The closure of Canfor’s pulp and paper mill is part of a troubling trend unravelling the trade and the environment

By Hiren Mansukhani

Canfor is shutting down the pulp mill side of its Prince George pulp and paper operation.

Chuck LeBlanc knew a storm had headed for his industry. But he wasn’t expecting it to ravage his home base so soon.

LeBlanc, a millwright at Canfor, is also the president of the Public and Private Workers of Canada Len Shankel Local 9, a union that doesn’t hire paid representatives. When LeBlanc learned on Tuesday that Canfor was shutting its pulp and paper mill line in Prince George, he says his world was upended.

The company cited a lack of fibre for the mill’s closure. Analysts blamed natural disasters and poor government policies for a crisis in the industry. Amid the noise, all LeBlanc could hear were questions from his members who worried about their livelihoods.

LeBlanc’s job is secure — after operations at the mill are phased out, he along with several senior members will be transferred to Canfor’s Intercontinental, one of three pulp mills in Prince George. But having to field concerns from his junior comrades and see their furrowed faces, which once beamed with ambition, weighs on him. LeBlanc choked as he described his moments just after learning about the news.

“It’s a real emotional kind of thing,” LeBlanc said, his voice melting. “Because you’re deeply connected to them, so many of them.”

Almost 300 workers, 220 of whom are unionized, will lose their jobs by March when the mill’s operation will be phased out. Meanwhile, union members and the company’s management are collectively working out details of severance packages for those workers.

LeBlanc said the union will also work with the B.C. government to find suitable solutions for its members. He added in his interview with the Prince George Post on Friday that he is set to speak with Premier David Eby about a crisis response team that will train laid-off workers in transitioning to other kinds of jobs. “You do what you can for these people, right?” LeBlanc said.

The layoffs were more than just sad news for the workers — the whole of Prince George underwent a period of mourning. Joel McKay, CEO of Northern Development Initiative Trust, called the news devastating. Eby and MLA for Prince George-Valemount Shirley Bond couched their sorrow in the same expression.

The grief expressed by many isn’t just for the workers who will lose their jobs but for a dwindling industry that once drove economic growth in the city. It is an acknowledgment of the fact that the livelihoods of many more families will be thrown into doubt. Just ask those in the field.

John Brink has seen the forestry industry come of age. He first arrived here in the 1960s at age 24 to pursue his aspirations of opening a lumber mill. The Dutch emigrant soon realized Prince George was the perfect destination to realize his dream. The city was bursting with mills, promising a fortune for those who entered the field.

Sixty years later, he is heartbroken to find people struggling to survive in the industry. At the same time, he is hardly surprised. “It was not a matter of if but when,” said Brink, the CEO of Brink Forest Products Ltd, a company that produces value-added goods.

In fact, he says he is impressed that the pulp mills in the city are still in operation.

Brink ascribes the industry’s woes to several forces which have conspired against forestry companies. First was the mountain pine beetle infestation in 2001 that invaded more than 18 million hectares of B.C. forests. By 2012, the insects had devoured almost half of the province’s viable pine. A year later, a spruce beetle outbreak swelled across the province, consuming 340,000 hectares of trees by 2017.

Then, in 2017 and 2018, wildfires engulfed forests in the Interiors, further decimating the supply of fibre for forestry firms. To preserve the remaining trees, the government slashed the annual allowable cut — which stipulates the number of trees logging companies are allowed to fell in a year — to 63 million cubic metres in 2021 and is set to be 56 million in 2026 and 51 million by 2030.

Such opposing factors have forced the closure of many mills around the province. Since 2005, 35 sawmills in B.C.’s Interior have shuttered. Pulp mills usually source their raw materials from sawmills, which leave behind almost 40 per cent of the wood used to make logs. “The industry formula is for every four sawmills you have a pulp mill,” Brink said.

The demise of sawmills also spells closure for secondary industries relying on their outlet. Several pulp mills have met their end in past few years. The Crofton paper mill, for example, was the third Paper Excellence pulp or paper mill to close since 2020. The first was its paper mill in Powell River, which wound down its operations in 2021. The next to go was its pulp plant in Mackenzie which was shuttered in 2021 after being indefinitely curtailed in 2020. Last year, the province bled 58 per cent of its paper production capacity, according to an estimation by a forestry consultant.

Combined with a looming recession and low lumber prices, the path to profit has never been rockier for forestry companies. Brink reckons the industry can bounce back in the next 40 years if the annual allowable cut (AAC) is eventually brought back to past levels. Throughout the interview, he mainly blamed the pine beetle infestation, forest fires and the resulting shortfall in the AAC for the industry’s challenges.

But Ben Parfitt, a researcher at the Centre for Policy Alternatives, says the issue is systemic.

When pine beetles were chewing down trees in the Interior, the provincial government announced a “crediting” program, in which companies that delivered logs affected by the infestation to wood pellet or pulp mills could apply for credits that, in turn, allowed them to go back into the forest and log an equal number of trees again. These credits fell outside of the AAC.

The program boosted the province’s pellet industry, which produces peg-shaped pieces of raw wood, the size of cigarette filters, which are then shipped out of the country and burned as a fuel source.

These products were supposed to be made using “low quality” logs or waste from lumber mills such as sawmill dust. But documentary evidence shows that whole trees were felled to produce pellets. In fact, a government report states that an additional 2.4 million cubic metres of trees were logged in the Prince George area alone from 2011 to 2016 because of the subsidy program.

“When you see the company talking about lack of access to cost competitive fibre, that really translates into one very simple thing,” Parfitt says. “There are not enough trees remaining to be logged that have sufficient commercial value to support the industry.”

The plight of forestry companies is what Parfitt calls a reckoning of failed government policies. “Companies are having to go further and further and further in search of logs,” he adds.

The resulting closure of sawmills and pulp plants is harmful to not only the economy but also the environment. Because of their symbiotic relationship, a lack of sawmills would compel pulp mills to source wood from forests, and a shortage of pulp plants would mean the waste from sawmills remains un-recycled.

So where does the forestry industry go from here? Much of the industry’s fate will be discussed at an annual natural resources forum in Prince George from Jan. 17 to 19. Parfitt’s mantra, however, is to do more with less. “We need to be moving forest manufacturing much higher up the value chain,” he adds. That means turning simple logs into higher-value products, something companies such as the Brink Group are focused on. “That way we can offset some of the job losses that we’re seeing,” he said.

But, how do we boost secondary processing? Parfitt would like to see the government discourage companies from exporting logs and carefully examine the industries they are subsidizing.