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Rob Shaw: Eby government drives by and promises, workers stay put and suffer in Crofton

Commitments in January haven't held up
More than seven months later, workers at the Paper Excellence mill in Crofton await results. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

When Premier David Eby announced millions in taxpayer cash to save the beleaguered Crofton paper mill on Vancouver Island in January, he was in the presence of dozens of workers who were excited to go back to work.

“I am just so glad to be here today with you to announce that the mill will soon be up and running again,” said the premier at the Jan. 20 event. “More than 100 people back to work here on the site, which is good news for families, the community of Crofton and certainly for the whole province of British Columbia.”

The splashy announcement came with a press release that had the headline “Crofton mill gets workers back on the job with provincial, federal funding” and a first sentence that read: “More than 100 jobs will resume at Paper Excellence's Crofton Mill facility, resulting from a partnership and funding from the provincial and federal governments, as the mill retools to manufacture new pulp products that reduce the need for single-use plastics.”

The company said the employees would be back on the line later that month.

But more than seven months later, and $18.8 million in taxpayer cash from the provincial and federal government, many of those 100 workers remain unemployed.

The two unions that represent the employees blasted Paper Excellence publicly last week, saying the mill has only actually been operating for two and a half months since January, and that the company has been stringing workers along with repeated curtailments of operations announced at the last minute.

"A few months ago, the company stood beside federal and provincial government representatives to announce nearly $70 million in combined investments for the Crofton mill and it is beyond disappointing that a restart is being delayed yet again," said Lana Payne, Unifor’s national president, referencing a figure that includes an additional $50 million Paper Excellence promised for upgrades.

"I urge the company to set a reasonable timeline for a restart and commit to it for the sake of the workers and their families."

So how is it, then, that the government’s promise of multi-million-dollar public subsidies failed to actually save 100 jobs?

The New Democrat government is struggling to defend that position, seeking refuge in the fine print of the deal with Paper Excellence that was, at best, unclear at the announcement.

The government now says its funding will only actually save 100 jobs once Paper Excellence fully finishes transforming its C2 paper line to produce water-resistant paper packaging intended to replace single-use plastics.

How long will that take? The end of 2024.

So, despite words like “soon” from the premier, or phrases like “more than 100 jobs will resume” in the government press release, what the NDP now says it meant at the time was that new jobs would be created more than two years in the future. Maybe. And probably not for many of the people standing watching the premier at his announcement who were cheering him on.

It appears just a funny coincidence that, days after the NDP rolled into town with the cheque, Paper Excellence brought 100 people back to work on existing lines. And then another stunning coincidence that once government officials were safely back in Victoria, Paper Excellence laid them all off again repeatedly over a series of months — presumably because the actual promise to employ 100 people doesn’t need to be fulfilled for another two years.

Of course, those pesky little details weren’t made clear by the government at the time. The Eby administration was scrambling to make positive forestry announcements after critics said it didn’t do enough to prevent Canfor from shutting down its Prince George mill, laying off 300 people. Crofton looked like an easy win.

So the political circus blew through Crofton at warp speed, a flurry of photo ops and vague promises that has left confusion and disappointment for real people in its wake.

“We want to put food on the table and we want to support our communities, but it’s pretty hard to do that when you don’t know if you’re going to be working one month to the next,” Tanner McQuarrie, president of Unifor Local 1132, told the Times Colonist.

Paper Excellence is blaming weak global market conditions for pulp and paper, plus less demand from China. Other forest companies have complained of a lack of fibre, as well as uncertainty over old growth protections and Indigenous consultation, for curtailments.

Paper Excellence told the T-C that there is too much uncertainty in the global market to be able to forecast when the mill will restart.

More certainty, though, was what the province thought it was buying from the company with its cash infusion.

“The workers here are going to be providing the products that get rid of the single-use plastics, the petroleum-based plastics, that are clogging up landfills,” Eby said at the time.

“They're going to be providing sustainable, low-carbon products that the world wants. That's the future for British Columbia and that is the kind of economy that our government is going to be building in partnership with every single worker -- I don't know if you can see them, they're behind the cameras -- every single worker at this site and forestry workers across the province.”

The NDP government has long since moved on from its commitments at that January press conference in Crofton. The workers, though, are still there suffering and waiting for help.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio. [email protected]