Twice laid off due to sawmill closings, B.C. worker ready for a new career

Rachelle Dumoulin admits her second layoff in 12 years from a northern B.C. sawmill has soured her on the boom-and-bust industry.

The 39-year-old lost her job in the remote community of Mackenzie, about 180 kilometres north of Prince George, B.C., when three local sawmills were closed in 2007-08 due to a slowdown in the U.S. housing market.

She used the down time to go back to university in Ontario, but returned to Mackenzie with her husband in 2010 when the mills reopened and got a job as a labourer. They bought a house and had two children, now seven and two years old, and she started a part-time photography business.

In July, owner Canfor Corp. announced the mill where she worked as a weigh-scale operator would close again. Because it’s an “indefinite curtailment,” Dumoulin said, there was no severance paid.

Meanwhile, her husband, a contract log truck driver, lost his job delivering to the nearby Conifex Timber Inc. sawmill during a five-week curtailment blamed on high log costs and difficult market conditions.

The good news is the Conifex shutdown ended, she said.

“There’s that saying, ‘You do me wrong once, shame on you; do me wrong twice, shame on me,’” Dumoulin said in an interview.

“I’m not letting that happen a third time. I need to get out of this industry.”

This year’s series of mill closures and production curtailments in British Columbia have affected more than 5,900 workers at 25 mills in 22 communities, according to provincial estimates.

Observers say the frustrating part is that little can be done to fix the problem.

Destruction caused by wildfires and a severe mountain pine beetle infestation — both linked to global warming — have created acute shortages of wood fibre in B.C. that will take decades to replace.

Meanwhile, a slowdown in U.S. housing markets means prices are depressed but the province says stumpage fees for Crown timber — adjusted quarterly — can’t be reduced arbitrarily for fear of weakening Canada’s legal fight against softwood lumber duties imposed by the U.S.

Marty Gibbons, president of the United Steelworkers union local in Kamloops, B.C., estimates more than 400 of his members have lost jobs thanks to the closures of sawmills in Clearwater and Clinton, B.C.

But the longtime forestry worker says there’s no comparison with previous industry slowdowns in 2008 and 2015.

“This isn’t a slowdown, this is a capacity reduction,” he said. “These are not temporary layoffs, this is a correction in the industry … we just don’t have enough timber to supply the mills.”

Analysts expect the industry will see a lot more bad news before there’s much good news.

Researchers at FEA Canada estimate there will be 53 to 55 sawmills left in the B.C. interior by 2028, down from about 95 mills in 2007, in a report based mainly on provincial timber supply estimates.

“It takes 80 years to grow a tree. So, looking out 50-60 years, it looks pretty good,” said Russ Taylor, managing director of FEA Canada.

“But in the interim it’s going to stay relatively flat, for the next two or three, maybe four decades.”

The lack of wood fibre is expected to spill over into closures in the oriented strandboard panel sector, where two mills were closed this year, and will eventually hit the pulp and paper industry as well, said Kevin Mason, managing director of ERA Forest Products Research.

Closures through the end of the year are expected to cumulatively remove about two billion board feet per year of capacity, from recent annual output of between 10 billion and 11 billion board feet, he said.

“These are difficult transitions and not a day goes by that I am not thinking about the workers and communities who are being affected by these closures and curtailments,” said B.C. Forests Minister Doug Donaldson in an emailed statement.

He said he is working to ensure support systems are in place for forestry workers, including job fairs, skills training and career counselling, support for families and economic diversification strategies.

He offered a similar message in Mackenzie in mid-August, speaking at a rally organized by a new organization founded by three local women called Mackenzie Matters.

Kim Guthrie, a 57-year-old notary public who chairs the group, said she fears for the future of the community she and her husband moved to about 30 years ago.

“We don’t want to leave. We want to stay here,” she said.

“This is our home and where our friends are. We know everybody. It’s a really tight, close-knit community.”

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