Lessons learned in Youbou debacle still resonating in the Cowichan community

It was a calculated corporate maneuver that precipitated the permanent closure of the Youbou Sawmill by TimberWest on Jan. 26, 2001 after more than 70 years.

Although Youbou had proved to be a profitable enterprise, management strategists saw much more money to be made by selling unprocessed logs to foreign markets.

And so the mill and more than 200 direct jobs disappeared from the Cowichan Valley. There was now no restraint on the flood of prime timber flowing out to tidewater. Highway 18 justly earned its designation as “the tree to sea highway.”

Casualties were many.

There were, of course, many individuals who suffered loss, and some who have remained lost. Workers were cleverly pitted against one another by a toxic mix of politics and greed. The provincial government abdicated its legal responsibility and allowed the notorious Clause 7 to evaporate in a fog of confusion.

The divide between loggers and sawmillers was fueled by misinformation, and the solidarity and strength of a once-proud union, born in the Cowichan Valley, was crushed. Outraged citizens were arrested. Supreme court injunctions were slapped on protestors. A hired police force was parachuted in to shadow and harass.

Ten years on, some fundamental truths have emerged and lessons have been learned.

The social contract between citizens and their government is not a given and must be vigilantly monitored and sometimes fought for.

Tenure aside, the forest resource will always be a mainstay of the greater Cowichan community.

We know that forest policy should never be decided by absent landowners or remote money managers. We recognize sustainable stewardship of forest ecosystems extends far beyond the cultivation of trees for log export and is a matter of intense public interest.

Our forestlands anchor this region’s economic wealth and environmental health.

From experience, we have learned forests need to be managed by those on the ground in local communities.

Despite past hardships, the human spirit prevails.

A glowing example of leadership and community resilience was demonstrated by the formation of the Youbou TimberLess Society.

Created by displaced millworkers, this volunteer group expanded into the community and beyond.

From providing moral support and personal counselling, to the advancement of education and public advocacy, and the founding of a YTS medical and dental plan, this organization continues to forge a positive legacy and prove in every way its motto — “Caring about Community.”

Roger Wiles is a former Youbou Sawmill employee and a founding member of the Youbou Timberless Society.

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