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Ukrainian workers fill job vacancies at Atikokan-area sawmill

Resolute Forest Products' Sapawe mill employs 31 Ukrainian workers, with more en route
Oleksandr (Alex) Bakal is a planer supervisor at the Resolute Forest Products sawmill near Atikokan (Leigh Nunan, TBT News)

The newest employees at the sawmill in Sapawe have travelled thousands of kilometres from Europe to make a home for themselves in Northwestern Ontario.

Resolute Forest Products (RFP) has hired 31 Ukrainian men and women who moved to Canada because of Russia's war against their country, and the company will take on several more later this month.

At the plant, which currently has a workforce of just over 100, the new recruits are filling a variety of roles, including in production cleanup and support, quality control, and even in a supervisory capacity.

It's been a huge transition for people such as Alex Bakal, who's never worked in manufacturing before.

"I really like this job ... I have experience in management, and here I also have supervisory duties. But it's all new for me. After four months, I'm still learning. I always pick up something from the very experienced people who work here."

Terry Ouellet, general manager of RFP's Ontario sawmills, said it's a mutually beneficial relationship, as the company's greatest need for staff at its operations in the Northwest is at the mill in Sapawe, 30 kilometres east of Atikokan.

The newcomers, he said, have an excellent work ethic.

"Getting the Ukrainian folks has been fantastic. There was — and is — a shortage of people willing to make a career out of manufacturing and sawmilling work, and they've really allowed us to fill the vacancies. Also, we're working now on increasing our capacity at that site, adding an additional shift."

That new shift will generate another 15 jobs at the mill.

But Ouellet hastened to add that the decision to hire the newcomers to Canada "is the right thing to do on many fronts, aside from our own [corporate] reasons."

He said Resolute's human resources department "didn't take no for an answer" and "turned over every stone" until it was successful in arranging for the refugees to come to Atikokan.

The non-profit Mississauga-based Newcomer Centre of Peel, which helps entire families integrate into Canadian society, was instrumental in facilitating their relocation, especially at the beginning of the recruiting initiative.

"Since then it's kind of grown," Ouellet said. "Some of our employees from Ukraine are referring friends, family members, and friends of friends ... direct-sourcing. We have social media, and we have folks in Ukraine supporting us."

Although the introduction to the workplace has gone well, there are some challenges in finding permanent housing for the mix of singles, couples and families.

Resolute has invested in temporary accommodation, including leasing the Atikokan Hotel and renting a dormitory at the Quetico Lodge and Conference Centre. 

The dorm has a kitchen, so meals are provided, and there are also cooks on-site at the hotel.

Ouellet said the company sees this as a short-term solution for employee housing. 

"It's obviously not a long-term strategy but it's certainly a start to get the folks integrated. Now we're working on helping them become homeowners. We want them to set up roots and make Northwestern Ontario and Atikokan their home." 

Bakal plans to stay, saying he appreciates all the help and support he's received from the community of Atikokan, from his co-workers, and from Resolute management.

Keeping busy, and finding new things to do, he said, also provides a break from worrying about what's going on back home in Ukraine.

"You always have to find something new every day. This makes this job interesting, because you're always moving. You always have to discover something. It's move, move, move, move."

Despite the pace, co-worker Sasha Vasylenko is impressed with the safety measures in place in the sawmill, saying safety was never taken so seriously in his previous jobs.

"I have a lot of experience working in big factory facilities...this company provides a very big effort for safety measures. I have never seen this before," he said, noting that the sawmill recently celebrated a five-year milestone without injuries.

The enthusiasm the Ukrainian workers are showing for their new surroundings is seen as a positive sign for Atikokan.

Greg Curniski, who manages the sawmill, said small communities across Canada are dying as younger people move away to larger centres.

"You have less tax base to support the community, businesses close and so on. This is an opportunity that afforded itself, not only to the community to welcome newcomers who will be that base in the future, but it's the workforce that's going to support the big employers in town." 

Curniski said prior to the arrival of the Ukrainians, the mill was seeing turnover rates approaching 70 per cent, but since then they have dropped to about five per cent.

A great deal of effort went into getting the new workers to Canada, and then to Atikokan, he said, but the results are making it all worthwhile for everyone.

"It's the difference between running and not running for us ... From a business perspective it was the right decision, from a moral perspective it was the right decision, from the community perspective it was the right decision."

— Tbnewswatch