“If we don’t get to Lillooet once in a while, then we’re relying on Lillooet always coming to Victoria. It’s good for us to come here, put our feet on the ground and see what’s going on first-hand and understand what’s going on. I love doing this kind of thing and the premier loves me doing it.”
John Les, Chilliwack MLA and Parliamentary Secretary to the Premier
John Les was in town Nov. 8 for a meeting with community leaders, a tour of the Aspen Planers veneer plant and a visit to the Fort Berens Estate Winery. He was accompanied by former TV anchor Pamela Martin, Premier Christy Clark’s new director of outreach.
“The premier has made a real point of making sure we get out, talk to people, listen to people and find out what the issues, challenges and opportunities are,” Les told the News.
After a meeting with Mayor Dennis Bontron, T’it’q’et Chief Mike Leach, Chamber of Commerce representatives and Economic Development Officer Jerry Sucharyna, Les and Martin visited Aspen Planers. They were accompanied on their fact-finding tour by former Lytton mayor Chris O’Conner and his daughter, Sarah O’Connor who is now based in Victoria and works for the government.
“It’s good to see the veneer plant up and running again,” said Les. “We talked to several of the workers there, people who had been working there for many years and hung on and hung on and hung on and they were rewarded because now it’s open again.”
He noted the plant is market-dependent and has not yet been able to crack the growing Asian market.
“They’re up and operating and they’re keeping their head above water. They’re still very dependent on stumpage rates and access to timber to keep it viable. The fact they’re not into the Asian market today doesn’t mean they won’t be,” said Les. “Seven or eight years ago, we weren’t into the Asian market for anything at all, with the exception of Japan. Now they’re our biggest customer overall. One day, the Chinese and others will notice we have some pretty darn good plywood here, and you never know where that spark gets lit and what it leads to. That it will happen, I have no doubt.”
Les said he especially wanted to visit Fort Berens Estate Winery, which he called a Lillooet success story.
“I go back six or seven years when Christ’l Roshard was the mayor. She met with me a number of times and talked about the grapes and how committed she was to making sure there would be grape trials here in Lillooet. She was convinced all along there would be a grape industry here. She was right. This place is proof,” he stated. “These folks here really stuck their neck out, but they’re pioneers, blazing the trail and so far, so good. It’s looking good.”
During the meeting with Fort Berens owners Rolf deBruin and Heleen Pannekoek, Les learned there is no crop insurance for grapes in the Lillooet area, although vineyards in the Okanagan are eligible for the insurance.
“This is the kind of thing I take back to Victoria with me and I meet with the Minister of Agriculture and say, ‘Hey, what’s this about there not being crop insurance for grapes in the Lillooet area?’ Earlier this morning, did I know that? Now I do. Those are the things you find along the way that you can do something with.”
He added that the recent improvements to the Duffey Lake Road are “part of the future viability of Lillooet as well.”
In his discussions with Mayor Bontron and Chief Leach, Les observed that the two leaders “seemed to have a pretty good, respectful relationship between them, too, and that’s important. First Nations need to be very much a part of all this.”
He said municipal leaders raised the issues of the BC Hydro satellite boundary expansion and Bridge River Trust in their discussion with him. “I sensed a tone there, too, of ‘Hey, what about us?’” The District says it needs Hydro payments-in-lieu of taxes and the trust funding to create a level playing field with local aboriginal communities who recently signed several agreements with BC Hydro that could bring as much as $210 million to First Nations in the area.
Summing up his visit here, Les said, “We’re making sure we connect to real people in real communities.. Government isn’t just something that happens in Victoria; it needs to be on the ground in every community.”