May 22, 2024

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Hundreds lose jobs as northern B.C. mill closures come into effect

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Hundreds lose jobs as northern B.C. mill closures come into effect

Hundreds of people will soon be off the job in northern B.C. as Canfor shutters operations at mills in Prince George, Chetwynd and Houston.

On Thursday, dozens of past and present employees of Prince George Pulp and Paper gathered outside the plant to take a group photo as they marked their final shifts on the job.

The company announced the closures in January, and employees have been winding down operations and preparing for next steps ever since.

The pulp line of the Prince George Pulp and Paper Mill, in operation since the 1960s, ended production on April 3. The paper line will continue to operate, as will Canfor’s two other pulp mills and other facilities in the city.

Still, it means the end of an era for people who have built their careers at the facility.

“It’s been tough,” said Clayton Nyberg, who’s been at the mill as a power engineer for 13 years. He said there’s a whiteboard inside where people have been sharing messages about where they’re going to next in an effort to keep in touch.

Radio West8:44Staff at a Canfor mill in Prince George say a final goodbye as the mill is shutting down after being in operation since the 1960s

Staff at a Canfor mill in Prince George say a final goodbye as the mill is shutting down after being in operation since the 1960s

And in a Facebook group called “PG Pulp Mill Survivors,” employees have been sharing memories and posting photos of “lasts” — the last load of chips, the last shutdown of the recovery boiler, the last run of the digester.

In Prince George, at least, many people are able to get work elsewhere in the city. It’s not necessarily the story in Houston, 300 kilometres west of Prince George, where the sawmill stopped operating on March 31. The kilns and planer facility will continue to run until mid-April, at which point the mill will shut down, and Canfor will begin a multi-year process of repurposing the site for a manufacturing plant.

Nor is it the same in Chetwynd, where the sawmill is permanently closing, operations are expected to wind down by the end of April.

Those communities, much smaller, have fewer options to keep people employed and is expected to “gut” them, in the words of local leaders.

In total, about 640 people are being impacted in the three communities, according to a statement from Canfor spokesperson Michelle Ward.

 

Ward said that of the 440 employees being affected by the closures in Chetwynd and Houston, 80 have taken jobs with the company elsewhere, while 70 are retiring or applying for a bridging to retirement support program.

In Prince George, there are 200 full-time positions being impacted, and roughly half of those job losses have been “mitigated” through “internal transfers, early retirements and voluntary departures,” Ward said in an email.

“Both Canfor and Canfor Pulp will continue to work closely with the unions, the B.C. government and municipal and other community programs through this transition stage with hopes of some further employee retention and supports.”

‘A profound effect’

Among those taking early retirement is city Coun. Brian Skakun, who first started with the company in 1988. 

“I thought, I can go, I can get a little bit of financial help, and then one less person is going to lose their job and possibly have to move out of the community,” he said of the decision.

But Skakun worried about the economic impact the losses would have on Prince George and the even greater impact on Chetwynd and Houston, which have less diversified economies and a much smaller population.

“When you lose one job, it has such a profound effect on all the others,” he said. 

Joel McKay, the CEO of the economic development organization Northern Development Trust, said his organization is forecasting three spin-off jobs being impacted for every mill job that disappears, including support industries like trucking and in other areas such as retail and restaurants.

“It is significant,” he said.

B.C. Premier David Eby has previously warned that the province’s forestry sector has “never been under greater stress” as a result of decades of change and decline.

In response, the province announced several supports for the industry, including a $90-million manufacturing jobs fund, $50 million to access hard-to-reach fibre in fire-damaged regions, and a $4.5-million investment to help reopen a Vancouver Island pulp and paper mill.

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