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Espanola mayor says laid-off Domtar employees are finding work

Province opens employment centre to assist former pulp and paper workers with new opportunities
Town of Espanola with pulp and paper mill in the background (Town of Espanola photo)

Many laid-off Domtar Espanola pulp and paper workers have landed mining and manufacturing jobs across northeastern Ontario, said Espanola Mayor Doug Gervais.

Job recruiters descended on the town this fall looking to siphon off skilled trades people after the South Carolina-based forest products company announced on Sept. 6 that it was halting operations and putting the facility up for sale. 

The pulp and paper plant is 70 kilometres west of Sudbury. 

The pulp mill was idled on Oct. 4. The last bale of paper went on the door at the end of November. 

In announcing the Dec. 12 opening of an employment “action centre” in Espanola, the Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development said 484 workers are impacted by the closure.

In an interview with Northern Ontario Business, Gervais said when he talks to family members and former mill workers, many have landed jobs up the road in Sudbury while others are doing the long commute, two weeks in and out, to new jobs in the region.

Anecdotally, he said, many tradespeople have found positions at nickel miner Vale in Sudbury, an hour’s drive to the east. Others, including his grandson, have gained employment at Algoma Steel in Sault Ste. Marie, two hours to the west. 

The gold mines at Dubreuilville, with Argonaut Gold desperate for workers at the new Magino Mine, have picked up some ex-Domtar employees. Some have chosen to stay in town and look for work closer to home, Gervais said. And, fortunately, he doesn’t see a plethora of ‘For Sale’ signs on front lawns. 

Many former mill workers have chose to keep Espanola as a place of residence, said Gervais, “and I’m hoping that it stays that way.”

According to Domtar spokesperson Bonny Skene, approximately 277 employees worked their last shift on Nov. 30. Some chose to leave early for other opportunities.

“Retirement enhancements were offered to approximately 85 eligible employees in an effort to support their transition,” said Skene in an email.

Skene said 33 employees will stay on to do care and maintenance work this winter while 19 employees will remain to maintain the plant in its idled state.

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“The facility continues to be offered for sale and we are making every effort to find a buyer,” said Skene.

As for the future of the historic mill, “anything’s a possibility,” said Gervais.

“We want to see it kept environmentally sound. They’ve (Domtar) guaranteed it and the ministry (of environment) is in there following up very closely. We’re confident that everything they do is done by the regulators of the province.”

He said there are rumours of interested parties looking at the mill, but there is nothing concrete and no official word from Domtar. 

Gervais said residents have been taking the news of the mill’s demise in stride and the “attitude is positive.”

“Realistically, it might be two or three years before it really sinks in, if we do see any effects. As long as the mill is on idle, it doesn’t change our taxes.”

Developers are still coming to town looking at building apartments, he said, and, as a service hub, they’ll continue to promote and invite new business, promote tourism and market Espanola as an affordable town for seniors. 

The province said the action centre being established in Espanola aims to ease the transition by helping former Domtar workers find new employment.

Ontario is investing $426,000 in the centre, while Domtar and Unifor Local 74 will also be investing $184,600. Located at 77 Centre Street in Espanola, the centre will operate until October 2024.

A ministry release said the centre will offer a range of services and supports to help workers connect with jobs in forestry, the skilled trades, and other in-demand industries.

“Our government is proud to invest in the Domtar Action Centre to give a hand up to the hard-working men and women of Espanola so they can land better jobs and bigger paycheques for themselves and their families,” said David Piccini, the minister of labour, immigration, training and skills development, in the release.

In thanking the province and Unifor for their contributions, Unifor Local 74 president Chris Presley said in a statement that the action centre coordinators and peer helpers will help members “find the resources that will help them ease into this transition — this would not have been possible without the partnership between the ministry and Unifor.”

"Although our ultimate wish would be for all Unifor Local 74 membership to have the opportunity to work together again one day, we are grateful to have been granted approval for the Unifor (Domtar) Action Centre,” he said.

“Since learning of the plan to idle Domtar’s Espanola Mill, our government has been there for workers to ensure they have the supports they need,” said Graydon Smith, minister of natural resources and forestry, in the release. “Today’s (Dec. 12) investment reaffirms that commitment as we continue to support workers impacted by the closure.”

The decision to idle the plant removed 280,000 tonnes of northern bleached softwood kraft paper and 69,000 tonnes of specialty paper, produced annually, from the market.