Pilot program graduates first Huu-ay-aht forestry students

North Island college marked the successful completion of their forestry pilot project, the Coastal Forest Worker Certificate, by celebrating its first graduating class.

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. Based on its success, the certificate program will be part of NIC’s future programming.

Registered Professional Forester and NIC instructor Colleen MacLean-Marlow designed the program with an eye on ensuring the courses and learning outcome was in line with the technology program offered in Campbell River. This allows students to go on to the next level if they choose to do so.

“We wanted to make sure to make the program modern and different from what is already being offered,” she explained. “I believe that training should be more regionally based, so it was amazing to be able to launch this program in the Alberni Valley.”

She said it was a pleasure working with Huu-ay-aht. The grant the Nation received, and the work they put into the program, allowed the College to start much earlier than they would have been able to otherwise. She was the main instructor for the course, but they had six other teachers from the forest industry and support from many others, including Brent Ronning, from Huu-ay-aht First Nations.

Huu-ay-aht Chief Councillor Robert J. Dennis attended the graduation and expressed how proud he is of the eight graduates. He said what these students are doing will make a big difference in the future and will shape how the Nation invests in forestry education and employment. 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.”

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.

Kumagai said most of the people working in this area are over 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. “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.”

This year’s graduating class 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 a graduate, they will be prepared to work safely and productively in a range of entry-level forestry and harvesting positions.

Some of the students already have jobs in the forest sector once they graduate and others will be presented with opportunities in the coming weeks. For some, it is just a starting point to go on to work in wildfire suppression, while others will go on to explore the technologist program that begins in the fall in Campbell River.

“I think this was a really good course,” explained Ethan Little. “I didn’t know what to expect when I signed up for it, but now I see it has given me options of where it can take me. I think I want to do some wildfire fighting.”

Tristan MacDonald has his eye on the technology program in the fall. He has always been interested in forestry, and 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. “Now I want to continue on, but first I’m going to get a few other courses, like a higher level of First Aide.”

Daryl Patterson moved to the Island from Smithers to take the course. He was working as a chef, but he wanted to do something more outdoorsy.

“This course gave me a chance to move back and be closer to my family,” he said. “The instructors were great, and now I know I want to be out in the bush, probably fighting wildfires.”

MacLean-Marlow said the requirement to graduate from the class was 70%, and all students far exceeded this minimum.

“There’s really nothing like working in the woods,” she said. “This program lets students explore a wide range of forestry theory and resource management and apply their learning in the field with working professionals. Forestry is an ever-evolving art and science. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

She added that she is proud of the graduates and is honoured to be able to introduce them to an industry she loves. Although the future looks bad for forestry now, she stressed that it’s a cyclical industry and it will bounce back. When that happens, these students will be ready.