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Plant modernization a key (12/03)

Historically, Atikokan has experienced economic strife before and survived, so surely the community will only gain in strength as it faces hundreds of layoffs in its main industry, a development official says.

Historically, Atikokan has experienced economic strife before and survived, so surely the community will only gain in strength as it faces hundreds of layoffs in its main industry, a development official says.

In total, about 600 people out of a town of 3,500 with a significant population of seniors, will be affected by forest industry layoffs.

“That is approximately 60 per cent of the working population,” says Garry McKinnon, executive director of the Atikokan Development Corp.

Buchanan Forest Products layed off 100 out of 230 workers at its local sawmill, Proboard Ltd. has closed, terminating 140 employee positions, and the coal-generating station is slated to shut down before the end of 2007.

However, he explains it is only a matter of time before the sawmill reopens.

“Eventually the Americans are going to have to respond to the decision of the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Agreement and stop their economic terrorism and deal with the importation of softwood lumber on a realistic and honest basis.”

In due course, the sawmill will eventually come back. Proboard on the other hand has been appointed a receiver and a committee is currently looking at a dozen interested buyers from large business that are dealing with vertical integration to small entrepreneur initiatives. McKinnon says both the federal and provincial governments through the different agencies have been working to find the right candidate to purchase the plant, modernize the facilities and get the people back to work.

Concurrent with the same idea, is the stumpage issue fees.

“This is the only particle board plant in Canada that pays stumpage because it is one of the only particle board plants in Canada that uses any round wood.”

Part of the modernization process would be to develop the plant to make use of residuals, like sawdust and woods shavings, McKinnon says.

Through the layoffs, Gord Martin, owner of Tramin Ltd., a local mining services company with a pool of qualified, skilled people, has been keen to hire the displaced workforce.

Since 1988, Martin has been filling contracts with mining and forestry companies, and the recent slowdown in the region has helped his business grow.

“A lot of the trades people and skilled labourers have been laid off as a result of the plant closures and we have been able to use their expertise,” Martin explains.

Although the machinery in forestry and mining are different, most of the 24 new employees have experience in both industries and therefore are attractive to Martin.

In addition, some companies use Tramin as a means of hiring permanent trades people.

He has a pool of contractual workers to draw from.

“(Companies) will contact us and we have placed a lot of people,” Martin adds.

Usually the workers are the ones who want more stability and aspire to permanent jobs, Martin says, so they gravitate toward companies like Bowater or Placer Dome Inc.

“We are always looking for journeyman personnel. We supply a vast array of personnel (to the industries). We supply equipment operators right up to supervisory or training personnel so we are always looking for skilled and ambitious employees.”

Martin has completed contracts in Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the Northwest Territories and from an economic perspective it allows people to stay in the community.

“There is a lot of activity going on in the mines in Red Lake and elsewhere, so it’s great because it provides reasonable income to people so that they can maintain their families and continue to stay in Atikokan,” McKinnon explains.

At one time Atikokan had Caland Ore Properties Mine and Steep Rock Iron Mine as part of their economic base until the closures in the late 1970s. Since then, the community has been experiencing tough times, but McKinnon is hopeful the following year will bring good news.

He believes the crunch they are experiencing now will soon be a thing of the past.

The U.S. congress department will have to respond to the NAFTA decision by this December. By this time next year construction in the Middle East will begin development, which means increased production and prices in board and lumber, he predicts.

“The sawmill should be almost back to full capacity and we will put in place the funding mechanisms with both the provincial and federal governments so that a new company will open the former Proboard. It will be operating much more efficiently and therefore better able to compete.”

There will be at least 110 people working in the new plant, he says.

As for the generating station, “the closure of the coal plants is based on emotion rather than science,” McKinnon says, and therefore the government will have to reopen discussions on coal-burning plants and what can be done to significantly reduce greenhouse gases.

“It is possible to burn coal in a very environmentally benign fashion and there is going to have to be an investment in wet scrubbers and catalytic converters and research into ground source percolation to get rid of C02 and C0. Atikokan might be that research site, as well as a research site into alternate fuels.”