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Softwood lumber is pictured at Tolko Industries in Heffley Creek, B.C., on April, 1, 2018.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

British Columbia’s NDP government has earmarked $69-million in funding to help displaced workers in the province’s ailing forestry industry cope with job cuts.

B.C. Forests Minister Doug Donaldson announced on Tuesday that $40-million of the funding will go toward setting up an early-retirement bridging program for older employees in the B.C. Interior.

Other highlights in the provincial package include $15-million for a short-term community program that will include fire prevention projects; $12-million for activity related to skills training; and $2-million for a job placement co-ordination office.

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“We recognize the urgency of the situation,” Mr. Donaldson said during a conference call from Prince George. “We are realigning worker and community-support programs and establishing capacity to ensure that workers have access to the services they need, from training to work placement to early retirement.”

The government’s intervention underscores the tough times faced by B.C. lumber producers, which have been paying U.S. duties on shipments south of the border since April, 2017.

The companies are struggling amid softwood prices that have plunged 40 per cent since mid-2018, with a flurry of sawmills shutting down or scaling back production this year.

The goal is to assist nearly 3,000 displaced workers in the B.C. Interior, including at least 400 people age 55 or older who would be eligible for early-retirement bridge funding over the next two years. Industry observers say thousands of employees across British Columbia have lost their jobs permanently or were temporarily laid off or watched their number of daily shifts curtailed.

Supplies of timber have dwindled over the years, long after the infestation of mountain pine beetles in the B.C. Interior began in the late 1990s and peaked in 2005, decimating forests in the region.

B.C. companies also face uncertainty over exports to China and worries about the pace of home building in the United States, analysts say.

The NDP minority government said lumber companies in the B.C. Interior are suffering from eroding timber supplies after widespread wildfires in 2017 and 2018, and urged the federal government and industry players to step up with their own forestry assistance programs.

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B.C. Labour Minister Harry Bains said he formerly worked in a sawmill and knows the importance of the forestry sector to the social fabric of communities, especially mill towns. “It’s never happy to be at announcements like this because those workers would rather have their jobs, but here we are,” Mr. Bains said in Prince George.

Tuesday’s announcement included a statement from Ray Ferris, who took over as West Fraser Timber Co. Ltd.’s chief executive officer in July. “We appreciate the province recognizing these supportive measures needed for impacted workers as industry adapts to declining timber supply,” Mr. Ferris said.

While the United Steelworkers issued a release to welcome the financial relief, the union said more measures should be taken such as creating a jobs protection commissioner. "Permanent solutions for workers, families and communities throughout the entire province are needed,” said Stephen Hunt, the union’s director for Western Canada.

The BC Council of Forest Industries released a new report this week, saying the high costs of securing logs have added to the strain. “When combined with large areas designated as conservation zones and new protected areas, the working forest land base has been significantly reduced. This has increased competition for logs, driving up log costs,” according to the report.

Critics with the Opposition BC Liberals say the industry downturn has been worsened by what they call poor oversight under the NDP government. The BC Liberals are concerned about a new law that gives the NDP government the ability to reject a forestry firm’s sale of logging rights after a mill shuts down.

But Premier John Horgan said the province is coming to the aid of forestry. “While the forest sector must reduce surplus milling capacity to remain competitive, it cannot do so at the expense of the workers who built the industry,” Mr. Horgan, who became Premier in July, 2017, said in a statement.

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