'We're going to get through this': Port Alice braces for future that may not include mill
Forest policy changes to better support pulp mills may be too little, too late for North Island village
The union office for workers at the Port Alice pulp mill is located in an otherwise empty strip mall on the town's main street.
Inside, Unifor local 514 president Don Vye has been trying to keep his members working for the better part of his own 30-year career at the mill, which produces specialty cellulose.
"Specially cellulose is used for everything from textiles to plastics, pharmaceuticals, right up to the high grades, which is nitro cellulose, which is used for gunpowder and explosives," he said.
Back when it was built in 1917, Port Alice was an ideal location for a pulp mill.
"The fibre is right in the local woodlands around this area," Vye said.
In the decades that followed, the mill provided employment for as many as 500 people.
It was not always easy, and some owners went bankrupt. But the mill continued to drive the town's economy.
That ended four years ago, when the current owner Neucel Specialty Cellulose put the mill into an indefinite shutdown.
"The majority of those who worked at the mill left the community and the community is what it is today," Vye said.
A population that once topped 800 is down to about 650 people.
As part of its Coast Forest Sector Revitalization, announced in January, the province is looking to require logging companies to bring more wood waste out of the forest, along with the more valuable logs they are after.
The government says enough wood waste to fill 800 Olympic-sized swimming pools is left behind each year and it wants to see some of it redirected to pulp and paper mills, or bio-mass facilities.
It's a change, Vye says, is long overdue and could benefit Port Alice. But it may be too little, too late.
Last month, the few remaining employees that were maintaining the mill site were sent home and told not to return, Vye says, adding there's still no word from the company on what comes next.
"One would like to see it operate again, but it would take a large investment. I think people need to face facts."
To some degree, the town is facing those facts.
On top of the job losses at the mill, Neucel owes the Village a million dollars in deferred taxes.
With the shortfall, there wasn't enough money in town coffers to run the hockey arena for the winter season.
It was a blow. But the mayor hopes better days are ahead.
"You know mills start up and then they close down. That's been going on since the beginning of time. This is just one of many that have fallen under change," Mayor Kevin Cameron said.
On a drive around town, he highlights some of the natural beauty Port Alice is increasingly relying on to grow tourism and attract new families.
"We have, you know, an abundance of sea otters out in our Neroutsos Inlet. It has become quite a tourist attraction," he said.
The drop in population has had a ripple effect. Now, the village's health-care services might be affected.
The health authority for Vancouver Island is considering changes that would add services in some areas, but would reduce emergency medical care currently offered at Port Alice's health centre.
That worries village Coun. Holly Aldous, especially at a time when Port Alice is trying to bring in new people.
"There's a lot of retirees moving here. When they come here, they're seeing the affordability in housing and this laid back style of life," she said.
"If there's an emergency, they can get help. That's really important to them."
Mayor Cameron agrees it's critical to keep local services going in the face of uncertainty with the mill. And he says changes to forest policy could help.
Without the mill, much of the town's revenue comes from something called the North Island Community Forest.
It's a forest tenure that covers approximately 2,400 hectares of trees. Contractors bid to log the area and the proceeds go to the communities of Port Hardy, Port McNeill and Port Alice.
"The community forest, basically that's all that's keeping us going now ... I think there's huge opportunities to grow there," he said.
"I know we're going to get through this. It may look a little bit different. But Port Alice is a strong community. It's a good community, and we're all going to pull together."
Listen to the complete radio documentary below:
Mill Towns is a series by CBC Victoria exploring how forestry-dependent communities on Vancouver Island view changes planned by the provincial government to revitalize forestry on the B.C. coast.