IN THE 19th century, Scots did much to shape Canada, providing its first prime minister, Glaswegian John Macdonald, and directing the construction of the first transcontinental railroad, completed in 1885. In the 20th century, Canada provided the spruce trees that became the cornerstone of Scotland’s new forests.
Looking to the 21st century, there is a real opportunity for the two countries to learn from each other in the forestry and wood processing sector, even if they occupy different ends of the spectrum when it comes to scale and maturity.
Canadians feel connected to their forests – all 348 million hectares of them (Scotland has 1.4 million hectares). From the maple leaf of their flag to forest holidays and 90 per cent of family homes built with wood, a clear forestry and wood culture exists, where home-grown wood products are part of everyday life. Some 200,000 people work directly in the sector across rural Canada.
In Scotland, perhaps because many of our forests are relatively new and growth in related employment has only taken off in the last ten to 15 years, the same connection is not so apparent, though we do build more than two-thirds of our houses in timber frame.
Both countries are looking at new ways to use wood. In Scotland, this reflects a growing resource. In Canada, it is being driven by a significant fall in exports to its principal market, the United States, due to a dramatic fall in housebuilding since 2008 and a major reduction in demand for news print. As a consequence, Canada has seen pulp and paper mills close and sawmills struggle. Forced to look for new markets, companies are working with federal and provincial governments to invest millions every year in research and innovation, market development and promotion.
The construction sector is a key target, with products already entering use, such as massive panels made from laminated timber that can be assembled on site to construct wood-rich and light-but-solid mid and high-rise structures. Outside construction, research is under way to use wood to replace products made from oil, to manufacture useful products like lignin and even to utilise cellulose in foodstuffs.
Making wood products inevitably brings scrutiny to bear on how both countries manage their forests. In Canada, environmental groups have challenged harvesting and management practices and how aboriginal rights are protected. Recent concern over declining woodland caribou numbers has prompted calls for greater habitat protection.
While the Scottish forestry sector addressed such issues in the 1990s and has a detailed standard for forest management agreed with conservation bodies, in Canada disagreements and even legal action still break out as different groups seek to exert control and influence over a major national asset.
Both Canada and Scotland also face the challenge of an ageing workforce alongside a desire to promote greater diversity – stereotypes of low-skilled, low-paid jobs and an unwelcoming environment for women dominate.
Scotland boasts some of the most modern sawmills in the world, based on regular reinvestment by family-owned businesses, and forestry sector jobs tend to be more highly paid than in other rural industries.
It is also a sector enjoying growth and one that generates greater employment per hectare than, say, agriculture. Until appreciation of the range and quality of jobs in the sector changes, it will continue to suffer the consequences of being overlooked by young people.
In Canada, entire rural communities can be reliant on a mill and the businesses that service it. The government is keen to maintain employment opportunities in rural areas and the industry has launched an ambitious programme called “The Greenest Workforce” to challenge misconceptions and attract a new generation to the sector.
Both countries face the challenge of climate-driven changes to weather that can influence tree growth and health, as well as threats from pests and diseases, and they each have a desire to demonstrate how growing trees and using wood products can play a crucial role in efforts to limit emissions of greenhouse gases. Scotland, through the wood promotion campaign “Wood for Good” has led, producing engaging animations to tell a simple, but important story.
Scotland has just 0.35 per cent of the world’s forests, while Canada has 10 per cent, but in a world where responsible management of natural assets and tackling climate change sit alongside challenges of urbanisation and green economic growth, both can teach the other a thing or two about sustainable forestry.
• Stuart Goodall, the chief executive of Confor: promoting forestry and wood, has just returned from a study trip to Canada that was supported by Scottish Development International