Burns Lake mayor Dolores Funk has joined other leaders in criticizing the provincial government following its announcement that funds would be taken out of the Rural Dividend Program and diverted to aid for communities with declining sawmills.
Of the $69 million earmarked over two years for Quesnel, Chasm, Vavenby and Fort St. James where sawmills have either been closed permanently or curtailed, $25 million will come from the Rural Dividend coffers.
The announcement was made on Sept. 19 in a letter to Rural Dividend applicants by Doug Donaldson, Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, and Rural Development.
“Funding this essential programming for impacted workers has required that we temporarily reallocate funding in the Rural Dividend Program. As a result, all applications received in this fiscal years’ intake period June 15-Aug. 15, 2019 are suspended until further notice,” Donaldson wrote.
Speaking at the UBCM Convention on Sept. 27, Premier John Horgan said the program would return in 2020.
The Rural Dividend fund was established by the former provincial Liberal government to help with economic diversification for First Nations and non-First Nations communities of 25,000 people or smaller. It provided up to $25 million a year towards the projects. Single organizations, First Nations and local governments could receive up to $100,000 and partnerships up to $500,000.
In an email to Lakes District News on Sept. 24 from the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM) convention in Vancouver, Funk said Donaldson had informed the mayors at the Truck Loggers Association Forestry dinner about the Rural Dividend funds decision.
“[He said] this is a temporary suspension of the Rural Dividend Fund and that all applications will be held over and be eligible for funding in the next intake.”
“I’m very disappointed in the choice to suspend the fund – a fund that supports the very communities that require those dollars to diversify their economies away from dependency on forestry. It was a poor move and that was definitely the consensus of the mayors in the room,” she wrote.
John Rustad, MLA for Nechako Lakes slammed the funds diversion decision.
“It is absolutely crazy to think Horgan and the NDP think it is ok to take funding away from rural communities that are hurting to provide minimal support for the forest sector,” he said.
“After running a $1.5 billion surplus last year surely they can find the funding to support both rural communities and the forest sector. The indifference this government has shown to rural B.C. and the forest sector is unbelievable.”
Of the applicants in Burns Lake who have applied for funding through the Rural Dividend, the $100,000 the village was awarded in April was received, and $77,000 of it is being spent on the branding initiative.
Last January the Lakes District Family Enhancement Society and the Link Food Centre received almost $100,000 through the Dividend program’s special circumstances provision.
However, the village council in July said it was planning to apply for another Rural Dividend grant for $100,000 related to plans for a new tourism strategy and to buy a mobile visitor centre.
That application was suspended.
The Burns Lake Mountain Biking Association (BLMBA) had applied for funding to build an uptrack from the Rod Reid trail to the top of Boer Mountain, which is also suspended.
Several projects in the Burns Lake area have received funds through Rural Dividend grants over the past few years.
Since 2016, more than $400,000 in Rural Dividend grants went to projects of the Burns Lake Band, Village of Burns Lake, the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako, the Lake Babine and Wet’suwet’en First Nations and BLMBA.