Last shipment of paper to board ship waiting in Botwood harbour

Century-old operation draws to a close

Sue Hickey
Published on February 13, 2009
The Amsterdam-registered Snoekgracht was the second-last vessel to arrive in Botwood Monday, to take on 9,000 tonnes of newsprint from the mill in Grand Falls-Windsor. The last ship was scheduled to arrive Thursday to take on paper. - Photo by Sue Hickey/The Advertiser

In 1909, the first roll of newsprint came out of the mill in Grand Falls-Windsor and was brought to a vessel waiting in Botwood.

And with that, the start of the "Great Outsiders' " - the Harmsworth brothers' - enterprise was in full swing.

Grand Falls-Windsor - In 1909, the first roll of newsprint came out of the mill in Grand Falls-Windsor and was brought to a vessel waiting in Botwood.

And with that, the start of the "Great Outsiders' " - the Harmsworth brothers' - enterprise was in full swing.

Fast-forward a century and the last lot of newsprint and a paper boat leaving Botwood for the last time marks the end of papermaking in central Newfoundland.

But while people in the region are sorrowful about that, a substantial number - including some of the more than 700 people losing their jobs - also see hope and possibility in the wake of the paper boat.

Among them is Botwood Mayor Jerry Dean, who's been working as a stevedore with AbitibiBowater and its previous incarnations for 28 years.

He admits the closure of the mill and affiliated operations is a major blow, though not an unexpected one.

"I'm a little bit apprehensive, I guess, in terms of how I'm starting off cold," he said.

"This is not something we're looking forward to. It's something like dealing with a family member who has terminal health issues. You know it's coming, but I guess it will strike home a lot harder when we put the last paper on board and she slips away from the wharf.

"That's the sentiment of most people I work with. It's been a hundred-year thing for this area. A lot of sentimentality is going to be attached to it all."

He appreciates the history of the industry in the region and is making an effort to provide his own contribution. He even got permission from AbitibiBowater to take pictures of onsite operations.

Dean will give the pictures to the local heritage society.

"We are going to all move ahead," he said. "Hopefully some of the other things that have surfaced in the last few weeks, with the help of the town councils in this area and the provincial and federal governments, and maybe some form of private businesses, will show a presence here sooner rather than later, because we still do have the resources here. And we're in a strategic spot."

Workers' views

Junior Downey of Grand Falls-Windsor is a veteran of the mill with decades of papermaking under his belt.

Some of the workers, he thinks, are relieved, because though the closing of the mill seems like the end of an era, it's an end which has been at least 10 years coming.

"We've been working under a strained and closure (environment), every day - talk of restructuring and things like that," he said. "I think some of them are relieved that they made it to pension age, and some of them are devastated."

When the last load of paper is finished, the workers' job still won't be finished, he added.

"We'll be cleaning up and (we'll) scrape her down for insurance purposes," he said of the paper-making machinery.

"What they're going to do, we don't know if they'll keep her running or keep the steam and that going. She's still sellable, but if they start taking off the bearings, then she's pure scrap after that.

"There will be some people, I guess, kept until ... probably a year or more, because now that Premier Danny Williams has expropriated the (mill's) power and that, he's got to have people in the know with regard to the dams. He's been working on that lately. Workers are hoping, too, now the premier has expropriated the land, he's going to do something with the timber, with possibilities such as a wood-pellet plant."

Downey said people are hoping the company doesn't go bankrupt, because if that happens, then there's no severance pay.

"The workforce remains until the end of March, as planned," he said.

"All that changes is that we will stop the actual paper operations and we will use the remaining six weeks to undertake all the appropriate cleaning-up operations and all initial steps related to safety and environment."

AbitibiBowater's challenge to the provincial government regarding the expropriation of resources hasn't ended yet, either.

Jean-Philippe CÔtÉ, AbitibiBowater's director of public affairs and government relations, said the paper giant is still planning to challenge the expropriation under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

"That requires a notice of intent, which is a mandatory procedure if you want to go ahead with a formal claim in the next few months," he said.

"We will be in a position to file a notice of intent quite shortly."