Bitter 8-month strike leaves trail of hard times on northern Vancouver Island

Credit to Author: Lori Culbert| Date: Sat, 15 Feb 2020 00:40:09 +0000

PORT MCNEILL — Natasha Woo cancelled two family trips, told her young daughters there was no money for skating lessons or gymnastics, and saved enough cash for her hydro bill by getting her groceries from a mobile food bank created for Vancouver Island families hurt by the eight-month forestry strike.

“Without the help we would have been lost, we would have been in the dark,” said Woo, whose husband Chad is one of 3,000 forestry workers at six island mills who have been on strike since July 1.

“We lost our savings. He’s lost almost a year of salary. I’ve put on a brave face for the girls, but mentally it has been hard.”

On Thursday and Friday, union members voted on a tentative agreement between Western Forest Products and the United Steelworkers Union, reached earlier this week with the help of two government-appointed mediators. The results of the vote are expected to be released Saturday.

Many families like the Woos have been financially devastated. At least one striking logger became homeless and is sleeping in a strike hut.

But the labour dispute has stretched beyond the 1,500 Western Forest Products staff and another 1,500 unionized employees of direct contractors — it has also hurt other local businesses, ones that service forestry vehicles, serve lunch at local diners or sell luxury items like hockey sticks that no one can now afford. This domino effect has jeopardized an estimated 6,000 additional jobs on the island.

Jessica McLaughlin, executive director of the Port McNeill Chamber of Commerce, believes it will take a year for her town to rebound financially, noting some residents have deferred mortgage payments and many businesses were forced to put off paying bills.

Port McNeill chamber of commerce executive director Jessica McLaughlin (centre) with son Ewan, 4, and Mayor Gaby Wickstrom.

She and Mayor Gaby Wickstrom know the entrepreneurs who are suffering in this town of 2,200 people in the heart of logging country: The gardening store laid off all eight employees. The only coffee shop let go eight of 10 staff and curtailed its menu. Lemare Group, the largest forestry-services provider on the North Island, lost tens of millions of dollars in wages, goods and services, taxation and stumpage. A helicopter company cut 15 workers. A tow-truck owner no longer has forestry-related work but is refusing the jobs he is being offered: repossessing his neighbours’ vehicles.

Two mediators initially left the talks earlier this month when the union and company said they were too far apart to reach a settlement, but the government reappointed the two as special mediators last week, which gave them additional powers under the Labour Code to reach a deal. The content of the deal is not known but the union said it did not include any concessions, and it is believed the union was concerned about concessions on issues such as contracting out and shifts.

McLaughlin is angry the provincial government didn’t try to intervene months ago, when the strike started hurting people beyond the union and company involved in the labour dispute. “It’s reached past the point of private entities. They’ve intentionally looked away from the human cost,” said McLaughlin, who recently blasted the local MLA and transportation minister Claire Trevena at a public meeting about the strike where emotions ran raw.

But in the midst of this adversity, Port McNeill and other northern island communities have pulled together to support struggling residents and businesses. One of the most notable examples of this is two women who started the Loonies for Loggers travelling food bank last fall, with the idea they’d help a few families in the north. But donations poured in, as did demand, and since November they’ve been hauling a horse trailer full of groceries and other items bought with donated money to 23 Vancouver Island towns stretching from Duncan to Port Hardy.

“When we started this, we had no idea it would get this big. We never imagined it would go this long,” said co-founder Rona Doucette of Woss, a small town 67 km southeast of Port McNeill.

“It’s not just the logging families. Because of the trickle-down effect, we are helping others that have been hurt.”

Doucette, an outgoing woman who greets nearly everyone in Port McNeill with a hug, says people’s gratitude is shown through their words and their tears.

“When Tamara and I are doing deliveries, I don’t think there’s even been once that we haven’t had a cry, too. Hearing the stories, it’s very emotional,” Doucette said. “The thanks is the hugs that we get. It recharges us.”

Rona Doucette co-founded the Loonies for Loggers mobile food bank. Her husband Wayne helps picking up the donations. Anthony Bucci, Postmedia

She and partner Tamara Meggitt of Royston, near Courtenay, will continue to accept donations and keep their mobile food bank open for several more months, despite the tentative agreement being reached.

“It is going to take a while for people to get back on their feet in a good financial position,” she said.

The Woos had a good chunk of savings, but that disappeared several months into the strike and now they are in debt, despite curbing their spending. They are happy a tentative agreement has been reached, but cautious not to celebrate until they know when Chad will be able to return to work.

“Our hopes aren’t up until it’s official,” Natasha said. “The strike was really stressful. I didn’t think it was ever going to end.”

Forestry runs in the Woos’ blood. Chad is a fourth-generation logger from Port McNeill. Natasha, like her father, worked in the Port Alice pulp mill until 2015 when new owners ordered massive layoffs.

Natasha now works in a local daycare, and is going to college at night to get certified as an early childhood educator. Chad walked the picket line for six months and collected strike pay, a much smaller amount than his usual salary.

But with their lives in financial ruin, he left Jan. 2 for a good-paying job in Cache Creek, Alberta, where he stayed for 35 days before returning this week to see his young family at their home in Hyde Creek, outside Port McNeill.

He did not fly home earlier for a visit because of the cost. It was difficult for Natasha to juggle being a single mother with work and school, and for their daughters, Peyton, 8, and Brianna, 6, to understand why their father was gone.

Chad and Natasha Woo with daughters Peyton, 8, and Brianna, 6, at their home in Hyde Creek.

“They ask every day where dad is and when he is coming home. It’s hard because you don’t have those answers for them,” Natasha said, her eyes welling with tears. “It’s hard when you lay the kids down in bed and you give them one kiss and they tell you to come back because they need a kiss from dad.”

Chad returns to Cache Creek on Saturday, where he will stay until they know when his local job will resume. Returning to work for many strikers will not be instantaneous because roads into the bush will need to be rebuilt, machinery abandoned in the forest must be repaired, and company vehicles will need to be inspected.

It is for that reason that Loonies for Loggers, the travelling food bank that helped the Woos, plans to continue operating for a few more months, said Doucette.

The good friends started Loonies for Loggers nearly three months into the strike after hearing that some families were struggling financially. Doucette, a mother of four grown boys, was inspired to help out because twice in the past their family received kind gestures from strangers when her husband went on strike and later was laid off from a forestry job. Meggitt’s husband contracts to WFP and has been out of work.

On Sept. 24 they started a Facebook page, and by that evening had raised $800. Four days later, Facebook temporarily shut down their page, suspicious of the traffic it was attracting.

In less than five months, they have collected $150,000 from a wide range of places, including: $20,000 from Campbell River town hall and thousands more from businesses in that city; $6,500 from the sale of support-loggers T-shirts made by a Port McNeill woman; $1,700 from a Port Hardy hair salon; and more than $11,000 from a barbecue fundraiser.

Between Doucette and Meggitt, they have put 25,000 km on their vehicles travelling around the island and have fed thousands of people. And they learned to haul the horse trailer into more secluded parking lots in the towns, rather than high-traffic locations, because people are proud and were more willing to seek help if they could do it without being seen.

They have also done more than buy groceries. They paid the hydro bill for a single dad with three kids who lost his power during the coldest part of the winter. They purchased insulin for a recently hired diabetic whose medical benefits had not kicked in before the strike. They provided gas money so locals could go to Victoria for cancer treatment or to Vancouver for specialized medical tests. At Christmas, they handed out hampers with food and gifts to 450 families.

“We’ve had parents say we couldn’t afford formula, and we bought it and dropped it off,” Doucette said.

Rona Doucette (centre) watches as husband Wayne hands boxes of donated food to Lana Browne, the child and youth care worker at Sunset Elementary School in Port McNeill.

And they have gathered food for local schools. On Tuesday, Doucette delivered 10 boxes of fruit, milk, eggs, meat and other food to Sunset Elementary in Port McNeill where demand for the school’s hot breakfast and lunch program has more than doubled since the strike began. Roughly 100 of the school’s 240 students also drop by the kitchen to pick up snacks because their parents don’t have enough food at home to fill their lunch bags.

“My job has been food-based since I started back to work in September. … This has now hit the vast amount of our town,” said Lana Browne, child and youth care worker at the school.

“The kids are part of the families who are affected by the strike, and not only food-wise. We have lots of mental health, lots of anxiety.”

Browne has sent extra food home for financially decimated families, and used donated money and fundraising this year to fill backpacks with school supplies in September and to buy winter jackets, boots and mitts in the winter for children in need.

Browne’s husband and her three sons are also affected by the forestry strike. “It’s not just my job. It’s my life.”

That is true for many people here. Ted Storie and Ceri Parkinson own a large truck with a crane and their company, T&C Fabrication, largely does contract work on big machines for forestry companies who are reliant on WFP — the largest player in this market.

“It’s the ripple effect. Life quickly stops when Western Forest Products stops,” said Parkinson.

Ted Storie and Ceri Parkinson.

Although they have never worked directly for WFP, their small business went from 10 hours a day before the strike to a total of 14 hours for all of July and August. The situation has not improved since the summer, and Parkinson feels powerless because they aren’t union members who can cast a vote or collect strike pay.

“We’ve both been stressed out because, through no fault of our own, our business has come to a full stop,” she said.

“For us personally to continue forward, for us to make up the monies lost through no income and through spending savings, we are probably looking at five to six years.”

In November, Parkinson got a job at the local grocery store, where she only makes minimum wage but is grateful for the opportunity to work. The couple has cut out optional expenses such as ordering in pizza and insuring one of their trucks, and have enough savings to keep their house and business afloat.

She is hopeful her town will rebound after voting on the deal, but is angry the government did not force mediation earlier.

“My big frustration is why the hell didn’t this happen months ago? My heart breaks for the people who were caught in the ripple effects.”

The government announced a $5 million trust last month to help coastal logging contractors at risk of losing their equipment to the banks, but that program won’t help Parkinson. And the money committed also paled in comparison to the $69 million aid package announced for the forestry industry in the Interior In September.

At Christmas, instead of buying gifts for each other, the couple filled nine large boxes of groceries, and included some prawns and fish Storie had caught. They gave it to a family who Parkinson knew was quietly struggling.

“A lot of people in town up until the Christmas break were very proud, so not a lot of people were saying, ‘I am getting groceries at the food bank.’ Because people were doing their damnedest to make it look OK on the outside,” she said.

“It was the right thing to do. When your neighbour is falling you are supposed to pick them up.”

They were not the only people playing Santa in town. Parkinson knows families who found $100 gift cards left anonymously at their doors.

Goodwill was evident throughout many of the picturesque towns perched on the northern edge of Vancouver Island.

George Genoe, who has been a logger for five decades, could see the harm the strike was having on his younger colleagues in Port Hardy, which is 40 km northwest of Port McNeill. They were too proud to stand in line at the town’s food bank, so he decided to create one just for loggers.

George and Jo-Ann Genoe in the food bank they run for striking loggers in Port Hardy. Photo: Lori Culbert

The local mall gave him a space free, and since November he has collected an estimated $15,000 in donations from local businesses and residents, which he used to stock the store shelves with eggs, milk, meat, fruit and other essentials, including snacks for “kids going to school” such as granola bars and puddings. He and his wife Jo-Ann run the store, where loggers come in to shop free.

“At one point it almost brought tears to my eyes the support we got from this town,” Genoe said.

The shelves of the food bank, which he hopes to keep open for at least another three weeks, are also full of toiletries, such as toothpaste, soap and toilet paper.

Brittany Frederick, whose partner is a striking logger from Port Hardy, used the same location to host a toy drive before Christmas, where loggers could ensure their children had presents under the tree.

She collected many toys and donations after posting her plans on Facebook and hanging posters throughout Port Hardy.

“This town really rallies together,” said Frederick, who has two daughters aged seven and four. “It was very overwhelming. I was pretty emotional.”

Her family has cut back on spending, but her partner picked up a plumbing job during the labour dispute so they are financially above water. She knows other people who work for the logging industry, though, who are in economical trouble.

“It’s been heartbreaking,” she said while fighting back tears.

Brittany Frederick.

Her grandfather and father were loggers, and she is hopeful the tentative agreement will allow workers like her partner Wesley to return to their jobs.

“I feel relieved. But it’s hard to have hope when you’ve been let down so many times,” she said of the eight-month ordeal. “Emotionally it’s been very hard.”

Stan Rukin also grew up in a logging family, and is now a community pastor at Port McNeill’s Full Gospel Church, as well as with the Legion and the RCMP.

As the strike dragged on, his church took gift cards to the union office at Thanksgiving, donated money for the hot meal programs at the local elementary and high schools, held a pool party at the local recreation centre with a free barbecue, and started free monthly dinners.

“We are trying to find ways to be an encouragement. I think it’s more than just food. It’s the social connection. People need to feel they are not alone,” he said. “I’ve been amazed at how people have come together and tried to help each other.

The town will need to do more spiritual healing, even after the labour dispute ends, as there will likely be strained relations between the strikers and management who crossed the picket line each day. But he believes in a small community that tension can be overcome because people are forced to intermingle when there is just one arena and one elementary school — and that, eventually, “we can be back to normal in our town.”

To donate to Loonies for Loggers email

To donate to the Port Hardy food bank phone George Genoe 250-949-1893

Community Pastor Stan Rukin.