British Columbia

Tolko Kelowna mill closure marks end of the line for decades-old facility

The Tolko Industries lumber mill near the heart of Kelowna had been operating since the Great Depression, but now nearly 90 years later, it's being permanently shut down, as more than 170 workers got severance notices this week.

The mill near the heart of the city had been operating since the Great Depression

This Google Streetview image shows part of the Kelowna Tolko mill from Bay Avenue. (Google)

The Tolko Industries lumber mill near the heart of Kelowna had been operating since the Great Depression, but now nearly 90 years later, it's being permanently shut down, as more than 170 workers got severance notices this week.

The company, which bought the mill in 2004, announced on Friday that an indefinite mill closure that began in August, will be permanent. 

"It's never a good thing when we lose 200 good-paying jobs," said Pat McGregor, president of United Steelworkers 1-423, which represents the workers. On top of this week's notices, another 90 workers lost jobs in July when an entire second shift was terminated.

But McGregor called the news bittersweet. Workers who had been in limbo for months now have certainty about their future but the news isn't good.

According to McGregor, the workers will all receive 12 weeks pay, along with severance pay of 10 days for each year of service at the mill.

"A lot of the older guys are happy," he said. "It's the younger guys that are just starting out their careers in the forestry industry that are hit the hardest."

127 people were put out of work at Tolko Industries in Kelowna in September, when an indefinite shutdown was announced. (Dominika Lirette/CBC)

Kelowna Mayor, Colin Basran, called the closure "awful."

"It's sad news," he said. "It's certainly going to have a negative impact on our economy."

The permanent closure of the Kelowna mill comes near the end of a year in which, according to provincial estimates, approximately 6,000 workers at 25 mills in 22 communities have been affected by closures, layoffs or shift reductions.

Steve Gaucher has worked at the Tolko mill in IT for about a year. He isn't a union member and hasn't lost his job, but the closure changes things for him.

"It's been suggested there's probably another year or two of work for me here, just helping to decommission the site, move servers, computers, everything like that out of here," said Gaucher.

He said he expects a mix of experiences for the laid-off workers, depending on how long they'd been there and what they did.

"Definitely any of the guys that are more highly skilled, your millwrights, your electricians — guys like that are, I think, pretty readily employable," he said.

Gaucher figures after the work is done shutting down the Kelowna mill, he may work for Tolko in Vernon, which would mean mean a long commute each day. Vernon is about 50 kilometres north of Kelowna.

Long history

The mill was built in 1932, when Kelowna had fewer than 5,000 residents — now more than 130,000 people live there. 

"Kelowna is sort of built around the mill," said McGregor. "I mean, you had third and fourth generation workers at that mill and there won't be a fifth or sixth generation, and that's not good."

Gaucher is one of few people who have been working there since the summer.

"It's been a bit of a ghost town," he said.

Basran said he's already had "a number of people" reach out to him with suggestions of what the city should do with the land Tolko owns. However, the property isn't currently for sale.

"I know that there's a lot of people who are maybe excited about the potential of this property for our community and what it could mean long term," he said.

"A lot of them are well-intentioned and good ideas, but, at the end of the day, this property is still held by Tolko."

City staff have been in touch with Tolko. However, their plans are not yet known, he added.

Tolko declined CBC's request for an interview.

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