Feds and province mum on helping Tolko mill in The Pas

The Manitoba and federal governments say they're committed to creating jobs in the province's north, but it appears neither is committing to saving the Tolko Industries mill in The Pas.

Cabinet ministers won't say if financial support would be offered to keep facility open

Tolko Industries announced on Monday that it's shutting down its operations in The Pas, Man., with 332 employees to be laid off in December. (CBC)

The Manitoba and federal governments say they're committed to creating jobs in the province's north, but it appears neither is committing to keeping the Tolko Industries mill in The Pas open.

The announcement on Monday by the B.C.-based forestry products company to close the mill in December shocked residents in the area, where Tolko currently employs 332 people.

Cliff Cullen, Manitoba's minister of growth, enterprise and trade, said on Tuesday that he hopes the mill won't sit empty after Tolko ceases operations.

"We're obviously optimistic that there are some opportunities there for future development. Obviously, we're going to have a conversation with Tolko," he said.

"It is their asset, they can do with that asset what they want, so we don't know whether they're going to be selling that asset or looking at other options going forward."

Cullen added that development in the north is a priority for his government, and it will be launching a program in the coming months to attract new businesses and expand existing ventures.

"We are obviously interested in northern Manitoba in terms of sustainable development, economic development," he said.

"If we can create jobs in northern Manitoba that puts people back to work, it reduces the poverty they have there, and certainly, that is good for Manitoba as well."

Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, who is also the Liberal MP for Winnipeg South Centre, said there have been many job losses in the natural resources sector across Canada in the last 18 months.

"We understand that low commodity prices [have] an impact on families and it has an impact today and this week on families in The Pas, so naturally we're concerned about that," he said.

But Carr and Cullen, as well as provincial Infrastructure Minister Blaine Pedersen, have avoided repeated questions on whether their governments would offer subsidies or any other financial support to keep the current mill open.

When asked if Ottawa would rule out support for the Tolko mill or not, Carr replied, "We'll be in close conversations with Minister Cullen and the Province of Manitoba moving forward."

Company had reached out to others, union says

Paul McKie of Unifor, the union representing most of the affected Tolko employees, said he was only told recently that the company was struggling to remain in business.

McKie said he's learned that Tolko had reached out to the Manitoba, Saskatchewan and federal governments in the last couple of weeks to inform them of the current situation.

However, none of the stakeholders was given enough time to develop a game plan to save the company, he said.

"We were prepared to go to the table if others came to the table as well," McKie said.

"This wasn't a matter of them saying that if this one thing happens we'll be able to stay open. It's a myriad of things they say are adding to the cost issues they have."

'Manitobans can count on my advocacy,' says MP

Federal Employment, Workforce Development and Labour Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk, who is also from Manitoba, called the Tolko announcement "terrible news," especially on the heels of the Port of Churchill and railway announcements.

"The north has faced several really difficult announcements," said Mihychuk, who represents the Kildonan-St. Paul riding.

"We're going to, of course, be helping the community, looking at ways that we can help those that are going to be impacted by it in the interim. This is a file that I don't directly work with — this will be part of the industry portfolio — but Manitobans can count on my advocacy for Manitoba, that's for sure."

Mihychuk said the forestry and mineral exploration industries have been struggling in recent years, but she believes the economic picture for northern Manitoba is not entirely grim.

"I think overall, northern Manitoba has enormous potential," she said.

"Right now, we're facing a pretty serious situation, but I think overall the resources and the fabulous innovative people we've got in the north will turn it around."