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The Last Word

Harper’s Community Development Trust program: hold the applause—for now

By Jim Stirling ive Prime Minister Stephen Harper the benefit of a maybe but hold all the applause. The reason: too many questions remain unanswered about Harper’s $1 billion Community Development Trust program announced in New Brunswick last month. Harper says the national program is designed primarily to help people in single industry towns who have lost their jobs or are suffering indefinite layoffs because of economic factors like commodity prices and the value of the Canadian currency. It seems the Prime Minister sees the money being spent on job training, skill development and economic diversification strategies. Each province will get $10 million in base funding (the territories $3 million) with the rest distributed on a per capita basis.                                   

The Community Development Trust is to be in place for three years. Or not. The package won’t proceed in its present form at all if the Conservative’s budget is voted down, which is unlikely to happen. Provincial critics—including Jean Charest in Quebec and Dalton McGuinty in Ontario—claim Harper is simply trying to buy support for his minority government with his aid program announcement.                                   

Trying to get a handle on how the program might work, especially in these early days, is akin to grappling with jelly. To begin with, there’s a well earned skepticism about federal programs generally: their announcements compared with how, when and if they’re delivered. They typically take an inordinate amount of time to come on stream, by which point the emergency aspect of the issue has devolved itself by necessity. And money that should flow to those who most need it is often eroded in the often ponderous bureaucratic system of delivery. It took a couple of years before money from the Fed’s much trumpeted mountain pine beetle aid program began dripping down the pipeline.

And some of the places it’s wound up, well, that’s another issue. Harper made his announcement about the Community Development Trust program at a sawmill south of Fredericton, New Brunswick, clearly indicating he’s aware of mill closures and job losses in the forest sector. He should be. Natural Resources Canada estimates the forest industry lost 22,000 jobs in the 50 months prior to April, 2007 and the bloodletting has accelerated since. But Harper’s plan is a catch basin of woes for other industries, too, like fisheries and manufacturing, including the auto sector.                                   

A forestry only program would undoubtedly irk the Americans even more, causing strident calls of foul under the much-loved Softwood Lumber Agreement between Canada and the US. It’s ironic, though of no comfort, to note the turmoil in the housing market and the high value of the Canadian dollar are directly traceable to mismanagement of an American economy that’s teetering on the brink of recession.                                   

One wonders how the federal government defines single industry towns. If it’s something along the lines of small communities where the dominant industry has been battered by economic factors not of their making then there are enough qualifiers in the British Columbia Interior and north alone to rapidly consume Harper’s funding allocations with need left over. And one can only surmise what the federal government has in mind when it comes to the nuts and bolts of job training, skill development and economic diversification strategies.                                   

Nice words, for sure, but what do they mean on a practical, grass-roots level: to the unionized sawmill worker, for example, who’s put in 35 years on the job and is now laid off? Does Harper’s plan mean job training in other sectors of the forest industry, or in a completely different career direction? And, either way, how will these people be prioritized and how and what training programs and skill development will be available to them in their small communities? And what about financial bridging in the meantime?                                   

Economic diversification strategies are clear enough. They mean giving up on the forest industry. Diversification, per se, is fine and desirable for communities of all sizes. But to infer the forest industry has had it is as bone headed as it is shortsighted.                                   

The same sort of insidious mindset is in play with BC communities wrestling with the downturn in timber supply resulting from the mountain pine beetle epidemic. Diversification into other industries and initiatives is great where it’s practical.                                   

But not exclusive of a diversification in the structure of the forest industry. If the Prime Minister has a vision for the Canadian forest industry itself, he could do more than throw money into the murky stew of job training, skill development and economic diversification. He could make realistic investments to create a climate that would encourage private enterprise to develop new markets for our wood products. Intertwined with that is the manufacture of new, innovative wood products themselves.                                   

More federally funded, practical research and development work would be useful. And on the beetle front, the federal government could help mightily by underwriting new plantations—in the beetles’ wake—of a specie mix compatible with a dryer, warming landscape and industry expectations.