A lot of things have bothered me about the closure of the AbitibiBowater mill in Grand Galls-Windsor. My concerns started many months ago, when Premier Williams said in reference to the company that he would just as soon see the back of their heads as they were leaving. This, at a time when he should have been working tirelessly to keep the mill open.
Since then, there seemed to be an astonishing lack of leadership on the issue. Williams didnt seem to be engaged in the discussion at all, and his attitude toward the company seemed to embolden the mill workers, who rejected Abitibis final offer. Would things have been different if the premier had warned the workers what was really at stake?
Watching the mill close was terribly painful, even from my considerable distance. I can only imagine how the towns residents and mill workers felt. And I wonder: would they make the same decision today, if they had a second chance?
I dont know enough about this issue to pose questions more probing that. However, Mark Griffin, an engineer and lawyer in Grand Falls-Windsor, has been giving this issue considerable thought. In a letter to employment minister Susan Sullivan, published in the February 16 edition of The Advertiser, Griffin asks some strong questions. I am going to post just a sampling of those questions here.
If these whet your appetite for more, I encourage you to read the entire letter for yourself.
What does cause me some concern today is there has not been a public statement by any member(s) of government that I am aware of as to what becomes of the hydro that has been expropriated and is now owned by NALCOR Energy.
You may recall a brief conversation I had with you in Grand Falls-Windsor when yourself (Minister Sullivan), the Premier, Minister Dunderdale and the area MHAs attended the hastily organized press conference to discuss the government action to expropriate the assets of AbitibiBowater (an action which I support in principle although perhaps the timing could have been different). ?I ask you now as I did then, hat will become of the power generated from the Exploits River watershed? To be more specific, I am inquiring if the power will ever be subject to a regional recall so if at any time in the future there is the prospect of industrial development in Grand Falls-Windsor or the Exploits Valley would low cost power be available to any potential developer to be used as a competitive edge for the benefit of the region?
In short, is the government prepared to apply the same principle of adjacency to those hydro resources as it regularly promotes in the fishery?
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I also ask what is the taxation status of this new entity, as you would know from your time as a municipal councilor, the Towns of Grand Falls-Windsor, Bishops Falls and Botwood received a substantial sum of money from Abitibi-Bowater, which is now gone. Will NALCOR Energy be required to pay a business tax while they realize huge profits from the resource or will the government consider adjusting the municipal operating grant in lieu of taxes to make up for the lost revenue?
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While it was the vast timber resource that attracted the Harmsworths to Newfoundland and Labrador, it was the hydroelectricity that brought the Harmsworths to Grand Falls-Windsor and the Exploits Valley. The hydro resource was what helped sustain and grow this region for a century. Now, as the mill whistle blows for the last time, the question needs to be asked, will that resource be available to generate prosperity for the region into the future?
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I have often wondered in this process where was the government when the mill closure was announced? There seemed to be no public effort to reverse the decision. The government seemed to encourage the rejection of the restructuring proposal by publicly vilifying AbitibiBowater and supporting the union.
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While the restructuring negotiations were underway, government was in possession of a report that predicted the demise of the mill, so government was aware the situation was dire. Was that information ever communicated to the union leaders to be sure they were fully apprised of the consequences of their actions and the gravity of the situation? (Excerpts of that report were published in the Advertiser subsequent to the announcement of the permanent closure.) It seemed to me throughout this process the union leaders were under the mistaken belief that the mill would not close and acted accordingly in a high stakes game of Russian roulette when government clearly knew otherwise.
There appeared to be a false sense of security created by the governments attitude toward AbitibiBowater which may have influenced the decision making process. Since the closure was announced, I have been dismayed to speak with soon-to-be former employees of AbitibiBowater who were in denial and fully expected a white knight to ride in at the end of the day and save all.
Throughout this process the government chose to make inflammatory comments such as we would be better served seeing the backs of their (AbitibiBowaters) heads. Surely, the government knew no other operator was going to surface and seeing the backs of their heads was tantamount to closure. Now that the worst has happened, can anyone argue that a restructured mill with fewer employees would not be preferable to the situation we find ourselves in today? If the government had made public comments similar to those of Mayor Rex Barnes when he (Mayor Barnes) stated that he felt that the union should accept the proposal and also encouraged them to look at the bigger picture and the effect closure would have on the community and the region would the result have been different??
There is no question our government, who enjoys immense popularity and public support, could have used its influence to have this restructuring proposal accepted and I wonder why they never did, or at least not publicly.
Were there ever discussions about a program to help displaced workers as a result of restructuring, (a number which would have been less than what the task force et al has to deal with now)? A cynical person could suggest that the government, through expropriation, did exactly what it said AbitibiBowater would never be allowed to do, which was to take the cream off the resource (the power and wood fibre) and leave the rest. The only property that was not expropriated was the mill itself that was not by any standard the cream.?
Was this all by design in the first place and is this all optics? Did the government decide the benefit of having the power themselves outweighed the benefit of the milling and logging operations (that may have closed even with the restructuring) and was it fait accompli the minute they received that report on the state of the forestry industry and once again why was that not made public until after the closure?
As if that is not reason enough to be suspicious, the fibre that was expropriated most likely will benefit the west coast, which coincidently happens to be where the political power base of the government sits.
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This is not meant to be supportive of the union or AbitibiBowater and nor is it meant to be a condemnation of either of their actions. I suspect there is plenty of blame to go around These are questions that it is incumbent on us to ask and incumbent on government to answer. After 100 years of being the industrial center of the province and the first modern economy in Newfoundland and Labrador, the people of this region deserve at least that much.
Yes, definitely good questions. I like Mark Griffin. Hes a critical thinker knows how to look at an issue, break it down into pieces, see beyond the rhetoric and ask the tough questions that arise. He may not have the answers, but he certainly knows the questions. And he is not afraid to stand up to power.
Now please, go here and read the full letter for yourself.
You might even start repeating some of the questions yourself.
Postscript: Just as I was posting this, Minister Sullivan appeared on Open Line to answer some of Griffins questions (because, to be fair to Griffin, they are not allegations). I may update with some of her comments later.