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PG Pulp union president blames B.C.'s forestry policies for mill closure

Job losses could take $30 million out of local economy

The president of the local representing unionized workers losing their jobs as the result of Canfor’s decision this week to close its Prince George Pulp division blames the move on “failed forestry policy.”

“Starting with the Liberals when they changed the forests code to recently the old-growth deferrals to recently the caribou habitat stuff, which has directly impacted Canfor and Canfor Pulp because that’s right in their fibre basket and taking that wood away has definitely put pressure on them,” said Chuck LeBlanc, Local 9 president of the Public and Private Workers of Canada (also known as the Len Shankel local).

“Two years ago, lumber prices went through the roof and now they can’t even produce it and make up the costs. On top of that, we have five million cubic metres of raw log exports shipped overseas. That’s (the annual output of) eight to 10 sawmills and it affects the pulp mills after that and it’s happening year after year.  We need to change what we’re presently doing, otherwise we’re going to lose a lot more jobs in this area.”

Some of those job losses will be absorbed through early retirement packages, but the economic impact on the city will be huge, just in lost salaries alone. LeBlanc said all 300 mill employees make at least $100,000 annually and that works out to a minimum of $30 million in lost wages.

“It was a surprise, but it wasn’t a surprise,” he said.“I think the writing was on the wall. We’ve got five big pulp mills (three in Prince George, two in Quesnel) that consume a lot of fibre and something had to give. You always hope it’s not going to be your mill but here we are now. It’s a big loss to this community. You’re looking at probably a thousand job losses by the time everything shakes out, from contractors and suppliers and you name it, just people out shopping downtown, it will be a large impact to the Prince George area.”

LeBlanc said the union and the company have been meeting to discuss adjustment plans and what government programs are available to support the affected workers and he’s been focusing on getting that information out to his membership.

“We’re making sure the employee family assistance program is there for them because we’re expecting quite a large uptake in mental health issues because this is a major stress on a family’s life,” he said.

LeBlanc, a 56-year-old millwright  in the PG Pulp steam plant, has been with the company for 28 years and he was there for the good times, most recently when the city’s pulp mills were running at full tilt to process masses of beetle-killed trees before that wood lost its strength. Times have changed and that supply of fibre close to the mills has dropped dramatically and so have market prices.

Canfor will keep its paper line open at PG Pulp and that will keep 60 union jobs intact.

City councillor Brian Skakun works at Intercontinental Pulp as a steam engineer and is in his 35th year with the company and he says his job is safe. Employees with the least amount of seniority will take the hit with the job losses and PG Pulp workers with seniority will replace them on the line at Intercon.

“It really caught us at the mill by surprise,” he said. “In my opinion, Canfor has not reinvested like they could have and have invested heavily in U.S. operations. It’s truly a sad day. Many people will lose great-paying jobs not only on the mill but everyone from chip truck drivers to suppliers. I’m going to lose some amazing workmates and it will never be the same.”