Allen Courtoreille worked for 40 years at Canfor’s Chetwynd sawmill and pellet plant before becoming that community’s mayor in 2018. Last month, he was among the first of Chetwynd’s 2,500 residents to learn that Canfor would permanently close the mill.
“Both on the economic side and the on the personal level, it is quite devastating. It’s horrible for both myself and the community.”
Canfor President and CEO Don Kayne announced the closure as part of a plan to create a “more sustainable operating footprint” in B.C.
“Our goal is to match our mill capacity with the economically available fibre for harvest to enhance our ability to compete and to operate throughout the market cycles,” he said in a release.
For Chetwynd, which is located in the Peace River region, the closure means the loss of about 120 jobs. Canfor’s plans also affect Houston, where the company will temporarily close its sawmill, which employs some 280 people. Canfor plans to retool that operation, but it isn’t clear yet how many jobs would come back.
Courtoreille said it will take his community some time to come to grip with closure, partly because the mill stands in the middle of Chetwynd, visible from all directions as a reminder of what once was.
“Right now, it’s about our employees, our friends that work in our mill and it’s going to take a little while,” he said.
Courtoreille has a sense of what employees and their families are going through. He found himself temporarily laid off for two years starting in 2008. “The initial shock when they told me I [didn’t] have a job, that was devastating,” he said. “I still remember that day and how I felt that day.”
Chetwynd’s budget will also feel the effects. The mill has provided about $3.5 million over ten years in taxes to the town.
Chief Administrative Officer Steve McLain said the additional spin-offs are incalculable.
“(We) do not yet know how many displaced workers will retire, move to other communities, or remain in Chetwynd with different employment,” he said. “As you can imagine, this closure will very significantly impact our entire community for a period of years.”
The permanent closure in Chetwynd and the temporary closure in Houston are only the latest pieces of bad news for the provincial forestry industry and the communities that rely on it. Recent weeks have seen permanent and temporary closures across the province, with thousands of jobs lost.
“As a province, we need to realize how connected we really are,” said Mike Bernier, MLA for Peace River South and the B.C. Liberals’ shadow minister for forests. “I have seen some people on my social media from the Vancouver area saying, ‘Oh, it’s only 200 jobs.’ And I’m thinking, ‘wow,’ for a small community of a couple of thousand people, 200 jobs is massive.”
Their loss has certainly caught the attention of the provincial government.
Minister of Forests Bruce Ralston and Minister of Jobs, Economic Development and Innovation Brenda Bailey issued a joint statement on Jan. 25 in which they promised to support workers and families.
“Community support teams have been activated and will be there to connect workers with the services they need,” they said.
They added that forestry is and will remain a foundation of B.C.’s economy, and pointed to two recent investments the province has made in innovating the industry.
Bernier said any promises of provincial help is a case of too little, too late. New Democrats have been sitting on their hands for the last five to six years when it comes to helping the forestry sector, he said.
“They watched as the forestry sector has declined, they haven’t spoken about it, supported it and now at the 11th hour, they are coming out with these band-aids pretending to care about the families and the jobs that are being affected,” he said.
The industry needs more certainty and workers fewer promises of finding jobs in other ‘green’ sectors, he added.
“Somebody who has worked for 3o years in a mill does not want to be retrained to work in the tech sector in Vancouver, when they have spent their entire life in rural B.C.,” he said. “That’s the last thing they want to hear. They would rather stay in their communities and keep their jobs.”
Courtoreille also has a long-wish list for the province, including less red tape and more local input.
“Local government should be involved in local stuff,” he said.
Canfor said in a release that it will help the communities with a “comprehensive set of support mechanisms,” but didn’t provide details.
Courtoreille said Canfor will pay its taxes to the municipality through 2024 and pay eligible workers a severance among other support measures including moving costs. He said the province is also working on plans to help senior employees transition into early retirement.
Other economic opportunities also exist in the area, he said. “We do have oil and gas in the area and we still have the one saw mill in the area, which will benefit,” he said. Coal mines also exist in the area, he added.
Courtoreille, who praised Canfor’s role as an employer during his time as mayor, said he doesn’t want to downplay the significance of the closure. But he also tried to strike a note of optimism.
“We have to able to think that way,” he said. “If we don’t think that way, then start throwing the dirt on us.”
Black Press Media has reached out to Canfor and the provincial government for additional details and comment.