The domino effect of a mill’s death

Canfor’s decision to shutter its Vavenby operation will impact many throughout the region

Sixty-four-year-old Don McCuaig was planning retirement next year until plans were cut short this week with news Vavenby’s Canfor mill will close in July.

Canfor will close its sawmill and sell its timber rights to Interfor Corp. for $60 million.

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McCuaig is one of about 175 workers to directly lose their jobs. In a word, he feels “lost.”

“This is a big part of my life,” McCuaig told KTW, donning a “Canfor” hardhat with sawdust flying into his face. “I’ve been here 44 years. Your job, that’s a big part of your life, right? When that’s gone, now what, right? You don’t have the money to do too much. You can’t just sit on the couch because that’s going to go downhill pretty quick. So, it’s still up in the air.”

McCuaig, a heavy duty mechanic who lives in Clearwater, will make adjustments in light of early retirement — the odd project that won’t get finished — but counts himself lucky his house is paid off and grateful for a career that allowed him to do so.

McCuaig is one of an estimated 35 to 45 people let go within reach of retirement and anticipates a payout of 10 days per year of service.

McCuaig will not receive annually what he earned at the mill — never a good thing, he said, when prices for everything from food to gas and insurance continue to rise.

McCuaig worries for young families and expects they will leave the area to find work.

He would, if he were younger.

“Mortgages, car payments, children,” McCuaig said. “It’s going to be really tough.”

That concern is echoed by Area A TNRD director Carol Schaffer. Calling the news “devastating”, she worries for the community’s elementary school, which just expanded to Grade 5, with plans to grow by two more grades by 2021.

vavenby mill
The Canfor mill in Vavenby will close for good in July, leaving 175 people without jobs. - Jessica Wallace/KTW

Schaffer was surprised to hear of permanent closure, rather than a temporary shutdown, as has occurred in the past. The news is indicative of a greater trend, she said.

“We don’t have a mill from Valemount all the way to Barriere now that’s open and we used to have Weyerhaeuser, Canfor here,” Schaffer said. “There used to be a mill in Clearwater, a mill in Avola years ago. Blue River and Valemount’s closed. Our mills are going by the wayside.”

Following a one-day operational shutdown in light of the bad news, the mill was back in operation on Wednesday.

A flurry of logging trucks drove in and out of the area.

The Vavenby mill was the largest employer in the region, with North Thompson forestry having an economic spinoff of between $40 million and $60 million annually. The mill was central, processing fir logs cut within 100 kilometres of Clearwater and processed into dimensional lumber: two-by-fours, two-by-sixes and two-by-eights. The mill paid good salaries, offered university-paying jobs and helped cover many a mortgage.

vavenby mill
Thompson Nicola Cariboo United Way executive director Danalee Baker said Canfor was the main contributor to the North Thompson Community Fund, which has totalled $300,000 since 2005 and has supported schools and the local food bank. Mill employees have been “so generous to the community,” she said. Ironically, those employees now need support. Beneficiaries of the fund’s supports this year have not yet been allocated. Baker said United Way hopes to be alongside the community to support those in need during tough times, with money likely going to the food bank, schools and Yellowhead Community Services Society. Baker said United Way will take the lead from the community. Additionally, a job creation program United Way is applying for could help about 10 people. “It’s time to repay the favour,” Baker said. - Jessica Wallace/KTW

While some employees may be transferred, the jobs will effectively be gone by the end of July.

Frustration and condolences could be heard over purchases of pizza and six-packs at The Vavenby Store, just down the road from the mill.

The store is one of the only retail outlets in the small community of 300 just north of Clearwater, selling a little bit of everything from local honey and eggs to sandwiches, alcohol and work gloves. It’s the place mill workers and contractors grab lunch and customers talk shop with the clerk.

“Sad about the mill closing,” one customer said, though store owner Joylene Baylene remains optimistic. When one door shuts, she said, another opens.

A young customer impacted, however, did not share her enthusiasm: “I don’t want to talk about it, really. They’re f----d. I don’t like them. I was there for six years. … It’s a f-----g joke.”

MANY IN CLEARWATER WILL BE IMPACTED

Most of the mill’s workers and contractors live about 20 minutes down the highway in Clearwater, a community of about 2,400 that boasts shopping, doctors and recreation.

That’s also where most of the mill’s tax dollars go, about $120,000 per year — or five to six per cent of the community’s tax base. The money won’t immediately dry up until the equipment goes and takes with it the property value.

Wood chips from the mill also heat Clearwater’s civic facilities, a system that garnered the community an Environmental Innovation Award from the Southern Interior Local Government Association and netted the District of Clearwater $90,000 in annual savings as a workaround to propane heating (natural gas is unavailable).

“Clearwater has been a pretty big hub for those people in the North Thompson Valley for 100 years,” Clearwater Mayor Merlin Blackwell said. “And there’s quite a lot of small, long-term, multigenerational families that have been logging in this community.”

merlin blackwell vavenby
Clearwater Mayor Merlin Blackwell next to the building that houses wood chips from the mill, used to provide heat for the community’s civic buildings. - Jessica Wallace/KTW

Those contractors are without union support and perhaps have the least certainty.

Blackwell worries for those employees impacted indirectly. Contractors might have the opportunity to work with Interfor, but demand for wood remains sketchy.

Doug Borrow, who has owned Borrow Enterprise in Clearwater for 30 years, has been getting calls from forestry employees looking for work, but has laid off 20 staff as a result of losing his biggest contract with the mill — one he had for 15 years and which was worth $2 million annually.

“It’ll affect our bottom line, huge,” Borrow told KTW.

Driving into Clearwater, the highway is filled with logging trucks and RVs. The other major industry in the area is tourism, worth approximately $40 million per year.

However, tourism jobs are largely seasonal and lower-paid, compared to forestry jobs.

“To me, tourism is good for the guy that owns it but it’s not for the worker,” Schaffer said.

“When you’re used to making $35 to $40 [per hour] and you go down to $15, you need two jobs.”

Clearwater Century 21 real estate agent Larissa Hadley said she has received a couple of calls this week requesting market analysis.

She said when Weyerhaeuser closed in the early 2000s, impacts were not felt until the two subsequent years.

A “huge impact” was felt in 2005, she said, when houses sold for $70,000. Today, demand is high and supply is low, with houses selling for about $200,000.

How long that continues remains to be seen. The area seemed to be on the rebound, having withstood that difficult time.

“Real estate doesn’t get impacted immediately,” Hadley said.

KAMLOOPS SUPPLIERS, RETAIL WILL FEEL RIPPLES SOUTH

Impacts will be felt in the North Thompson and reverberate south to Kamloops.

Kamloops resident and logger Jim Kopytko recently purchased a brand new piece of machinery at Kenworth in the River City to cut logs for the Vavenby mill.

It cost $700,000 and he had barely taken if off the lot when he got word of the mill closing.

Now he is waiting to hear whether his contract will be picked up by Interfor. He has already laid off five people.

“It’s a person’s whole livelihood,” Kopytko said.

The Goat Creek Logging Limited owner has logged his whole life and runs a family business. He said his heart breaks thinking about the future.

“There’s so many new jobs, they call them,” Kopytko said.

“Ninety per cent of those new jobs are part-time jobs, minimum-wage jobs. This is hard to make a family life for. These [forestry jobs] are permanent, full-time, good-paying jobs being lost this week.

“Being a Canadian taxpayer all my life, I just, it makes me sick because there’s so many people out there. Family out there is the most important thing to me in my life and it’s hard to see my grandkids going out on these part-time jobs.

“Part-time, minimum-wage jobs. And they’ve got to live at home at 20 years old because it’s so hard to get a job that pays, and now another one [mill closure] just goes south,” Kopytko said.

He said his business has multiple economic spinoffs, from that brand new piece of equipment to fuel to repairs.

He estimated spring repairs at the Kamloops supplier led to a bill of between $125,000 and $130,000.

Aldin Loewen, owner of Loewen Forestry Equipment in Kamloops, said when loggers are out of work, it directly and negatively impacts his bottom line.

Business from the North Thompson equates to between $5,000 and $10,000 a month.

“If they’re out of work, it affects us down here,” Loewen said.

“A lot of people would feel that big time. It’s a huge impact on a lot of people.”

Blackwell said the average person in Kamloops might not notice impacts from the Vavenby mill closure, but certain companies will.

Additionally, Kamloops is a large community in proximity to the North Thompson. When the area is hit financially, fewer shopping trips are taken into town.

“Buying power, 172, 178 people, high-paying jobs that were at Costco, were buying things in Kamloops, buying cars, all gone,” Blackwell said. “If you’re even worried about money, even the contractor who still has his job, you stop spending.”

WHAT COMES NEXT?

Schaffer and Blackwell are meeting with provincial and federal counterparts to come up with plans for economic diversification.

A job fair was planned this week, with hopes some mill employees would be absorbed.

Contractors remain on standby.

On Wednesday, Blackwell spoke to Forests Minister Doug Donaldson about a potential fuel-mitigation project in the area this fall, in which people are hired to clear the area of debris (fuel) for forest fires.

He also noted the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project — which has yet to be approved by the federal government — as an injection of cash in the community. A potential copper and gold mine in the area is in the environmental-assessment stage.

“As mayor of Clearwater, that’s one that I am going to push government to start assisting,” Blackwell said.

He hopes the community forest will expand and that government will support efforts to purchase a wood chipper to continue heating civic buildings.

That, however, is far down the list of priorities, he said.

Schaffer said improved cell service and internet in the area would help draw more people to the region, especially those who can work remotely.

As the community grapples with what fallout effect of the mill closure, Blackwell said his phone has not stopped ringing since the news.

Schaffer said the area will need all of the help it can get.

Added Blackwell: “We will make it through.”

© Kamloops This Week

 


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