Red Rock: Part I
A double-barrelled blow
Last Updated April 4, 2007
by Amanda Ryder, CBC News
Red Rock by the numbers
- Location: On the shores of Lake Superior in northwestern Ontario, a few kilometres from Nipigon and about 90 kilometres east of Thunder Bay.
- Population (2006): 1,063
- Average earnings (2001):: $38,223
- Median family income (2001):: $74,660
- Industry: Pulp and paper. In 2001, 39 per cent of the experienced labour force worked in the manufacturing and construction industry.
Source: Most recent information from Statistics Canada
In Red Rock, a town of 1,063 nestled on the north shore of Lake Superior nearly 100 kilometres east of Thunder Bay, everything became uncharacteristically quiet on Nov. 23, 2006.
For decades, the constant churning of conveyor belts and machinery could be heard nearly everywhere in the town for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But on that November day, for the first time in 61 years, the Norampac pulp and paper mill at 1 Baker Street was indefinitely idled.
Marilyn Young, the librarian at the Red Rock Public School, said she can remember nights when the constant clanging and steady humming of the mill would wake her up.
"I never thought I'd miss it," she laments now. "It's so quiet."
Now, months after the shutdown, residents of Red Rock are waiting — waiting for the mill to reopen, waiting for their houses to sell, or waiting for the school year to end so they can decide their next move with minimal disruption to their children.
The future looked bright when the North American Paper Company (Norampac) assumed ownership of the mill in 1997. The operation had been owned by Domtar Ltd., which merged with Cascades Inc. to form Norampac.
The new company — headquartered in St. Bruno, Que. — became Canada's largest producer of corrugated packaging and the seventh largest in North America. At the time, the Red Rock mill was the largest in the company and had a target production rate of 35,000 tonnes per month.
The Lake Sulphite Pulp Co. brought prosperity to Red Rock in the 1930s. (Photo courtesy Red Rock Historical Society)
But by 2004, soaring electricity rates and a rapidly rising Canadian dollar began to take their toll. It became too expensive to upgrade the plant.
Now, residents are in a holding pattern as they contemplate leaving a town where most have spent their whole lives.
One hundred people lost their jobs when the mill shut down one of its paper machines in September 2005. Another 300 were left without work when the entire mill was idled a year later.
The few who still have jobs usually face lengthy commutes — some as long as two hours. Others have left for work in other areas, including in Alberta's booming oil patch.
Meanwhile, as the winter deep-freeze set in and it seemed like the employment outlook couldn't get any bleaker, the area's forestry industry was hit again. On Feb. 6, 2007, a fire tore through the Multiply Forests Products sawmill in neighbouring Nipigon and burned it to the ground. The fire killed 130 jobs in a community of 1,800.
Until then, the sawmill had been the main source of good news for both towns. Just a month before the fire, a local management group purchased the aging MFP plywood mill and had plans to inject $4 million into the facility to modernize it.
Employees planned to chip in $300,000 of their own money, and the province offered $400,000 to help upgrade the plant. The fire has changed all that. The mill was insured, but reconstruction will take time.
Faced with the loss of the two main sources of employment for the region, the push is on in Red Rock to find a new industry to sustain the small community before it disappears.
Reasons for optimism and pessimism
Months after the Red Rock mill closure, the assumption might be that the town is scrambling to find a substitute economic engine — but that's not the case. Red Rock is proceeding with equal amounts of hope and caution.
Sam Sobush, who was recently elected town reeve, is the man saddled with the responsibility of reviving the town. Sobush came to Red Rock 34 years ago and started working at the mill out of high school, a familiar story in these parts. He worked in the mill until its final day in November 2006.
Sobush and the town council established the Community Adjustment Committee to discuss other options for the town. They are expected to report back to the residents of Red Rock early in the spring.
One big problem is that the Norampac mill covered 65 per cent of the town's tax base. Now commercial businesses and residents will be left to pick up that void.
Sobush remains hopeful that the mill will resume operations. He points out said the factors that led to the mill's closing — the high dollar, rising electricity and natural gas rates and the cost of paper fibre — have improved.
"There's potential there for it to reopen," Sobush said.
But he also believes that if the mill does reopen, it will need a cogeneration boiler that would let it utilize waste energy to produce its own electricity. This would require a substantial investment, which could scare off potential buyers.
'It's a difficult time for all of us'
Lorne Morrow, who was the mill's manager from 1995 until the 2006 shutdown, said there isn't just one thing that can bring the mill back — its survival depends heavily on several uncontrollable factors.
While he agrees with Sobush that the general economic climate is improving, he also notes that currency and natural gas prices are largely unpredictable.
Morrow also points to another factor — time. He believes the decision will have to be made within the year, questioning whether the shuttered mill's machinery can survive another harsh Northern Ontario winter without heat.
Still, like Sobush, Morrow hopes there is a way to fire the mill back up. His wife, Linda, is the principal at Nipigon-Red Rock High School, and the couple doesn't plan to leave town any time soon.
"It's a difficult time for all of us. A lot of people have homes here and they aren't worth much right now," Morrow said.
More hope in Nipigon
'Everybody was just feeling a gut-wrenching, sickening type of feeling in their stomach with the uncertainty of the future.'
Coun. Hoss Pelletier
A couple of kilometres away in Nipigon, February's fire shocked people who had been revelling in the news that the Multiply Forests Products mill was going to be revived and modernized.
Hoss Pelletier, a councillor for the town of 1,800, said that before the blaze, "everyone in the community had been riding a bit of a high."
Pelletier noticed an immediate change in the mood of the town, even as word spread of the flames shooting from the mill and as firefighters struggled for nearly a day to put out the fire.
"Everybody was just feeling a gut-wrenching, sickening type of feeling in their stomach with the uncertainty of the future," he said.
In the days following the fire, Richard Harvey, the reeve of Nipigon, met with mill owners, employees and members. Shortly after that, the local mill owners announced they intended to rebuild.
Red Rock's abandoned mill was used as a prisoner of war camp during the Second World War. (Photo courtesy Red Rock Historical Society)
Harvey said the process could take up to take two years.
However, Nipigon has one advantage over Red Rock in the wake of the mill's loss — the Multiply Forests Products operation contributed a far smaller percentage of the town's tax base, compared to the mill in Red Rock.
Harvey said the tax base from the razed sawmill was not "exceptionally high," adding up to slightly more than five per cent of taxes.
He remains optimistic that the Nipigon sawmill will eventually be rebuilt and pumping out product.
Harvey points out that Multiply Forest Products is one of the only North American producers of hardwood underlay. During the rebuilding period, the mill owners intend to continue serving their clients from a temporary location.
"The mill in Nipigon, unlike so many, is not being hit by economic struggles: there's still a strong market for the product," said Harvey.
"The people who own the mill are from Nipigon and they want to keep it in Nipigon."
Silence and waiting in Red Rock
Meanwhile, life has changed drastically in Red Rock amid the eerie silence.
Some people who want to stay in Red Rock have been drawing hope from the histories of nearby communities that have recovered after mill closings.
In Terrace Bay, about 90 kilometres to the east, the Neenah Paper mill was indefinitely idled in February 2006 and 400 employees lost their jobs. Eight months later, the mill reopened when a new company took over.
About 90 kilometres in the other direction, in Thunder Bay, negotiations with a potential investor for the Cascades mill fell through in early April. But a group called Thunder Bay Fine Papers is confident it can find new investors and get the mill reopened after a year of shutdown.
Doug Mowat, a former mill worker and one-time Red Rock reeve who plans to stay in the community, predicts that summer will be the deadline for residents who are still hanging on to hope.
"Right now, this is my feeling: people are on severances and on hold from moving," Mowat said. "They are waiting to see what happens over winter."
- Part I
- A double-barrelled blow
- Part II
- The search for jobs — and a new town future
- Part III
- New mill owner, new hope?
- Part I
- Racing against the pine beetle time bomb
- Part II
- Looking ahead: The people of Quesnel
- Quick history
- From gold rush to forestry centre