Cover

GOING BANKRUPT: ‘YOU CAN’T GET MUCH LOWER THAN THAT'

Ken MacQueen December 10 2001
Cover

GOING BANKRUPT: ‘YOU CAN’T GET MUCH LOWER THAN THAT'

Ken MacQueen December 10 2001

GOING BANKRUPT: ‘YOU CAN’T GET MUCH LOWER THAN THAT'

Joe Vogl hadn’t banked on a run of bad luck when he decided in 1994 to build a home for his wife, Toni, and three young children on an acreage outside the northern B.C. lumber town of Fort St. James. Construction was only partly complete when his contractor went bankrupt. Vogl, 42, a maintenance worker at the local Canfor Corp. lumber mill, begged his bank for a larger mortgage to finish the house. “That’s what pretty much started the whole tailspin,” he says.

As the sole breadwinner, Vogl says the $150,000 mortgage was “achievable-if you're getting 40 hours a week work.” That had rarely been a problem. He’d worked steadily at the mill virtually since high school. But even the rugged isolation of Fort St. James isn’t immune to depressed timber prices, weak world markets, and a bruising softwood lumber dispute with the U.S.

The layoffs piled up. Vogl estimates he was off work at least 15 weeks in each of the past two years. The Vogls exhausted their retirement sav-

ings and were still overwhelmed with debt. “What are you going to do: eat or pay the mortgage?” he asks. “It boils down to you just can’t spread yourself thin enough. In a single-income family, you’re hooped.” They put the house up for sale, but there were no takers. “Every third or fourth

house in this place is for sale,” he says.

In February, with the bank about to foreclose, Vogl declared bankruptcy. The family moved into a rental home, and moved again to still-cheaper accommodation heated by a woodstove. They were left with their clothes, furniture and two old vehicles. Without credit cards, they pay cash, or they don’t buy. “You cannot catch up, there’s no way,” he says, contemplating a pre-Christmas layoff. “It’s like they say, “You work for wholesale wages and pay retail.’ ”

The family considered leaving town, but, “where to?" The risk and expense is daunting, and the softwood dispute has hammered the entire industry. As well, the children, aged 13,12 and 8, are unsettled by two moves already this year. Vogl tries to console himself with the knowledge they’ve lost only material possessions, but the pain is evident. “Bankruptcy is kind of a low blow,” he says. “You can’t get much lower than that. I think the only thing lower is prison." Ken MacQueen