British Columbia

At least 130 losing jobs as Interfor announces closure of century-old Maple Ridge mill

Interfor has announced plans to permanently close its Hammond Cedar Sawmill in Maple Ridge by the end of the year, the latest in a growing list of mill closures to hit the province amid an industry downturn.

Closure is latest in growing list across B.C.

Interfor’s Hammond Sawmill is pictured in Maple Ridge, B.C., on Sept. 4, 2019. The mill is set to shut down before the end of the year, the latest upheaval for the province's forestry industry. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Interfor has announced plans to permanently close its Hammond Cedar Sawmill in Maple Ridge, B.C., by the end of the year, the latest in a growing list of mill closures to rattle the province amid an industry slump.

The company said in a statement the mill has been working at half capacity for "some years" as the province's forestry industry grapples with "significant log supply challenges."

Duncan Davies, Interfor's president and CEO, also said "cedar producers have also been disproportionately impacted" by duties on softwood shipments into the United States.

Davies said the company, which has 18 mills across North America, will seek jobs for the affected workers at its other operations or at outside mills.

The United Steelworkers Union said 130 of its members are losing their jobs with the site closed, plus dozens of additional contractors dependent on the mill for their business.

"It's devastating on our members ... it's probably closer to 200 people that will be affected," said Al Bieksa, union president.

Bieksa said the union had been in bargaining with Interfor since early June, but alarm bells went up when the company stalled. In August, the union's members at Hammond and at Interfor's Acorn mill in Delta voted 97 per cent in favour of strike action.

Interfor’s Hammond Sawmill is pictured in Maple Ridge, British Columbia on Wednesday, September 4, 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"Their resistance to bargaining led us to believe something was coming down the pike ... We were taken off guard that it's going to happen so quickly."

The current mill in Maple Ridge was built in 1963, but the first mill on the site dates back to 1908. Interfor said the closure is expected to happen before the end of the year, once the mill's existing inventory is processed and shipped out.

A photo of the Hammond Cedar Mill in the 1920s. The inset photo in the lower left corner shows nine unidentified men standing on the steps of the mill office. (Maple Ridge Museum & Archives/Flickr)

The statement said the company plans to "reorganize" its operations in order to spend elsewhere, including at its Acorn sawmill in Delta, B.C.

Various companies have announced nearly two dozen mill closures and short-term shutdowns at mills across B.C. this year, bringing hundreds of layoffs.

Workers thrown out of jobs in the struggling sector, along with contractors and those who govern municipalities dependent on forestry, are grappling with the fallout.

"We're just talking about what we're going to do, how we're going to get through life and prepare for the future," said Randy O'Leary, who's been at the mill for 36 years. 

Randy O’Leary, like many of the workers, has been at the mill for decades. (CBC)

David Richardson, who's worked there for 47 years, said he wants the government to take action. 

"Mills are going down," Richardson said. 

"Unless the government steps up to the plate and says stop sending raw log exports … it's killing us." 

B.C. Forests Minister Doug Donaldson said Thursday he understands the stress and turmoil to workers layoffs bring but said the upheaval isn't limited to the province.

"Overall, there's challenges globally to our B.C. forest industry as well as within B.C. with our log supply," the minister said. "We've seen the writing on the wall for quite a while and we're taking action legislatively."

Donaldson said the province is co-ordinating with Interfor to provide assistance to those who have been laid off, some of which will come from the company and others provincially and federally.

Interfor’s Hammond Sawmill is pictured in Maple Ridge, B.C., on Sept. 4, 2019. The mill has been operating for more than a century. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The minister says those laid off in Maple Ridge may have an "abundance" of options for new employment in the populated Lower Mainland, whereas options are "reduced" in the Interior and remote areas.

The reasons for the downturn are varied. A lack of supply and volatile markets were blamed in other shutdowns.

Poor market conditions and log shortages due to outside forces such as the mountain pine beetle and wildfires are causing mills to shutter, leaving mill towns scrambling to adapt and search for new ways to diversify their economies

"The whole industry is shrinking," David Elstone, executive director of The Truck Loggers Association, told CBC News in July. 

"That means that some contractors will likely not be working here once we get through the storm."

With files from Estefania Duran, Dominika Lirette, Daybreak North, BC Today and the Canadian Press

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