East Kootenay MLA Bill Bennett believes recently-announced structural changes will improve BC Hydro’s Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program — but concedes the program’s Nelson office is doomed.
“The jobs aren’t on the table with regard to them being hired back by BC Hydro and doing exactly the same thing,” Bennett said in an interview this week. “That’s not going to happen.”
The office is expected to close by the end of the month, with a loss of seven jobs, including five biologists, one GIS technician, and one clerical position. Some people have already taken work elsewhere within BC Hydro.
The layoffs were announced last October in response to a government directive to cut heads rather than increase rates. The Prince George office is also closing, while positions in Castlegar, Cranbrook, and Revelstoke are affected as well.
Hydro will continue to invest $8 million within the Columbia region on habitat restoration to fulfill its legal obligations, but plans to rely more heavily on community groups to do the work.
Late last month, Bennett announced BC Hydro has agreed to increase the number of locals on the program’s steering committee and immediately fill several vacant seats. The steering committee will also work directly with the policy committee that develops program goals.
Further, a series of “community engagement meetings” have begun with various stakeholders.
“We’re trying to take something that was done rather poorly, I think, and end up with a better model,” Bennett said. As for the employees, “it’s my sense there wasn’t a full appreciation for the value they brought to the program, but I think there’s a far greater appreciation now.”
That hasn’t, however, translated into saving their jobs.
Bennett says BC Hydro is unlikely to admit it made a mistake by targeting the program and it remains to be seen how the corporate memory and expertise of the laid-off employees can be retained.
He didn’t rule out some of them returning to work for the program in another way, but was “hesitant to speculate too much for fear of prejudicing ongoing discussions.”
Although the BC Wildlife Federation has suggested the positions be rolled into other government ministries, nothing has yet been announced.
Nelson-Creston MLA Michelle Mungall, meanwhile, dismissed the community engagement meetings as “window-dressing,” calling them too little, too late, and said they should be open to the public instead of limited to stakeholders such as local governments and environmental groups.
She is also dismayed the layoffs are still going ahead.
“The minister has the authority to [stop them],” she says. “No one disagrees that the program has done wonderful work for our region. It wasn’t broken, and didn’t need fixing. The only reason this is happening is because of a directive from on high to cut heads.”
Mungall says the program was identified as a place where BC Hydro could eliminate positions without incurring risk to its hydroelectric system. However, the decision to cut jobs was made before an alternative delivery model was established.
“How the work is going to be done, no one knows. Whether we still get the bang for our buck previously is unidentified and that puts our region at risk,” she says.
Gwen Farrell, utilities vice-president of COPE 378, which represents the staff at the Nelson office, sees little to be gained through the meetings.
“I don’t see how after the fact it is a productive way to deal with this,” she says. “They’re still contracting out the work, and now they’re talking to stakeholders after they’ve done it. It’s certainly not a solution.”
Farrell adds those discussions should have started months ago.
“My frustration is the energy minister said he’s putting a pause on this, yet BC Hydro was never directed to do that. That’s absolutely ludicrous.”
Since 1988, BC Hydro has invested over $100 million under the program to compensate for the ecological effects of its dams.