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Layoffs looming, Northwood Pulp employees facing tough times ahead

Canfor union president Chuck LeBlanc relives pain of pulp mill workers about to lose their livelihoods
PPPWC Local 9 president Chuck LeBlanc knows what the 220 workers at Northwood Pulp facing layoffs are going through. He went through a similar Canfor cutback last year at Prince George Pulp and Paper, where he works as a milwright.

Last week's announcement of Canfor’s plan to indefinitely curtail production of one of its two pulp lines at Northwood Pulp & Timber hit like a bad case in indigestion for Chuck LeBlanc.

It struck a raw nerve that still hasn’t healed for LeBlanc, the president of Public Private Workers of Canada Local 9, the union that represents mill workers at Prince George Pulp and Paper.

Sixteen months ago, Canfor swung the axe that chopped about 130 unionized workers and 50 or 60 management staff out of the payroll at PG Pulp when the company permanently close the pulp line due to a lack of the raw material needed to produce pulp, the chips that come from sawmills. The mill that stood tall as a Prince George landmark since it opened in 1966 was shut down for the final time in April 2023.

“For us it’s reliving last year and our closure, seeing it happen to our brothers and sisters up at the Unifor local, it’s just awful,” said LeBlanc, a millwright at Canfor’s Intercon Mill. “I know the pain that our members went through last year and I know those members and their families are going to feel the same thing.”

Now, with the latest round of cuts, which also includes the permanent shutdown of Polar Sawmill at Bear Lake, that means 400 workers (220 at Northwood, 180 at Polar) will soon be out of their jobs.

When the PG Pulp closure was announced on Jan. 11, 2023, it was feared as many as 300 positions would be lost. About 70 workers took early retirements, 30 found employment with other companies and dozens more accepted positions at the Intercon or Northwood mills. That reduced the actual job losses to about 100 permanent positions.

There won’t be that wiggle room for Northwood workers. LeBlanc said while there could some retirement bridging incentive packages offered to longtime staff, the company does not have positions available elsewhere and won’t have the flexibility to move workers to other sites.

B.C. is the highest lumber cost producer in Canada and that’s making lumber giants like Canfor and West Fraser Timber reconsider their mill operations in B.C. towns and cities that depend on them as the major private employer. Fraser Lake lost its sawmill in January this year when West Fraser decided to pull the pin when it was deemed no longer profitable, leaving the village of about 1,000 people 160 km west of Prince George with no major industry.

Canfor announced Friday it no longer plans to reinvest in modernizing its Houstron Sawmill, about 300 km west of the city. Shutting down the Northwood pulp line will take 300,000 tonnes of kraft pulp the mill makes annually out of the market.

“We’ve been talking to the (provincial) government the last year-and-a-half here and we thought we were making some inroads but they just seem very slow in getting the wood out,” said LeBlanc.

“We’re not even cutting the allowable cut  and that makes no sense to me. You set an allowable cut but don’t hit those targets (the actual harvest in B.C. in 2023 was 43 per cent less than what was established as the Annual Allowable Cut) and we’re closing mills. It’s just baffling to me. There’s no excuse that we can’t get this wood out, it has to happen.”

Canfor president and CEO Kevin Edgson acknowledged that despite wildfires and beetle infestations there are still plenty of trees to be cut, but harvest levels have fallen well below the AAC increasingly due to the impact of policy choices and regulatory complexity.

“I’ve always said it’s been a long line of bad decisions,” said LeBlanc. “Right now I’m putting it right on the government’s doorstep, ‘you keep telling us that you’re going to get this fixed  but we’re not seeing that action.’ We need the action now before we lose more jobs.”

In November 2021 the province announced it was defer logging on 2.6 million hectares of old-growth forest in an effort to prevent deforestation and slow climate change. LeBlanc said a blanket rule for the entire province on old-growth protection should not apply to northern B.C., where annual growth is slower because of the harsh winter climate. He says those older trees should be available for harvest before the get attacked by beetles or other diseases and die before they can be delivered to sawmills.

“Environmentalists have done a great job of messaging to the general public on old growth and caribou habitat and stuff like that and I truly believe a lot of it, but let’s be realistic here, most of the people that care about old growth are thinking about those majestic trees like the Ancient Forest, the great big monstrous-type trees,” said LeBlanc.

“A lot of the trees in the north can be considered old growth because it takes them so long to grow that big and they’re a tenth the size of what most people are thinking, but that’s our fibre basket. They’ve put a bunch of it away that will never get touched again. What we can cut is about a third of the forests out there.”

LeBlanc says loggers have compounded the problem of the lack of fibre when they were allowed to step up forest harvesting during the pandemic when lumber prices rose to all-time high. Forest companies have cut the stands that are easily accessible and are now crying foul because those trees are not so close anymore when, he says, they should have been taking from near and far sources all those years to allow the industry to sustain itself.

“They’ve creamed the real good wood that is close to the mills very early on and now that they have to go further out, all of a sudden in becomes uneconomical,” said LeBlanc. “There’s too many bad decisions from the forest industry and forest policy and company directives on how they’re going to bring wood in and all that is leading up where we are today, families losing their jobs and their livelihoods and affecting communities.”