Canada's Forest Workers Deserve the Truth

Howard Sandler/Shutterstock

Last week the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC) launched a campaign to advocate against protection for the boreal’s threatened woodland caribou, arguing that enforcing existing federal law will come at the expense of Canada’s forest workers. This argument has long been used by segments of the forest industry to pit environmental protections and organizations that advocate for them against forest workers and northern communities. However, a close look at Canadian government employment data and industry reports show this argument is a red herring.

In Ontario and Quebec, where most of the logging in Canada’s boreal forest is taking place, Canadian labor statistics show the forest and logging industry reduced its payroll costs by nearly half from 2007 to 2014 with little impact on the volume of wood companies harvested from the forest. In practice, this means that forest workers in these provinces have seen their per capita annual salaries decrease by over $10,000 even as industry increases the amount of wood harvested per worker by nearly 44%. Rather than being impacted by yet to be implemented environmental protections, Canada’s forest workers have borne the brunt of industry’s efforts to cut costs through automation and mechanization. Delaying woodland caribou recovery plans will not address these structural changes facing the forest industry—and Canada’s forest workers deserve a real discussion that takes an honest look at the economics of policies that will safeguard both the economic future of northern communities and the environmental integrity of the boreal forest.

Demand shifts and forest companies cut costs

As the Canadian forest industry’s own studies show, changes in wood sources and paper demand have posed major challenges that have forced it to restructure. The seismic shift toward digital media and increased paper recycling is depressing demand for paper and newsprint, once the industry’s bread and butter products. In Ontario, according to a recent labor productivity study produced for FPAC, since the mid-2000s the industry:

“… has been largely an industry in decline or a sunset sector, although there has been some transition, with the development of new products. It is likely that the decline is now largely over and transition will assume much greater importance.”[1]

The authors detail the demand-side conditions that led to stress in the industry—resulting directly in stress for local communities—concluding that, “forest products firms had to cut costs in order to survive.”[2]

Automation means more lumber with fewer workers

Forest workers have borne the brunt of these cost cutting measures, as the industry invests in technologies that reduce the number of workers necessary to harvest and manufacture forest products. The subsequent rise in labor productivity has allowed forest companies to maintain roughly the same production levels while paying fewer workers lower wages.

Quebec and Ontario, provinces which taken together account for the majority of the logging activities in Canada’s boreal forest, show how this dynamic has played out. Between 2007 and 2014, the two provinces saw an enormous increase in labor productivity, increasing the amount of lumber harvested per worker by 40% or more (see Table 1).

However, the labor force in these provinces did not see benefits from this increase in productivity. According to the Canadian System of National Accounts, employment in the forest and logging industry in Ontario and Quebec declined from 18,575 to 12,430 between 2007 and 2014, while average salaries declined from $45,700 to $35,400 over the same time period. So in 2014, the logging industry in Ontario and Quebec was able to maintain harvest levels at 96% of 2007 levels while cutting its payroll for forest workers roughly in half.

Table 1. Ontario and Quebec Forest and Logging Industry Labor Statistics (Summary)[3]

2007

2014

Change

Per Capita wage (annual)

$45,741

$35,357

-23%

Workers employed

18,575

12,430

-33%

Labor Productivity (cubic meters / worker)

2,373 m3

3,410 m3

+44%

Total Volume Harvested (cubic meters)[4]

44.1 million m3

42.4 million m3

-3.8%

Total Payroll

$850 million

$440 million

-48%

Source: Statistics Canada, Canadian System of National Accounts

As FPAC states:

“A commitment to research and development (R&D) and adopting technology continues to help drive productivity growth in the Canadian forest products industry.”

Forest Product Association of Canada

Diversifying northern communities: Time for an honest discussion

It is possible to protect the boreal forest while building vibrant northern economies. But today, we are on an unsustainable path that jeopardizes the long-term health and sustainability of the boreal forest and the economic future of many of Canada’s northern communities. Industry’s drive to invest in automation technology, changes in the global demand for forest products, and declining feedstock quality have created a vicious cycle that has played to the detriment of Canada’s forest workers.

Logging companies do a deep disservice to their employees, and to the communities that support and sustain them, when they try to paint environmental organizations or woodland caribou protections as the culprits for lost jobs and plummeting wages. It’s a false argument that blocks a badly needed conversation about the real challenges facing the boreal forest economy, and the need for economic diversification as a path forward for workers who have borne the brunt of the industry’s drive toward automation and unsustainable logging practices.

Many other communities in Canada and the United States have faced and met similar challenges. A similar debate in the 1990s in British Columbia’s temperate rainforest led to the development of an alternative economic model for the B.C. coast. That effort was led by coastal First Nations, in eventual partnership with local communities, the forest sector, and environmentalists. A similar debate and crisis on the U.S. Pacific coast in the 1980s and 1990s also led to a period of economic diversification that delivers jobs and local economic benefits to this day.

Facts are stubborn things. In the Quebec and Ontario boreal, they can help clear the air and open a dialogue that is long overdue. NRDC and other groups are ready to participate in the search for real solutions, but we will not stand by for an industry strategy that falsely pits local communities against environmental organizations and values.


[1] Capeluck, page 12.

[2] Evan Capeluck, et. al., A Detailed Analysis of Productivity Trends in the Forest Products Sector in Ontario, 2000-2013: Sunset Industry or Industry in Transition?, June 2015, pg. 97, https://ideas.repec.org/p/sls/resrep/1506.html.

[3] Natural Resources Canada, Statistical Data, https://cfs.nrcan.gc.ca/statsprofile/employment/qc.

[4] Natural Resources Canada, Canadian Forest Service Publications: State of Canada’s Forests, 2009 and 2014, https://cfs.nrcan.gc.ca/series/read/90

About the Authors

Anthony Swift

Director, Canada Project, International program

Join Us