Canadian Manufacturing

Paper mill closures to affect rural B.C. towns

The Canadian Press

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A range of pressures on British Columbia forests are reverberating this spring through Houston and other rural and northern communities, where sawmill, pellet and pulp closures are affecting hundreds of workers.

When Mayor Shane Brienen of Houston, B.C., thinks about the impact of the impending closure of the town’s sawmill, he worries not only about the economic fallout.

He thinks about the holes that the workers and their spouses will leave in the community.

“Maybe in their spare time they were coaching or running your hiking club. Maybe the spouse is a school teacher or ambulance driver,” Brienen said.

A range of pressures on British Columbia forests are reverberating this spring through Houston and other rural and northern communities, where sawmill, pellet and pulp closuresare affecting hundreds of workers. Mayors say there’s still a future in the industry, but they will need support to realize it.


Brienen, who works at Canfor’s Houston mill along with more than 300 others, said he considers the town better prepared than others because it has experience getting through the permanent closure of a mill owned by a different company in 2014.

Last month, Canfor announced its mill would shut down in April or May, a move it said would be temporary while it plans a new facility in the northern community with a population of about 3,000 people. Brienen said he’s optimistic about the plan, but in the meantime, workers are facing a gap of at least two years.

The situation is different about 600 kilometres northeast in Chetwynd, named the nation’s “Forestry Capital” by the Canadian Forestry Association in 1992.

Canfor is permanently closing its sawmill and pellet plant there, putting nearly 160 people out of work in the municipality with a census population of 2,300.

“It was devastating to hear it because that was my employment for 41 years,” Mayor Allen Courtoreille said a week after the Jan. 25 announcement.

While B.C. officials promise support and a modernized vision for the industry, with the goal of creating more jobs per tree, Courtoreille is worried about the workers’ immediate needs.

“Once the initial shock is over, and the dust settles, we’re going to look at it and say, OK, what do we do now?”

It’s a familiar story, as Statistics Canada numbers show B.C. has lost more than 40,000 forest-sector jobs since the early 1990s.

But with many factors coming to a head, the sector has “never been under greater stress,” Premier David Eby wrote in his December mandate letter for newly appointed Forests Minister Bruce Ralston.

The factors include severe wildfires, fluctuating lumber prices and the long-standing Canada-U. S. dispute over the softwood lumber trade.

A tiny insect has also had a massive effect on B.C.’s forests. Years of mountain pine beetle infestations spurred by warmer winters killed swaths of trees, which were then logged at high rates as the province and the industry tried to salvage some economic value rather than let the wood rot.

A statement from Canfor president Don Kayne said the company made the “difficult but necessary decisions” to close its operations in Chetwynd and Houston in order to “create a more sustainable operating footprint in B.C.,” with the goal of matching mill capacity with the supply of fibre that’s economically available to harvest.

The province has also appointed a council to advise on the development and delivery of new programs related to innovation, infrastructure development and economic diversification in communities affected by pressures on the sector.

Brienen said priorities in Houston include assessing the workforce to see who might be eligible for bridging to retirement and who could benefit from skills training.

There’s a shortage of skilled trades workers in B.C.’s northwest, he said, and the municipality is working with nearby colleges regarding training.

Looking ahead, communities like his can’t continue as one-industry towns, Brienen said.

“As forestry goes forward, and almost every industry, we’re going to modernize more and more, so you’re going to have less of a workforce,” he said.

“It helps to have a major industry, but you’ve got to start separating from that a little bit as well.”


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