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Canfor closure of Chetwynd mill 'a kick in the gut'

Canfor is closing another set of mills in northern B.C., this time in Chetwynd and Houston. The company said Wednesday it was permanently closing its sawmill and pellet operations in Chetwynd, where about 200 jobs are expected to be lost.
Chetwynd pellet plant | Canfor

Canfor is closing another set of mills in northern B.C., this time in Chetwynd and Houston.

The company said Wednesday it was permanently closing its sawmill and pellet operations in Chetwynd, where about 200 jobs are expected to be lost.

The company also announced a temporary closure of its Houston sawmill for "a major redevelopment" on the site, affecting close to 300 workers.

"We recognize that today’s announcement will have both temporary and permanent impacts on employees, families, contractors and communities. That’s why we are putting in place a comprehensive set of support mechanisms to help minimize the impacts of this transition," said company president and CEO Don Kayne in a statement.

"In addition, we will be working with our industry partners and Indigenous Nations to ensure that fibre currently processed at the Chetwynd facility is utilized to support other local and regional manufacturing facilities, helping them to be more sustainable and to keep people working in the Peace Region."

The Chetwynd closure comes after an extension of holiday production curtailments to Jan. 23. And it follows on the heels of a Jan. 11 announcement that Canfor was permanently closing the pulp line at its Prince George Pulp and Paper Mill, where 300 jobs will be lost.

Peace River South MLA Mike Bernier called the news “devastating.”

“Anytime you have an announcement like this it’s heartbreaking for the families that are affected,” said Bernier, also the Opposition critic for forestry. “For a community like Chetwynd, this is a huge loss to the community.”

Brian O'Rourke, president of the United Steelworkers Local 1-2017, which represents around 135 Canfor workers in Chetwynd and 280 in Houston, described the news as “a kick in the gut," and "very troubling news for two small communities.”

“These folks just returned from a five-week curtailment just Monday this week,” he said of the Chetwynd closure. "Everybody was quite happy they returned on a five-day work week, they’ve been on fours in the past."

Canfor says it expects operations at both Chetwynd and Houston facilities to be wound down by the second quarter of 2023. The closures will remove approximately 750 million board feet of annual production capacity, the company said.

In Houston, the company said it "intends to build a new, modern, globally competitive manufacturing facility that employs state of the art technology to produce high value products from the sustainable timber supply in the region."

"Project planning, scoping, preliminary engineering and budgeting are underway," the company said, with a final investment decision also expected by the end of the second quarter.

"The Houston investment would represent another significant commitment and be amongst the largest capital expenditures in a new wood products manufacturing facility in B.C.’s interior in two decades," said Kayne.

Even if the Houston mill redevelopment proceeds, O'Rourke says the temporary closure there could last up to two years before it gets up and running.

“That’s going to depend on everything from markets to equipment being available, you name it,” he said, adding the union will be meeting with the company to put transition committees in place to address the fallout of the closures.

“Hopefully people are able to move, whether they can transfer to other Canfor operations,” O'Rourke said. “Obviously, we’ll definitely be in touch with the government trying to leverage whatever training dollars, or whatever money is available, to help ease the pressure for these folks.”

Bernier says Canfor still has a business case to operate the Houston mill, which he says was designed and built to deal with the pine beetle epidemic. But companies across the province, including in the Peace region, are struggling to secure long-term tenures for fibre supply, he said.

He blamed the provincial government for being reactionary in its response to the mounting pressures in B.C's forestry sector, despite what he says is still an abundance of supply in the province.

"It’s not that the timber's not there, they can’t get permits, they can’t get agreement from government that they can access that timber, so they can’t continue to work in that environment," Bernier said.

“You watch the NDP in the last week have been making a flurry of announcements to say that they care about forestry but that’s like a band-aid on a major artery that’s burst," he said.

Regarding the immediate future of affected workers, Bernier said, “Right now, we got to think of what we’re going to do about these hundreds of people that are going to lose their jobs, where are they going to go, how are they going to feed their families?”

“The last thing we want to see is people moving away from the Peace region. We got a lot of opportunity here if we can make it happen,” he said.

But Bernier says leaders in the Peace region will also have to work together to push the government to provide certainty for industry.

“We saw this play out and we saw this discussion take place over the last few years with the caribou, when government came in and started saying we’re going to shut down areas of the Peace region where you can’t go anymore, you can’t log, you can’t access,” he said. “Anytime you start taking away areas from these companies, it weakens their business case to operate in the area. We knew that, we warned government."

"In the Peace region, we’re seeing continual lack of understanding from Victoria on what happens up here,” he said. “They seem to have no problem trying to protect land but forget that comes at a price of people losing their jobs and communities being negatively affected.”

In a joint statement, forests minister Bruce Ralston and jobs minister Brenda Bailey said community support teams will help workers access any services they need.

They also touted the recently announced $90-million BC Manufacturing Jobs Fund, which they said includes $50 million to increase fibre supply as well as dedicated timber access for valued-added forestry manufacturers.

“Our government is committed to supporting forestry workers impacted by closures and also to support good, long-term jobs in the sector,” the statement read.

"Forestry is and will remain a foundation of the B.C. economy. Our government has made recent investments as part of our ongoing work and commitment to ensure that forestry remains a strong and sustainable industry in British Columbia.”