British Columbia

Workers say restart of Powell River paper mill is 'bittersweet'

Hundreds of workers at the Powell River Catalyst Paper Mill who were laid off at the start of the pandemic will soon be back on the job. But for many the news is bittersweet as only 200 of the more than 320 workers will be coming back to work.

Hundreds of mill workers back on the job after a year but many are not returning

More than a third of the workers at the Catalyst Paper Mill in Powell River, B.C., are still out of a job. (Submitted by Eldon Haggarty)

Hundreds of workers at the Catalyst Paper Mill in Powell River, B.C., who were laid off at the start of the pandemic will soon be back on the job.

Paper Excellence, which owns the mill, announced this week that one of the facility's two machines will be coming back online as of April. But some say the news is bittersweet as only 200 of the more than 320 workers who lost their jobs will return.

Eldon Haggarty, president of  UNIFOR Local 1,  the union that represents the workers, is one of those coming back to work. Haggarty says last year has been full of dark days.

"I had my days where I didn't want to get out of bed," Haggarty said. "I've been in the mill 34 years and I kind of saw my career going up in smoke."

With his members laid off due to the pandemic, President of UNIFOR local 1, Eldon Haggarty, says the last year has seen many dark days. But things are looking up with more than half his members being called back to work this week. (Submitted by Eldon Haggarty)

The announcement this week was a major relief for Haggarty. But with so many of his members not coming back to work along with him, his jubilation was short-lived. 

"Some of them won't be joining us back at work and it's hard to face those people," he said.

Retrofit could help expand production

Graham Kissack, vice president of Paper Excellence, said it was important for the company to reopen the Powell River mill and get as many employees as possible back to work.

"It's been very, very tough for all our employees and their families," Kissack said.

Paper Excellence wants to retrofit its mill in Powell River to produce less writing and printing paper, Kissack says, and produce more food wrapping paper instead. 

The Catalyst mill, which has been producing paper for over 100 years, at one time had as many as ten machines running. Kissack said those days have passed but with the right tweaks he is hopeful they will be able to return the mill to its pre-pandemic production.

"Obviously we are hoping that the recovery in the paper market continues and gets to a point where we can restart the second machine," he said.

Haggarty and the union are continuing to negotiate with management and are advocating to bring more staff back as soon as possible.

"We're just looking forward to getting back to work. Let's get one machine going successfully and show them we want to get the second one going," Haggarty said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kieran Oudshoorn is an award-winning broadcast journalist, documentary producer and photographer. He is based in Victoria, where he reports on stories from around Vancouver Island for local and national audiences. Formerly of Iqaluit, Nunavut.

now