As protesters gathered for their weekly effort to share their ‘Free the Permit’ message, MLA Jackie Tegart arrived in Merritt with other opposition members to support the Aspen Planers employees and contractors affected by recent closures and curtailments at the company’s Merritt mill.

Tegart said she and her colleagues were there to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with forestry workers, who she said are being ignored by the provincial government. Along with Tegart, BC Liberal MLAs Mike Bernier and Michael Lee also joined protestors as the official critics for forestry and indigenous relations, respectively. Merritt Mayor Mike Goetz was also in attendance to show his support.

“These workers and their families are hurting. They need reassurance that the government is working swiftly to get them back on the job,” said Tegart. “I have written to the Forests Minister, respectfully requesting his ministry and government take action to issue permits and provide certainty to Aspen Planers as soon as possible, but received no response. This government is missing in action, and forestry-dependent communities like Merritt are suffering the consequences.”

Aspen Planers’ Merritt mill was closed for over a month starting December 2022, and only reopened a month ago due to an external supply of logs, which is what has kept the mill running at reduced capacity for a number of weeks. Although running, Aspen said the cost of importing logs is huge and could result in another closure in the near future, with the mill already running on just one shift per day. 

Both AP Group, the parent company of Aspen Planers, and mill union leadership say the issue behind the closure is a lack of cutting permits being issued by the provincial Ministry of Forests. The Ministry told the Herald that a vast majority of local permits, which are required to harvest logs in B.C., are issued within 45 days, and that it is working with both Aspen Planers and local First Nations to find ways to address First Nations’ concerns around sustainable forestry practices. 

“This government’s failed forestry policies are leading to more mill closures and curtailments, whether it’s the impacts being felt here in Merritt or in other communities in the Interior, North and on Vancouver Island,” said Bernier. 

“Workers and contractors in Merritt and beyond need to know government has their backs. How did the NDP go from a promise of no mill closures in 2017, to the devastation in the industry we see today?”

The Ministry of Forests did not respond to the Herald’s recent request for an interview on Aspen Planers’ claim that other local forestry companies were receiving cutting permits while AP Group waited to hear regarding theirs. The Ministry did provide a statement to Kamloops based CFJC News, telling them that the Ministry is working with both AP Group and First Nations on the issuance of permits. The Ministry claims Aspen is receiving logs from other local sources, including the upcoming initiation of harvest on a Timber Sale License, noting that they hope new permits will be issued for Aspen soon. 

AP Group leadership, along with mill union representatives, continue to call on Forestry Minister Bruce Ralston to address the situation directly, but both groups said they had not heard back. Tegart, Bernier, and Lee echoed that sentiment. 

“We have been listening to First Nations contractors, who have told us that for them and indeed, for all contractors, government inaction is holding them back and hurting their small businesses,” said Lee. “They are demanding action from the NDP so they can return to work and have permits in place, so they know what to plan for. Clearly a change in course is needed, and it’s needed quickly.”

Protest organizers continue to plan their demonstrations for every Friday at 11:30 on the corner of Voght Street and Nicola Avenue, noting they don’t plan to stop until new permits are issued.