II. The Logging Industry 1891 to 2012: From Sleighs to Skidders

II. The Logging Industry 1891 to 2012: From Sleighs to Skidders2017-03-03T18:35:02+00:00

Although the Forestry Workers Lien for Wages Act has many problems, the core reason it is in need of reform is because the Northern Ontario logging industry today bears no resemblance to the logging industry in 1891, when the Act was passed.[3] This chapter briefly outlines the changes in the intervening 121 years. Ian Radforth has written extensively on the history of logging in Northern Ontario and a passage in the introduction to his book Bush Workers and Bosses neatly summarises the changes that have gone on in that time.  Although the book was published in 1987, the observations about the changes in the logging industry still hold true today:

Until the mid-twentieth century, the familiar image of the lumberjack – hardy axeman, knee-deep in snow, forcefully chopping at the trunk of a tall, straight pine – closely corresponded to the realities of the Ontario bushworker’s calling. During the past three decades, however, the woods-worker has moved sharply away from the popular stereotype. A visit to the northern woods in the 1980s reveals few axes wielded by brawny men. Today’s loggers fell trees with chainsaws or with gigantic, hydraulic-powered shears that cut down jack pines as easily as garden clippers snipping grass. Rather than shouting commands at the horses pulling sleighs loaded with hay, woodsworkers now operate powerful diesel equipment which carry heavy loads across muskeg and rock in summer and winter. No longer do most bushworkers spend Saturday nights sharing stories and playing cards in the bunkhouse; most now live with their families on weekends.[4]

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, around the time the Act was passed, logging work was seasonal in nature.[5] Workers would go into logging camps in the woods in the fall, fell limber all winter, and drive it down watercourses to the mill after the spring thaws. The workforce was drawn from three main sources: transient workers who relied on other short-term work when they were not logging; farmers on marginal land looking to supplement their incomes over the winter, and professional loggers who might try to find work at sawmills in the summer but would often live (very simply) off their winter’s wages.[6] 

During the winter, the loggers would live communally in rough logging camps. These camps would have everything needed for a long stay in the woods – a bunk house to sleep in, facilities for storing and cooking food, and even a blacksmith to maintain and repair logging equipment.[7] This is reflected in the fact that the Act still talks about liens being available to cooks and blacksmiths.[8] Cooks were extremely important parts of camp life, with Radforth suggesting that a good cook was a very important part of attracting and retaining workers over the long, tough winters in the logging camps.[9] Likewise, a blacksmith was essential to ensure that all logging equipment and horse tack remained in good condition. 

Standing timber was, early on, felled using axes.[10] Later, the axes were replaced with a team of men using a cross-cut saw.[11] Once felled, the trees would be delimbed (i.e., protruding branches would be removed) and then cut (“bucked”) to the log length required.[12] The cut logs were then “skidded” – dragged out from the stump to the side of a logging road using horses.[13] These roads were roughly constructed at the start of the season, and typically required reinforcement by a winter frost to reach their best condition.[14] From here, logs were hauled out along the roads via sleigh to the dump site beside a frozen lake or river.[15] Once the watercourse thawed, logs were driven down it to the mill for processing.[16]

Virtually none of this type of logging occurs today. Logging has become a year-round activity, without the long stays in logging camps that were common when the Act was passed.[17] Camp cooks and blacksmiths no longer exist. Instead of saws and axes, trees are felled with massive harvesters (the most common of which is the feller buncher), which can extremely quickly fell and collect a number of whole trees.[18] Delimbing and bucking is now done mechanically,[19] although advances in technology mean that it is also common for timber not to be bucked – tree length logs or even whole trees are regularly harvested. Further, the introduction of mobile wood chippers means that now it is not uncommon for pulp wood to be chipped on site in the forest. Improvements in road construction technique and the use of mechanised skidders and forwarders eliminates the need to wait for freezing weather to take logs out to a dump site.[20] Once at the dump site, logs are now almost universally trucked out of the forest by road. The log drive down the river is almost entirely a thing of the past.  

This mechanisation process has significantly increased the amount of timber harvested in Ontario while simultaneously completely transforming the workforce in the logging industry.  With more efficient logging machinery, ever more timber could be harvested by ever fewer people. From the 1960s to the 1990s, the average area logged rose by over 50%, and the number of people employed in the industry almost halved.[21]

When the Act was passed, the work force was largely casual, with workers commonly not returning from season-to-season. Wages were not particularly good, and the working conditions dangerous.[22] At the time the Act was passed, the lien it provided over the logs they cut was therefore the only assurance that loggers had that they would get paid. Particularly in years where the economy was good, attracting labour was a significant problem for lumber companies large and small.[23]

Unionization was slow to come to bushwork in Ontario, as the conditions in the industry (e.g., a largely low-skilled workforce, small work teams and a seasonal working environment) raised significant barriers.[24] A series of unions, mostly spearheaded by Finnish immigrants, had varying though always limited success in organising in the early part of the 20th century.[25] These included the Ontario arms of the One Big Union and Industrial Workers of the World, and the home-grown Lumber Workers Industrial Union of Canada.[26] In 1936 the Lumber and Sawmill Workers Union was formed, and this was to be the first long-standing union for logging workers in Ontario. At this point, unions began to have a significant presence in logging camps and mills, eventually becoming widespread after World War II.[27]  

This labour structure, with a prominent union presence, persisted up until the late 1970s, when technological change began to affect labour structure significantly. Instead of owning logging equipment themselves and employing people to operate that machinery, mill owners began encouraging individual loggers to purchase or lease equipment on their own account.[28] The mills would then re-hire these owner-operators as contractors.[29] This process has continued over the last thirty years, and the LCO understands that now virtually the entire logging workforce consists of non-unionised contractors who own or lease their own equipment and work for one or more wood owners. Employees of contractors to unionised mills can still be organised, but such people are few and far between, as even large logging contractors tend to rely on sub-contractors more than employees. 

If the story for logging workers has been unorganised workers to unionised workers to contractors, for wood owners it has been a matter of ever increasing concentration. Even at the time the Act was passed, large logging magnates (by the standards of the time) dominated the industry.[30] This concentration increased as time went on, via mergers and takeovers. By the mid 20th century, the vast majority of wood resources in Ontario were controlled by a few large corporations.[31] Foreign investment is also a long-standing feature of the industry, with concerns about American lumbermen paying logging workers prompting the Act in 1891,[32] and a huge influx of American capital into the pulp industry from the early 20th century.[33]  

Today, these large players include a variety of companies, from the Quebec-based multinationals Resolute Forest Products and Eacom Timber Corporation to the USA-based multinational giant Weyerhaeuser. Small and medium-sized Ontario-based companies still play an important role in the industry, but the large players dominate. 

Ever since the Act was passed, and even before, forestry has been an important part of Ontario’s economy. A problematic Act is therefore problematic for Ontario as a whole. Today, Ontario has 57 million hectares of productive forest area, most of it in Northern Ontario.[34] In 2007, 66,800 people were involved in the forestry industry, and in 2005 (the latest figures available) it paid out $3.2 billion in wages and salaries. At that date, manufactured wood products generated $18.3 billion, and the total value of wood product exports was $5.7 billion. Logging work is the first step in this chain of value, so it is important that the Act fulfils its purpose efficiently and effectively. Poorly drafted legislation applied to logging has the potential to harm the entire forestry industry.

 As it stands, the structure of the logging industry now is arguably similar, at least broadly (i.e. largely un-unionised logging workers doing work for relatively large logging companies), to the logging industry of 1891. However, as the discussion above shows, the practical reality on the ground in terms of living conditions, logging techniques, and transport techniques has completely changed. These changes, without any significant corresponding change in the Act, mean that the law is now significantly out of step with the reality of the modern logging industry.

 

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