Huu-ay-aht students first to graduate from pilot forestry program

Port Alberni, BC

Eight Huu-ay-aht students are the first to graduate from North Island College’s (NIC) forestry pilot project—the Coastal Forest Worker Certificate.  

The certificate was created in partnership with Huu-ay-aht First Nations to give their citizens hands-on skills for a range of entry-level careers in the forest industry. The funding for this pilot project came from a Community Workforce grant that Huu-ay-aht received.

The graduates consisted of Alec Frank, Cole Giroux, Jason Jack, Ethan Little, Tristan MacDonald, Belinda Nookemus, Daryl Patterson, and Jenn Thomas. During the four months, students learned silviculture, harvesting, occupational safety, surveying, timber cruising, grading, scaling and overall resource management.

As graduates, they will be prepared to work in a range of entry-level forestry and harvesting positions, or move on to the technology diploma program offered in Campbell River if they choose.

Brent Ronning, education, employment, and training manager with the Huu-ay-aht First Nations (HFN), said the program was developed in partnership with NIC, Western Forest Products (WFP) and the HFN.

“Originally the plan was to run [the program] out of the Campbell River campus…and we realized it was a great fit to do it here in the Alberni Valley with Huu-ay-aht citizens and immediate family members and run a cohort,” Ronning said.  “I worked closely with Western Forest Products and with the staff at NIC. They developed the curriculum and we gave our input and then began everything from recruiting to figuring out what it would look like if we ran it here.”

Among the Huu-ay-aht Group of Businesses is the Huu-ay-aht First Nations Forestry LP, which Ronning explained was a big help in allowing employers to engage with students and provide industry insights. 

“With a number of contractors that we already work with, we’re very much engaged in supporting those students to work and meet with these employers,” Ronning said. “One of the instructors that worked in a lot of the course works at Meridian (Forest Services), so he was not only an instructor but he also got to know all the students really well, and already works for us and knows Huu-ay-aht really well. He helped inform the Indigenous lands and culture part of the program because he was able to talk to our students about what Huu-ay-aht forestry practices are that are above and beyond what the province has.”

The program also looked at what forestry was like for the Huu-ay-aht pre-colonization, in recent years and where it will likely be in the future.

“Our students were able to learn what our practices are and what our contractors do when they’re working on Huu-ay-aht treaty settlement lands,” Ronning said. “We can get very fixated that the forest industry is in a down turn right now but it is a cyclical industry and on the coast it’s part of who we are, what we do and it’s going to continue and it’s going to be on the upswing again. So we can’t turn our back on the opportunities that forestry is going to have in the future.”

Ronning said members with the Huu-ay-aht First Nations Forestry LP will be working with the graduates to help place them with forestry companies. He added that some graduates are interested in continuing their education and getting their diploma.

“Some of the barriers of going to a post-secondary institution have been addressed, [students] aren’t afraid of a college any more, it’s their college now,” Ronning said. “The diploma program will start next year…out of the Campbell River campus so any of our students could apply to jump into that diploma program in January of next year.”

Huu-ay-aht Chief Councillor Robert J. Dennis said he believes what these students are doing will make a big difference in the future by shaping how the nation invests in forestry education and employment, according to an NIC press release. 
He explained that in 1995, when Huu-ay-aht first got involved in forestry, only two citizens were working in the industry on the nation’s territory. He remembers the boom days in Port Alberni and believes Huu-ay-aht needs to be ready when the market shifts and forestry is in full swing again. He acknowledged that it will never be as big as it once was, but it will always offer many different employment opportunities to people who have the training.

“I believe more young people can work in forestry,” he said. “We just have to get beyond the belief that the industry is dying – it’s not.”

Graduate Tristan MacDonald is interested in furthering his schooling and said he has always been interested in forestry. He enjoyed the certificate program as it allowed him to discover what is available in the field.

“It was a really good look at the different careers in forestry in our area,” he said in the press release. “Now I want to continue on, but first I’m going to get a few other courses, like a higher level of First Aid.”

Registered professional forester and NIC instructor Colleen MacLean-Marlow said the requirement to graduate from the class was 70 per cent, and all students far exceeded this minimum.

Forestry news from Vancouver Island recently has been grim, with a seven-month-old Western Forest Products strike affecting thousands of employees, contractors and industry workers. Although the future looks bad for forestry now, MacLean-Marlow stresses that it’s a cyclical industry and it will bounce back.

Lance Wingrave and Justine Kumagai represented Western Forest Products at the graduation. They agreed it is important to find skilled young people who are interested in forestry, to replace an aging workforce.

Justine  Kumagai of Western Forest Products said most of the people working in forestry in this area are more than 50 years old. Although this trend is seen industry wide, Port Alberni has some of the highest rates.

“We need to change the narrative and make sure young people understand that the future is bright in British Columbia,”

Kumagi said in the press release. “It’s harder to get people to work out in the woods, but there are great occupations because every day is different, and you get to spend time outdoors.” 

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