A future in fibre?

Krysta
Krysta Carroll
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The towns of Grand Falls-Windsor and Mackenzie, B.C. were both heavily dependent on the forest sector and both saw AbitibiBowater close the local mill. - Photo by Krysta Colbourne/The Advertiser

B.C. forest-dependant community rebounds with hope, hard work

The key to success? "Never give up hope," according to Mackenzie, B.C., Mayor Stephanie Killam.

And hope was in short supply in Mackenzie in 2007, when the town of approximately 5,000 people saw its two pulp mills, one paper mill, two planer mills and two sawmills close.

The towns of Grand Falls-Windsor and Mackenzie, B.C. were both heavily dependent on the forest sector and both saw AbitibiBowater close the local mill. Photo by Krysta Colbourne/The Advertiser

The towns of Grand Falls-Windsor and Mackenzie, B.C. were both heavily dependent on the forest sector and both saw AbitibiBowater close the local mill. - Photo by Krysta Colbourne/The Advertiser

B.C. forest-dependant community rebounds with hope, hard work

The key to success? "Never give up hope," according to Mackenzie, B.C., Mayor Stephanie Killam.

And hope was in short supply in Mackenzie in 2007, when the town of approximately 5,000 people saw its two pulp mills, one paper mill, two planer mills and two sawmills close.

"By the time we got finished, within one year we lost 1,500 jobs just in the mills alone," Killam said, adding that related jobs, such as logging, were also lost.

"You get hit once and it just seems to rollerball downhill. It started out with Canfor (a lumber, plywood and pulp and paper supplier), then the pulp mill, then all of a sudden Abitibi, and by the end of the year we had lost all the jobs. Our community here was totally dependant on forestry. It had everything it ever wanted. It was its own little island until now."

Killam said two small value-added companies managed to keep going because they had few employees and niche markets to take advantage of.

Other than that, the town got by on hope and resilience.

"It's hope and hard work for everybody in the community," Killam said. "Your leaders need to lead. Your community needs to roll up their sleeves and work."

Now, things have started to rebound.

"Canfor started their sawmill a year or so ago with one shift, and they now have two shifts running," Killam said.

"There are about 160 working in the Canfor sawmill. The pulp mill was just purchased a couple of weeks ago, what was the old Worthington mill, and they hope to be up and running by September. So they are now infusing money into getting it ready to go. They are calling back their employees. There is probably going to be about 220 of them."

In March, Conifex announced it was buying AbitibiBowater's sawmills.

"The Abitibi mills, by the end of this month, the purchase should be finalized and there are probably another 160-200 people that will go back to work, but probably not before September," Killam said.

Last month, a $20-million deal was reached which will see the dormant pulp and paper mill acquired by Paper Excellence B.V., a subsidiary of the Indonesian-based Sinar Mas.

"They are starting up one after the other again," Killam said. "It is not common to restart a pulp and paper mill. We are one of those anomalies. This is very unusual. I anticipate many people will come back, but we will have new people as well."

She said the past couple of years has been a rollercoaster for residents of the town.

"But they are still cautious because ... the old rollercoaster plays havoc with people's emotions and the only mill that was going for awhile was the lumber mill."

Other factors

Along with the small businesses that helped the community in the downturn, there were other things which helped it survive.

Killam said one of those factors was the Liberal government's focus on natural resources.

There is a mine starting construction work this summer between Mackenzie and Fort St. James, so both communities will benefit.

And Killam said her MP and member of the Legislative Assembly, neither of whom live in Mackenzie, visited the community often.

"So they know the story and they become part of the community in some ways," she said.

She's a firm believer that municipal leaders need to work hand-in-hand with provincial and federal representatives.

"Our MLA plus two other MLAs from related areas were in Victoria working on our behalf," she said. "Your political leaders are very important, but also on the ground you need to have social services and they need to be well co-ordinated, whether it's mental health, drug addictions (services), hospitals, schools, public health - they all need to work together."

She said a strong support network is vital for the residents of a community dealing with a downturn.

"When you are used to having everything and then all of a sudden you have nothing, or you think you have nothing, it is pretty tough on them," she said.

She said it is important for everyone involved to try to sell the community to the press and to the country.

"You give the same message all the time - the town is not dead, we are going to move forward, we have clean air, clean water, a safe place to live, good housing, recreation all year round - and you start to sell it so people start to believe it."

"It points out to people: you need to find out what it is you have, you need to sell it to other people. Tourism is great, but you know what? You can't live on tourism. Newfoundland, more than others, know that."

The mayor said it is important to find a buyer willing to make things work. She said in the case of her town, Sinar Mas was looking for pulp, not paper, because they have big paper mills in Jakarta and China and they needed pulp.

"Pulp is really high now - I think it's $1,300 a tonne," she said. "In (Chile), when they had that earthquake, it took a number of pulp mills out of play for awhile. So pulp is in short supply."

Killam said the focus in Mackenzie was on wood and the fibre, but it took a long time to rebound.

"(Abitibi) played games here for the last two years over how they were going to sell this whole asset," she said. "They wanted to sell it separately because there is a paper mill attached. And they wanted to sell them as a whole, and they wanted this and they wanted that, so the people who bought it just waited."

She maintains there are lessons to be learned through a downturn, and opportunities that arise.

"Look for the opportunities and take them," she said. "People, although they get upset and they get hurt, when they get over (the hump) ... they start to look at what they actually have and they start to build on that and they realize what they have. ... That is a big opportunity."

Killam offered words of encouragement to the people of Grand Falls-Windsor and area, who lost their own pulp and paper mill.

"Your political leaders are very important," she said. "Your community is important, your staff at the municipality is important, but your political leaders all the way up to the feds are very important to you. You will move forward, maybe a little step at a time, and you may take four steps back, but you will move forward as long as your leaders take you forward.

"You dig in and you make it work. You don't worry about the outside world. You worry about your community and that you are going to move it forward and you are going to take every opportunity that you can. You work together and you help each other."

She also offered advice to local politicians.

"Lead. Move forward. Be positive," she said. "You believe in yourself. Have a plan and believe in that plan and make it move. You are there to make the community work. I believe that you can make it - it is just going to take a lot of hard work.

"Never give up hope. That is the key."

Grand Falls-Windsor Mayor Al Hawkins said hope is what he's hanging onto.

"From where I am sitting, there is always hope," Hawkins said.

"These are pieces where, in spite of what has happened, obviously there is still confidence in papermaking or sawmilling or in the fibre resources. There is a future. We just have to be able to find the best utilization of that fibre to give the majority of workers.

"These good news stories are always good (sources of) hope. And I would be the happiest person around if we were able to find somebody that could take and utilize these buildings. It would be great. We always live in hope."

They are starting up one after the other again. It is not common to restart a pulp and paper mill. We are one of those anomalies. This is very unusual. I anticipate many people will come back, but we will have new people as well.

Organizations: AbitibiBowater, Sinar, Legislative Assembly

Geographic location: Grand Falls-Windsor, Abitibi, B.C. forest Victoria Newfoundland Jakarta China Chile

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