Fire destroys recently opened Waswanipi Cree Lumber sawmill

Waswanipi Chief Irene Neeposh says she’s devastated by the loss the new $19 million sawmill near her community.

The Cree Lumber sawmill, located about 20 minutes drive from the Waswanipi, in northern Quebec, burned to the ground on the evening of Jan. 21.

“It looks like a total loss,” Neeposh said.

“This is a setback, a big setback.”

The community sawmill reopened just a little more than a year ago, after more than a decade of effort. Its employees are now out of work.

“All of the hard work that the team has put in to get our mill updated and up and running again, my heart goes out to them,” she said.

The project was a collaboration between the Mishtuk Corporation, which is the forestry arm of the Cree First Nation of Waswanipi, and Chantiers Chibougamau, a non-Indigenous corporation with more than 60 years of experience in the Quebec lumber industry.

Irene Neeposh, Chief of the Cree First Nation of Waswanipi, is asking her community not to lose hope after their sawmill burned to the ground. (Radio-Canada/ Marie-Laure Josselin)

With 51 percent of the enterprise Cree-owned, the dream was for community members to be masters of their own lumber resources, and to be involved in meeting the housing needs of the Cree Nation and beyond.

Building still smoldering

The investigation into what happened is in the early stages, and officials say they don’t yet know whether the fire was accidental or deliberate. Fire officials say the blaze started around suppertime and burned through and into the wee hours of Jan. 22.

Three days after it started, officials said the site of the former mill was still smoldering.

Five local firefighters, and seven firefighters from the nearby non-Indigenous community of Chapais, spent several hours getting the blaze under control. In their quest, they emptied the water reservoir.

Timothy Happyjack, deputy fire chief for Waswanipi, was one of the first on the scene.

“It was pretty big. I cannot say how big, but it was at the back of the building,” he said, adding that by the time they arrived the fire was already too big to enter inside.

“In a sawmill, it’s hard to fight a fire, because we don’t know what’s inside the building,” he said.

While the mill was not operating at the time, Timothy said there was 24-hour security in place.

It took more than a decade of effort to reopen the Cree Lumber sawmill, located about 20 minutes outside the community. (Maamuitaau/Lachlan Madill)

Funding for the $19 million dollar facility came from a variety of sources, including the shareholders of Waswanipi and Chantiers Chibougamau, as well as the governments of Quebec, Canada, the Cree Nation Government and the Société de développement de la Baie-James, according to a press release from November 2022 when the mill opened.

Officials said at the time it was one of the most modern sawmills in the province. The plan was for the mill to process lumber and provide products to build up to 2,000 houses in the Cree nation on a yearly basis and employ 30 people.

“We want to sell [to Cree communities] to be used for the construction of housing,” said Marcel Happyjack at the time, in a Cree-language interview with CBC North’s Maamuitaau in September 2023. Marcel is the former Chief of Waswanipi and current head of the Waswanipi Development Corporation.

“We know we have a housing shortage and that it’s expensive to purchase lumber, so the houses can be built with what we are doing. It is much closer, so the price of purchasing lumber can be cheaper,” he said.

When the Cree Lumber sawmill opened in November of 2022, it was considered the most modern in Que., officials say. (Maamuitaau/Lachlan Madill )

At the time, Marcel said that the vision was to offer good paying jobs right in the community and develop a model that was based in Cree values.

“Knowing the Cree people, we wanted to operate the sawmill with Cree culture and Cree rights in mind,” he said.

Economic opportunity

Facing the almost unimaginable loss of the facility, Neeposh said her priority is to continue to develop economic opportunities for her people.

“I ask the members to not lose hope … we’re here to serve and we want to continue to work on developing our community so our [people] can have access to meaningful economic opportunities,” she said.

The sawmill site has been secured and officials are asking people to stay away.

Chief Neeposh said it’s too early to know what the future of the project and the mill are.

CBC reached out to Chantier Chibougamau for comment, but did not hear back.