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--  Spotlight  --

Judgement Day

A recent court case over the cancellation of a forest licence saw the BC government on the receiving end of some scathing criticism from the judge.

By Jim Stirling

The Carrier Lumber affair has exposed the dirty underbelly of New Democratic Party politics in British Columbia. BC Supreme Court Justice Glenn Parrett issued a scathing indictment of the NDP government and its officials for breach of contract and subsequent cover-up attempts in its dealings with Prince George-based Carrier Lumber Ltd. The court found the government was making politically motivated deals with First Nations groups instead of honouring its contractual obligations with Carrier. The timber harvesting and processing company filed suit against the government for first attempting to alter the terms, and then cancelling a legally obtained forest licence. Parrett minced no words in ruling in Carrier’s favour. He characterized government actions as arrogant, deceitful, duplicitous and unethical. In his 224-page decision rendered in July, Parrett awarded Carrier both unspecified general and punitive damages. The value of timber alone lost by Carrier due to the government’s actions is estimated at $150 million. But Carrier won’t receive any money soon. The government has launched an appeal based on what it calls issues of law raised in the case and findings of fact. The opposition Liberal Party roundly condemned the government for its appeal, dismissing it as a political stalling tactic. The appeal could take two years to hear and adjudicate.

The tawdry saga began more than 20 years ago with a mountain pine beetle infestation that started in the mature and overmature lodgepole stands on the Chilcotin Plateau west of Williams Lake. The Ministry of Forests eventually responded to what was by then a fullblown beetle epidemic. It offered forest companies five million cubic metres of small-diameter pine for harvesting over a 10-year period. Carrier Lumber’s proposal was successful and it was awarded the licence in December 1983. That was no surprise. Bill Kordyban, Carrier’s president and patriarch of the family- owned business, has been hugely successful designing and executing unorthodox ways of tackling tough timber harvesting situations. Kordyban is the king of efficient log salvage. He demonstrated the talent near Mackenzie, BC in the mid-1960s, extracting timber as water levels rose in Williston Lake behind the WA C Bennett dam. He and his crews have won subsequent salvage licences for bug-killed and wildfire-damaged timber. Kordyban revolutionized the traditional notion of portable mills by creating pre-cise, high recovery sawmills that happened to be movable, and transporting them to the stricken timber supply. He followed that approach with the Chilcotin wood, estab-lishing a highly efficient harvesting and processing operation tailored to the specific wood characteristics. The project proceeded well and created about 250 jobs in the region. The Carrier/government climate began deteriorating after two successive cold winters slowed the beetles’ assault. In the summer of 1989, the Ulkatcho Band blockaded an access road, protesting Carrier’s salvage cut. In 1990, the company’s once-approved development plan for the area was dis-puted by the government and placed in limbo. Communications between the Ministry of Forests and Carrier became increasingly strained. The court found the ministry tried in 1991 to impose upon Carrier a $30 mil-lion silvicultural requirement for the tim-ber salvaged lands that was not part of the original licence agreement. The follow-ing May, another band, the Nemiah, halt-ed Carrier’s only access into the Brittany Triangle, another key salvage area. A critical meeting in the case occurred within days of the Nemiah Band block-ade. Then-premier Mike Harcourt, then-forests minister and current interim pre-mier Dan Miller and Dave Zirnhelt, the local MLA and current forests minister, issued a remarkable commitment. They If ministry personnel figured Bill Kordyban and Carrier would quietly go away and lick its wounds, they committed a profound error in judgement. Kordyban is well respected for standing up for what he believes is right.

They assured the natives that logging in their claimed traditional territories would not be allowed without their prior approval. In the weeks that followed, Carrier was threat-ened with licence suspension if it failed to comply with its alleged silvicultural require-ments. And, later, if it didn’t enter joint ven-tures with the Indian bands. On March 31, 1993, the ministry sus-pended Carrier’s licence. About 2.5 mil- lion cubic metres of beetle killed and dam-aged timber remained unharvested. If ministry personnel figured Bill Kordyban and Carrier would quietly go away and lick its wounds, they committed a profound error in judgment. Kordyban is well respected for standing up for what he believes is right. And the feeling was that the licence suspension was more about the government’s political agenda than silviculture. Carrier sued and won. The protracted court case lasted through 1997 and 1998 and was frequently stalled for lengthy periods. Mr. Justice Parrett was critical in his findings about the deliberate obfuscation by government bureaucrats. “There was an active and deliberate effort to suppress documents and withhold evidence,” he wrote. He said he believed the decision to lift Carrier’s licence came from above the bureaucratic level. Kordyban has wisely remained mum about his company’s vin-dication and the government’s appeal. But reverberations of the Parrett judgment have prompted much informal discussion. Most industry officials and observers give Carrier credit for taking a stand against the government’s unreasonable treatment. The provincial government’s credibil-ity has taken a shattering blow. Bad enough that it opted for political expe-diency above contractual obligations, but that it also went to lengths to cover-up its actions and dump fault on to Carrier. The reputation of BC as a place to do business—any business—has also taken a shellacking. Potential investors are understandably unimpressed when a gov-ernment contract can be manipulated and unfairly cancelled. Carrier wasn’t the only aggrieved party through the licence suspension. Timber harvesting contractors and log haulers lost their jobs through no fault of their own. They might reasonably have expect-ed to participate in harvesting the 2.5 mil-lion cubic metres of timber left standing under the licence. As a result, the sug-gestion is they, too, may have suffered compensable business losses because of the Ministry of Forest’s actions. Compounding the litany, the Indians were also misled by the government’s leaders. They were given promises the govern-ment was in no legal position to give. And then there’s David Zirnhelt. He has ignored calls for his resignation as forests minister. He has indicated certain bureau-cratic heads may be sacrificed and that internal ministry procedures may be exam-ined. He rejects charges of conflict of inter-est. He was once hired as an economic advisor to the Ulkatcho Band. Parrett was clear his comments in the Carrier case were about the denial of a company’s legal rights, and not about the scope of government responsibilities toward First Nations issues. The whole sorry matter has an ironic footnote. Kordyban named his forestry company after the Carrier Indians as a sign of respect for those people who long before him called the Central Interior of BC home.

 

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