A union representative says that the upcoming indefinite curtailment of paper mill operations at a Cowichan Valley facility will have a devastating impact on the entire region.
Paper Excellence earlier this week announced that it will shutter paper mill operations indefinitely at the Catalyst Crofton facility near Duncan in early December. Pulp operations at the facility, however, will continue.
The move will see about 150 workers at the plant — about 80 Unifor and 70 Public and Private Workers of Canada (PPWC) employees — lose their jobs ahead of the busy holiday shopping season and amid a period of record inflation and soaring costs.
Jon Hawkins, Unifor national representative, told CHEK News that Paper Excellence’s decision is going to have a profound impact not just on the affected employees but all of the Cowichan Valley.
“It catastrophic. It is catastrophic to our members, it is catastrophic to their families, and it is catastrophic to the Cowichan Valley as a whole,” he said. “These are good-paying jobs and unfortunately at the beginning of December our members won’t have work.”
Paper Excellence has blamed the closure of paper mill operations at the Crofton facility on weakening markets in China and rising chemicals, energy and wood fibre costs.
Hawkins said discussions between Unifor and Paper Excellence will be taking place in the coming days and weeks ahead about ways the impact can be minimized on the affected employees.
“The members are still in shock right now,” said Hawkins. “We need Paper Excellence to step up to the plate and do the right thing for their for their employees, our members, it’s going to be a traumatic time for these people and their families.”
The decision comes less than a year after Paper Excellence indefinitely closed its Catalyst Paper tiskwat mill in Powell River, affecting around 200 employees — a move that later became permanent.
North Cowichan mayor Al Siebring said he is optimistic that the Crofton curtailment won’t become permanent like it was in Powell River.
“It’s not a permanent shutdown. It’s a shutdown for an indeterminate amount of time, for only part of the mill,” he said.
But Hawkins said an indefinite closure is extremely hard on employees because it is ambiguous and offers no clear picture about their future going forward.
“Indefinite is the most horrible way … because you’re left living in limbo, wondering if you’re going to have a job at the end of it,” he said.
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PLANNING FOR THE WORST, HOPING FOR THE BEST
According to Siebring, the Municipality of North Cowichan has already been in contact with the provincial government about helping the affected employees transition into other jobs, should Paper Excellence permanently cease paper mill operations in Crofton.
“We are getting ready to deal with that shutdown,” he said. “If it becomes permanent, we’ve connected with the provinces to try to provide whatever help we can for the affected employees. But at the same time, I’m still optimistic that this is not the end of the story and that we can come back from this.”
Siebring said Powell River went down the same path when its facility closed and that some of those employees are now being trained to work as heavy equipment operators or in other construction-type roles.
“They’ve found a bit of a silver lining, not necessarily a completely positive outcome, but at least for some of the employees, they found another way forward, that keeps them employed,” said Siebring.
Going forward, Siebring said the next step is for the municipality to put together a stakeholder group that includes representatives from Paper Excellence, the impacted unions, the local chamber of commerce and other community leaders that can help the affected employees.
“The curtailment doesn’t happen until December. So we’ve got a month and a half to sort of get this stuff going,” he said. “I say we are getting this stuff going in case we need it and it’s still not 100 per cent clear to me that this a permanent closure.”
Hawkins called on both Paper Excellence and the provincial government to do more and said affected employees should expect the worst.
“I think the message should be to hope for the best but prepare for the worst,” he said.
CHEK News has reached out to Paper Excellence for comment but has not received a response.
With files from Ethan Morneau