role in the industry would also open a door to valuable work experience.
"We wouldn't be trying to deliver programs for a pittance," she says. "I think it would give us more of an opportunity to develop our own skills and allow people to better themselves."
If MacMillan Bloedel's TFL were controlled locally, Russ is confident it would improve life for everyone on Haida Gwaii.
"I think our reserves and communities would be a lot healthier. I think we'd create a stable economy."
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Charter operator Charlotte Husband in Queen Charlotte City has mixed feelings about the idea of MB pulling out. But one thing she's sure of is that people on the islands would need time to get ready.
"Hopefully we'd be prepared for it, we'd have a true all-island rural development plan," and after witnessing dozens of local planning attempts, she knows the task entails serious commitment on the part of residents. "We'd have to do a lot of homework, and we'd have to do a lot of hard work."
Otherwise, Husband thinks the result of an overnight withdrawal by MB would be devastating for the islands.
"If they did it in less than five years I think we'd be in big trouble- I mean look what happened in Sandspit the last eighteen months. We still have a lot of people on-island working as loggers. A lot of them are older guys with no other marketable skills or training. It would be really callous for us to say tough."
Husband says whether MB left tomorrow or five years down the road, many people would leave the islands anyway. And although small business could fill many of the holes, some company workers might not like the idea of working for a local operator.
"I think there's room for more small business logging. But with the big companies, you have big benefits, you have a crummy picking you up at the door and you just go to work." Even if those benefits come at a price. "If you're dependent on one big company you ride the merry-go-round until it stops."
Still, Husband believes the idea of MB leaving isn't all that farfetched. After 25 years on Haida Gwaii she's seen her fair share of big companies come and go. If the forest industry continues logging at the pace and in the style they have in the past, she says there could easily come a time when large-scale operations are no longer viable here.
"MB is the last giant left here. When I came here in 1976 the Legion and the bar were just booming. There were men in there from camps all over the islands- Talunkwan, Sewell, Rennell, they're all gone now. Skidegate's gone, now the workers from MB are all driving an hour, two hours each day just to get to the wood."
Husband notes that in the last five years MB has cut its workforce almost in half, and few of the other operators on-island are hiring much. It's a stark contrast to the industry which greeted her when she arrived, and it means a different future for young people entering the work force today.
"Back then people could work as much as they wanted. Every young person in local schools had a job waiting for them with a logging company. They could walk away from that job, fish for the summer, and go back in the fall. Just walk in and get a job."
Her own children are now reaching the age where they are ready to work, and although they want to remain on Haida Gwaii, they have no illusions about logging for a living.
"Neither one of them has any intention of being into logging." But it's people like her children, born and raised here, who have to help plan for the future of the islands. After all she says, it belongs to them. "I think we need to tap into more of those young people who have a real commitment to the place."
Unfortunately, Husband imagines it will be a long time yet before they can really enjoy the fruit of those plans.
"The logging we've done since the early seventies, none of it is going to available until 2030. That's a long way away, it's a whole generation, so what are we going to do for that generation?"
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If MB were to go, most women agree there would be more opportunity and more reliance on local small business operators. And for one such company, O'Brien and Fuerst Logging located in Port Clements, a withdrawal on the part of MacMillan Bloedel would be a potential windfall, according to partner Gloria O'Brien.
"I can only see obvious benefits as a small business operator," says O'Brien. "The wood's still here, well what's left. Somebody's going to be logging on the Charlottes."
In fact, O'Brien thinks if MB were to leave there would be a small business bonanza in the company's wake.
"There would be so many small business guys here if the wood were available, there'd be so much opportunity, it would be wonderful." Of course, more operators means more competition for her business. But O'Brien says she's all for free enterprise, and it would be a welcome change from the current situation. "We're logging the fringe, we're logging the garbage, and we're paying top dollar."
With greater access to better wood for small business O'Brien says more people would settle in island communities like Port because small operators are here to stay.
"It would build stable communities. This is their home, this is where they're going to be." Whereas many company employees reside elsewhere while they work on-island, and those that do live here often only stay a short while. "They're not here for the long run. They're going to put away a little nest egg and five or ten years later they move away."
O'Brien says that transient mentality affects every aspect of life in the community. There's no continuity, no sense of ownership, and it hampers efforts to improve the village.
"There has to be pride in the community. We have the perfect community if you look at our surroundings, this is a wonderful place for men to work. But how do we better our schools, how do we better our facilities, if the people who work here don't live in our communities?"
The way the islands' forests are divvied up today definitely favours the big operations according to O'Brien, and the situation means her business has to fight simply to avoid layoffs while they wait for the next timber sale.
"We struggle to keep them working when we're not logging," she says. "It seems like the Forest Service is trying to get rid of us, we have to be gutsy to put up with the bullshit. I think they're controlled by big business."
O'Brien claims small business loggers generate more jobs and contribute more revenue to the province than the big companies do, and because of that they should get should get a bigger piece of the pie.
"We buy the wood on the open market, nothing's given to us. There are more jobs created per cubic metre by small business. Small business logs ten percent of the wood in B.C. and generates fifty percent of the total stumpage revenue."
Like most people on Haida Gwaii, O'Brien definitely sees some benefits from MacMillan Bloedel's operation. She doesn't blame the company for her predicament, and she isn't hoping it leaves because many of her neighbours would likely go with it. But even so, she would like to see a shift in the way the islands forests are managed.
"God knows we have friends who work for the company. I'm not slamming MB, they have the resources and the know-how to finagle whatever they can. But these TFL's were set up in the fifties and I think there's been a lot of changes since then. Small business is where our country should be."
SpruceRoots Magazine - July, 1999