With new collective agreements covering 2,000 workers at Resolute Forestry Products' 11 locations across Ontario and Quebec - a deal that will set the pattern for negotiations with 8,000 other workers east of the Manitoba border - this vital industry is on a renewed footing and ready for a long-overdue national dialogue on the future of forestry.
Canada is a nation rich in natural resources, which provide immense opportunities, but also bring serious responsibilities. We must always consider how to harness our resources to serve the interests of the whole country, generate good jobs, support communities, lead to innovation, and meet the highest standards for environmental stewardship. Addressing these issues remains central to shaping our whole economy, and is key to building the kind of society we want. This is nowhere more true than in forestry.
As one of the industries upon which our country was built, forestry can too often evoke a nostalgia for the past. And the industry can be seen as far from our increasingly urban society - out of sight and mind of political leaders.
But it is critical that we see forestry for what it truly is today: an integral part of our modern economy, an important source of good jobs, a leading-edge innovator, and a renewable natural resource that can have a stronger future.
Logging, pulp and paper, and wood products manufacturing employ 190,000 people across the country, and most of these are good jobs with decent wages and working conditions. Canada is the world's largest forestry exporter: we ship more than half of our $57 billion annual output. And the industry and its workers make important contributions to the public purse to pay for essential services such as health care, education, and infrastructure.
But the forestry sector is in transition. The past decade delivered incredible challenges, including rapidly changing markets, a shift in consumer demand away from newsprint and other papers in the digital age, the devastation of an over-valued Canadian dollar that hit all exporters, and the global financial crisis and recession. Over the last decade, the industry shed a third of its jobs.
After painful restructuring that drew on the dedication and sacrifices of forestry workers, and was supported by some solid government policies, the industry is now on a rebound and, most importantly, could now be poised for a much brighter future.
What could lie ahead?
New, innovative products; the development of biopathways and nano-cellulose technologies that put forestry resources to consumer and energy uses never previously imagined; and a sustained transition toward higher-value growth products and markets could be in our future. And a coming wave of retirements means the industry could need upwards of 60,000 new workers by 2020. All of this change is possible, but none of it will happen automatically.
Around the world, wherever there is a successful forestry industry, we find smart and innovative policies to manage the public resources, harness the opportunities, and address the responsibilities. And Canada must do exactly these things as well: We need comprehensive policies designed to ensure that forestry is an increasingly value-added industry.
Policies are needed to support investments that transition toward growing markets, which means that the federal Forest Industry Transformation program needs to be significantly expanded, hand-in-hand with complementary provincial initiatives.
We also need sustainable rules for wood harvesting that secure investments and jobs while meeting the highest environmental standards. There must be stable and appropriately priced hydro-electricity; as well, transportation infrastructure, pricing and access need to be modernized. Trade policies need to support high-value forestry exports, while ensuring we are not the target of unfair trade measures. And we need to control the export of unprocessed raw logs.
How do we get all this done?
There are always good ideas, but the secret to making meaningful change is to bring all the stakeholders together, build a consensus, and craft a workable plan. To develop a successful national forestry policy, the federal government must bring together business, government, labour, and community leaders in a re-instated National Forestry Council.
This council needs to be more than a "talk shop." It must have a specific mandate to investigate and make public recommendations for a strengthened high-value forestry industry. It must have a wide enough scope to investigate all issues. It must seek the full participation of provincial governments. And it must have adequate resources to engage with stakeholders and report out on its recommendations within a set timeframe.
Workers have done their part to put the industry on a renewed footing. And in the course of our negotiations, Resolute Forestry Products has joined our call for a re-instated council.
Canada's vital forestry industry is now at a crossroads. We have the opportunity for a bright future, but only if we are responsible and make the right choices.