Former mill worker reflects on closure after three years

Sue Hickey
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The former AbitibiBowater paper mill in Grand Falls-Windsor is quiet three years after its closure. — Krysta Colbourne/The Advertiser

Other towns and cities around the world have seen factories and plants shut down, often for financial reasons.

But when AbitibiBowater ann-ounced in December 2008 it was shutting down its operations in Grand Falls-Windsor, it initially heralded a period of grief for residents.

No more would the mill whistle blow, loggers harvest wood for the company, the paper machines run, or the ocean-going paper boats visit the port of Botwood to take on massive spools of newsprint to ship around the world.

The mill, a product of high industrial technology for its time, and the descendant of the company that built it, couldn’t even win a race against the formidable trio of technological change, a soaring Canadian dollar and a sagging interest in traditional newspapers.

More than 700 people in Exploits Valley communities lost their paper-associated jobs when AbitibiBowater closed the Grand Falls-Windsor mill.

The move initially stirred a simmering cauldron of emotion and politics, with workers forced to deal with their futures, businesses contemplating how their bottom line could be affected, and politicians making plans to boost the economy of the area through grants and job creation programs.

The premier at the time, Danny Williams, vowed to fight AbitibiBowater, and ordered the expropriation of the water and timber rights, based on early agreements from 1905 which claimed the Anglo-Newfoundland Development Company only had those rights as long as it was creating jobs.

Abitibi in turn invoked the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the federal government eventually paid the company off with $300 million to avoid a long, expensive legal battle.

As for the mill workers left behind?

Grand Falls-Windsor has seen an increase in population, and according to one former mill employee, many of those let go through layoff or early retirement are moving on.

“Everyone has settled down in one way or another and anyone whose wife was working in Grand Falls-Windsor with a good job, these people stayed here,” said Junior Downey. “Those people who are the breadwinners of their families, 90 per cent of those are working back and forth through Alberta, and tradespeople who are working somewhere, most of them are going to Alberta. That’s what happened to the mill workers here.”

Downey is appreciative of what the provincial government did to help workers in the wake of the massive layoff. They did do a good job, he said, setting up programs for the workers to go back to school for training in various fields, and paying 100 per cent of their tuition. He also hopes that workers at Corner Brook Pulp and Paper will benefit from similar treatment from the province if Kruger, the operator, has to make cutbacks, which have been talked about recently.

“I’m hoping that if anything happens to Corner Brook, that they do just as good of a job for them as they have done for here,” he said.

With regard to the Abitibi shutdown, Downey said it probably wasn’t a total surprise to workers at the Grand Falls operation.

“I think they all knew it. Some of them didn’t believe it, but I’m a firm believer that if you’re not making money over all these years, you’re going to shut your doors, and the reason why they shut their doors was because Grand Falls became too costly to run,” he said.

While workers had to face rejigging their financial futures, Downey said there was another cost many of them had to face.

“The socializing. When these people were going to work, a lot of these people, the biggest part of their social life was in the mill,” he explained.

“With 70 to 80 per cent of the workers, the best part of their social life was in the mill. They looked forward to going in there, seeing their buddies, and now that part of their life is gone, and they’re home, they haven’t developed social skills.”

He added a number of the ex-workers are not volunteering for anything.

“What I keep telling them, if you’re bored at home, get out and volunteer with an organization. You’ll meet people and get out in the community,” he said. “I’m busy as a beaver. I get up in the morning, and I got 22 things to do, and when I go to bed at night, I got 25 left.”

Organizations: AbitibiBowater, Anglo-Newfoundland Development Company

Geographic location: Grand Falls-Windsor, Grand Falls, Botwood Abitibi Exploits Valley Alberta Corner Brook

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Recent comments

  • lonenewfwolf
    April 04, 2012 - 09:07

    Great article Sue. NIce to see a reporter telling the story of humanity in the face of corporate greed. The Abitibi expropriation had alot to do with the water rights Harper handed over via the NAFTA settlement afterwards. The court case was picked up by the Council of Canadians who believe that it may have been an attempt to privatize Canadian water via NAFTA Chapter 11. The sister dam to Star Lake is Rattle Brook which is owned by EMERA via Algonquin Utilities, who have continuously bought into that utility since '09. The changes to the water act and the legislation covering both dam projects were changed b/w '01-'03. They are using that legislation + the NAFTA payout for non-existent water rights to rewrite BC's water act and the regulations around water licences out there. EMERA is here to set up a water market before CETA gets engaged and they can then sell off the rights. Kruger will follow if we allow it all to go through. I know for a fact Abitibi had a room full of lawyers working on the water rights associated with that mill. The 999yr inperpetuity lease, renewed in '03 Abitibi had on Red Indian Lake was taken as well, not sure where that sits now or how it fits in under NAFTA/CETA. If we do not continue to ask questions and demand water stay out of corporate control we will be paying the salaries of CEO's in NY every time we turn on a water tap for a shower, to drink a glass of water or bath our children. DETAILS DETAILS EH??!! Keep up the good work.

  • Don II
    March 29, 2012 - 09:31

    The Mill workers in Grand Falls all cheered and backed Danny Williams to the hilt when he ordered the immediate expropriation of Abitibi. Who benefited from that abuse of corporate rights by the Government of Newfoundland? Abitibi got $300 Million from the Government of Canada and laughed when the Government of Newfoundland inadvertently expropriated the contaminated Abitibi Mill thereby releasing Abiitibi from any responsibility for cleaning up the environmentally degraded Mill and land. It appears that privately owned houses and other lands that were not involved with Abitibi were also expropriated by mistake and had to be returned! The workers lost their jobs and the Government of Newfoundland sent such a negative message to corporations around the world that if you come to Newfoundland to invest, do not displease us or we will expropriate your property just because we can! Who benefited? Danny Williams did because he was cheered and voted for as a hero standing up for Newfoundland. Of course that was not really the case. Williams actions did permanent damage to the reputation of Newfoundland as a place for corporations to invest. Nalcor got Abitibi hydro electrical generation assets for a pittance but those assets are old or obsolete and will cost Nalcor dearly in the years to come. Did the workers in Grand Falls benefit from the expropriation of Abitibi? No way! Act in haste and repent at your leisure.This is what happens when you elect a dictator and a brainless Government!