Taking an ownership stake in a shuttered White River sawmill proved to be the perfect entry point for the Pic Mobert First Nation to finally participate in the forestry industry.
The northeastern Ontario community of 900 members has mobilized a logging company this winter, Magwayyawk Forestry Services, which not only supplies fibre to the nearby White River Forest Products, but serves as a training vehicle to encourage locals to become entrepreneurs.
“It’s a novel thing that we’ve done where we’ve formed a company with our customer to cut wood and leverage off some of their capabilities,” said Norm Jaehrling, Pic Mobert’s CEO.
Pic Mobert has a 23 per cent ownership stake in White River Forest Products – headed by former Tembec founder and industry legend Frank Dottori – and a 51 per cent in Magwayyawk, which has an agreement to cut about half of the 300,000 cubic metres of the mill’s wood allotment.
With training dollars from the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund and instruction from Superior Training Solutions, participants from the Pic Mobert and Pic River First Nations were deep in the bush in early February learning to operate mechanized equipment like feller-bunchers and de-limbers.
As they assemble a roster of two harvesting crews, Jaehrling estimates they could create between 15 to 20 jobs.
“It’s an exciting time,” said Jaehrling. The mill is really starting to hum and they need the wood.”
Under general manager Gilles Malette, the logging company is using subcontractors to supply the sawmill, but as they build up a base of capability and a track record Jaehrling said the company will eventually acquire their own equipment.
Domtar closed the mill in 2007 leading to Pic Mobert and the Township of White River stepping in to rescue the asset from demolition and to keep the mill's forest licence intact.
They recruited Dottori, who is part of the ownership group in a three-way partnership of private investors (53 per cent), Pic Mobert (23.5 per cent) and the township (23.5 per cent).
Of the sawmill’s workforce of 120, 33 are from Pic Mobert, an amazing accomplishment today considering no one from the community had ever worked in either the production or the harvesting side during the Domtar days.
“We had no benefit from the forest products industry,” said Jaehrling. “When Domtar closed, it didn’t impact this community. That’s one of the reasons we got involved with saving the mill. We needed to build a forest-based economy here. And it’s working.”
One challenge that’s familiar to all in the industry is the chronic shortage of skilled personnel in all occupations, much of it having to do with many retiring or walking away from the sector after more than a decade of being in dumper.
“The industry is still rebuilding after that long shutdown and people – and lenders too – are still leery if this industry is going through another down-cycle,” said Jaehrling.
The band is working with mill management to put together a human resource and business strategy for the forest products industry. When it’s finished in March, it’ll help guide Pic Mobert in making targeted investments toward training and entrepreneurship programs.
“That’s part of the process we’re going through right now, identify the needs and opportunities across the realm of the company, not just on the production line, but in maintenance, engineering, human resources, finance and so forth.”
A key future objective of the company – besides profitability – is to eventually develop a workforce of owner-operators.
Jaehrling said they’ve created some mechanisms and partnerships through White River Forest Products to assist those trainees – when they’re ready – to help them with the financing of their equipment, including equity support.
One skill the trainees will acquire is being able to build and maintain bush roads, which is useful in the mining industry and on remote construction projects.
“That’s certainly something you can take it outside the realm of the forest industry once you have those capabilities,” said Jaehrling. “Our focus for the next year is to build a strong track record and base capabilities in our core business.”
As those capabilities grow and provide more wood for the mill, they could conceivably run operations on other timber limits for operations on the north shore.
“AV Terrace Bay has a big hunger for logs so there’s nothing to prevent us from looking at running operations in other SFLs to supply other companies.”
Pic Mobert has made great strides on the community and economic development front over the last five years.
The band runs a contracting company, White Lake Resources, with expertise in heavy construction, site development and mine reclamation jobs.
They’ve broken ground on a new $12-million water treatment plant and have a partnership with Regional Power – Gitchi-Animkii Energy – with construction underway on two hydro-electric generating stations on the White River. When completed this fall, the $150-million project will generate 19 megawatts.
The community has also signed a deal with Ottawa and Queen’s Park to expand its small land base by 16 square kilometres within two years. With highway frontage, they are about to commission a study to do the feasibility and planning for a highway commercial development.