Iroquois Falls paper mill closure an unwelcome Christmas gift
After a century in production, the last roll of newsprint will be made today at the paper mill around which the town of Iroquois Falls was built.
The lights are up, and the Christmas carols play on in Iroquois Falls, but 52-year-old papermaker Ken Neill has yet to get in a festive mood.
He was shopping a few weeks ago, and was in the checkout line when he overheard the news about Resolute Forest Products closing its mill.
"I had Christmas presents for my boys and I just left them right there in the cart and I walked out of the store. And I came home."
He then called his sons, who were away at university and college, warning them to watch their spending.
"To tell them they got to watch everything now,” he said.
“It's hard on them. They're worried about themselves. They're worried about their parents. Where we going to go? Where we going to end up?"
Bedroom community for Timmins
Lauren Zieminski, 27, just moved back to her hometown and is expecting her first child in the spring.
"Regardless of what happens with schools and houses, this is still where I want to be."
And she said others want to be there too.
Zieminski is a real estate agent and said steady streams of people who plan on commuting to Timmins have been moving to town — and they don't seem fazed by the closing of the mill.
Workers’ ‘pride got hurt’
A total of 180 workers will be laid off.
Henry Emans, who worked in the paper mill for 34 years, is one of them.
"Reality's going to hit when our guys won't be able to pick up their lunch pail and go into work,” he said.
“They take a lot of pride in their work and I think that's what hits hard the most is their pride got hurt with this announcement."
The workers are expected to stay on the job until early February as the mill ramps down.
The town has been trying to convince the company to keep the mill heated through the winter, so the facility is available to any new companies that want to move in.
A long history
Iroquois Falls museum volunteer Denis Charette said the mill’s history began more than 100 years ago, when six men from Montreal tromped up into the wilderness to scout out a location for a new town.
They built three humble shacks beside the Abitibi River — and then had Christmas dinner.
"They had turkey will all the fixings and potatoes and tea, but they had nothing to cook it in,” Charette said.
“So, one of the guys took a stove pipe and made a roast pan. First Christmas, first meal in Iroquois Falls was Dec. 25, 1912. That was the start of the town."
And now, what some see as the end of the town is coming just before Christmas.
‘Go to school, get something else’
The paper mill will produce its last roll of paper tomorrow. The loss of work will be felt acutely in the town of 4,500 people.
My interview was, 'does your dad work here?'- paper mill pensioner Doug Palmer
Former papermaker and now pensioner Doug Palmer said both his grandfathers worked in the mill, as did his father.
"My interview was does your dad work here? That was it,” he said.
“I never had a resume. Your father works here and if he's a good worker, the son must be. So they hired me on."
But he didn't want that for his own sons.
"I knew it was not a place for them,” Palmer said.
“I told them, ‘don't try to get in there. Go to school, get something else’."
That's what many have done, and some predict that many more moving vans will soon be heading out of Iroquois Falls.
“I think that's all we have left, is hope,” said Lynn Festarini-Jones, who owns a diner in town. Her husband works in the mill.
"[But] if one more person tells me to be positive, I'm honestly going to slam them in the head. Shut up. My husband's losing his job and my business could go down the toilet. The future doesn't look very bright. It really doesn't look very bright."
That sentiment is echoed by union president Ken Neill, who has been bombarded with questions about severance pay and benefits from Resolute Forest Products.
"[For] a lot of these people, that's all they've done is work as a labourer in the paper machines. Labourers are a dime a dozen."
Neill counts himself among them.
At 52, he's not sure how he's going to pay for his sons to finish their education, to ensure they don't face a future as uncertain as his.