Former mill worker reflects on closure after three years

Sue Hickey shickey@advertisernl.ca
Published on March 29, 2012
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.”