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As mills shutter, B.C. mayor says more support needed for boom-and-bust communities

Click to play video: 'Canfor mill closures cast doubt on future of forestry'
Canfor mill closures cast doubt on future of forestry
WATCH: The closure of two mills, in Chetwynd and Houston, is not just a blow for local communities, but the sector as a whole. Aaron McArthur reports. – Jan 26, 2023

The mayor of Houston, B.C., says the province needs to take more action to stabilize and protect northern B.C. communities like his that are vulnerable to boom and bust resource cycles.

On Wednesday, Canfor Corp. announced a major restructuring of its northern B.C. operations, which will involve shuttering its mill in Houston for an indefinite period as it looks at building a new facility there.

It also announced the permanent closure of its sawmill and pellet plant in Chetwynd, which will eliminate 157 jobs.

The company said it was too soon to say how many of the 333 workers in Houston will be laid off as it designs a “globally competitive manufacturing facility” producing “high-value products.”

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“The effects will be immediate. To put it in perspective, if you’re not from the north, we’re a small community of probably around 3,400 … there’s the work in the mill, but there’s the staff in administration, the people in the bush, then it ripples through the communities into our truck shops can contractors,” Houston Mayor Shane Brienen, who is also a labourer at the mill, told Global News.

“If you lived in a bigger centre it’s like waking up one day and every fourth person doesn’t have a job. It’s a tough day for communities and we’ve got a tough road ahead.”

Click to play video: 'B.C. launches rural economic development fund'
B.C. launches rural economic development fund

Brienen said the causes of the industry’s woes are multiple, including the pine beetle epidemic, recent wildfires, U.S. tariffs and economic headwinds including inflation.

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But he said the province has long undervalued the importance of resource communities like his, and underinvested in protecting them from downturns.

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“Since 1980, the two sawmills alone, without counting any mines, the stumpage (revenue) sent to Victoria or to the provincial government was over a billion dollars. And that’s not counting all the machinery and the workers’ tax,” he said.

“We’re boom and bust economies up here so there are downturns — but all along a portion of that stumpage should have come back to communities, and we should have had some kind of revenue sharing, because we really need to keep these towns in shape to attract workers so that when industry ramps up again, it always does … we need to be ready for those.”

Click to play video: 'Canfor permanently closing Prince George Pulp and Paper mill'
Canfor permanently closing Prince George Pulp and Paper mill

The mill closure news came just weeks after Canfor announced it was closing its pulp mill in Prince George, affecting 300 workers in that community.

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The company said the key issue is access to raw fibre, and that the restructuring is designed to match mill capacity to available resources.

“It’s a really tough decision to make a decision to close a facility. Unfortunately this is something we have known was coming for quite some time,” Canfor senior vice-president of global business development told Global News.

“The annual allowable cut has come down in the interior has dropped form 70-million cubic metres annually to about 50, and its going just under 40. That’s a 30 million cubic metre drop.”

Canfor is not the only forestry company in B.C. facing difficult conditions.

Major producers Tolko Industries and the Sinclair Group have extended temporary layoffs into February.

Click to play video: 'Canfor announces curtailments at BC sawmills'
Canfor announces curtailments at BC sawmills

The BC Liberal opposition says the NDP government hasn’t done enough.

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“This is a struggle that I think in some ways could have been avoided if the government had put a little more attention into an important sector like forestry is in our province,” Forestry Critic Mike Bernier said.

Last week, the B.C. NDP announced a pair of funding announcements to help the struggling sector, including $90 million to promote value-added forestry products and $50 million to help get fire-damaged wood to pulp mills.

Forestry Minister Bruce Ralston said the government was committed to workers in the industry.

“There is a full team from the Ministry of Forests that will be on the ground assisting workers and their families in making the very difficult transition that’s just been announced,” he said.

Canfor expects to begin winding down operations at the mills this spring, and it could take up to two years to reopen the Houston facility, and with fewer jobs.

“We’re optimistic, but no one ever likes to hear mabye or that it’s got to go to a board. I think that makes people anxious when there is a waiting period in the community,” Brienen said.

“These are working pepole, they don’t want to be on unemployment or sitting around. They want to be working and making money and are proud of their contribution.”

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