Journey of barges signals rebirth of Que. mill

People who live along the Ottawa River in eastern Ontario and western Quebec will see barges carrying more than 100 tonnes of equipment heading upstream this weekend, a sight that could mean good news for one mill town.

People who live along the Ottawa River in eastern Ontario and western Quebec will see a strange sight this weekend as barges carrying more than 100 tonnes of Finnish-made equipment will pass heading upstream.

The barges are on their way to the town of Thurso, Que., just east of Gatineau. The new owners of the town's pulp and paper mill bought the equipment to make a new type of product, a development which may be the key to reviving both the mill and the town.

Mill manager Marco Veilleux expects so many onlookers on the weekend that the facility will open a parking lot so the public can take pictures of the equipment being unloaded.

The switchover will be complete by next summer, and Veilleux said it will set the mill on a very different course.

"So, instead of being tied up [with] and in direct competition with big Brazilian or South American mills for the paper production, we're going to produce a pulp that is used to displace cotton, we'll be tied up in a totally different market," Veilleux said.

They will cook the wood chips differently before they're turned into pulp, and that, Veilleux said, will make a different product that's more in demand.

"It looks like the pulp we made before, and [they're going to] put it in a special solution, and then it becomes like honey, liquid, and you can turn it into filament that can be used in textile," Veilleux said.

Signed a deal

Just this week, the mill's new owners — Fortress Paper — signed a deal worth as much as $135 million to supply the new pulp to Chinese companies so they can make rayon for clothes.

That's a far cry from the situation in Thurso less than a year ago, when the former owner, Fraser Papers Inc., was in bankruptcy protection, and 300 people were out of work.

"We thought we were doomed. And after six months to a year, it's hard to start back up," said Steve Carpentier, who worked in the mill's maintenance room.

When the mill closed, Carpentier didn't see who would ever hire an industrial mechanic. Now, he's full of optimism.

"Other projects are coming that are pretty impressive too — biorefinery and all that. So it's a new generation of biofuels. So it's the way of the future, I guess," he said.

Veilleux can't say it's the path other struggling mills could take, but he's convinced Thurso now has a future.

"If there's no mill. There's no town," said Pierre de Chatelet, who worked in the mill for 35 years.

De Chatelet likes life in Thurso. He knows everybody. He likes the open space, and being close to big cities without having the rush of city life.

For de Chatelet, it means his sons also get to make a livelihood from pulp and paper, and in their hometown.

"They can have a good future. They can have a good job with a good salary. That's the main thing," he said.