New Brunswick·Transformation

Small New Brunswick village banks on pot to revive economy

Atholville has a steadily declining population, and some of the highest unemployment rates in the province, but the village is hoping a new medical marijuana facility will keep people in the community and attract new faces.

After watching jobs and people disappear, village on Restigouche River opens doors to Zenabis

Atholville Mayor Michel Soucy has seen the village's ups and downs but he feels glued to the place. (Tori Weldon/CBC)

​Nestled between the northern Appalachian Mountains and the Restigouche River, the village of Atholville has lost jobs and people over the years.

The beautiful, somewhat remote village just west of Campbellton is home to about 3,570 people.

Pot may be the reason many of them will stay.

Unemployment in the region is the highest in the province, but it's down nearly three per cent from this time last year, in part because of Zenabis, a medical marijuana production company that chose Atholville for a new plant.

"There's a huge hiring burst happening right now," said May Nazair, manager of quality control compliance and communications at Zenabis.

"We're looking to hire an additional 60 people."

Sixty people already work at the plant, where there was a flurry of activity recently because of harvest week. It was time to pick the buds. 

High praise for workforce

Zenabis waited three years for a licence from the federal government to produce medical marijuana. A little over a year since then, the company is doubling its staff to 120 employees. (Tori Weldon/CBC)

The business received its production licence from Health Canada in August 2017, and it's been a busy year in a fast-moving industry.

"You'll notice that everyone here is extremely motivated, very skilled, very stubborn," Nazair said.

"And we get things done, and we're in it to win it, that's for sure."

Many people in the village are hoping this is the industry that will last.

Mayor Michel Soucy, a lifelong resident of Atholville, has been involved in local politics for 20 years. 

Easy decision

The village of Atholville runs along the Restigouche River, just across from Quebec It a commercial centre with a handful of box stores but it has lost services, such as a school and hospital, to Campbellton. (Tori Weldon/CBC)

Mayor Michel Soucy, a lifelong resident of Atholville, has been involved in local politics for 20 years. 

He's familiar with the hard times the village and region have faced.

"I don't know what year it was, but they shut down the CN Rail in Campbellton," he said. "We lost over 1,000 jobs."

"We had at our industrial park ... they were producing those small portable radios … and we had close to 1,000 jobs there, so that was closed."

Atholville has a population of about 3,500. The mayor says the villages largest employer is AV Group's pulp and fibre mill, pictured above. It has also suffered from the closures of mills and plants in Dalhousie and Campbellton over the years. (Tori Weldon/CBC)

The whole area felt the effects, Soucy said, so when Zenabis came calling, he jumped at the chance.

"They had seen the building that was for sale and they wanted to know how the citizens of Atholville, or the citizens in the area, would feel with the coming of a cannabis plant in the area," he said.

​And did Soucy find support from people in the community?

"People were looking for jobs, that's one thing," he said. "But on the other hand, the commercial sector, people, business people, they were looking to get something different."

Company 'fell in love'

May Nazair, manager of quality control compliance and communications at Zenabis, says employees are 'extremely motivated, very skilled, very stubborn and we get things done.' (Tori Weldon/CBC)

Zenabis, which already had a plant in Delta, B.C., showed up in the area in 2013, when the company was known as International Herbs. 

"It was a very hospitable community," Nazair said. "And they were very open to working with the company, and there was this opportunity, this big warehouse available at the time, and all the ducks lined up.

"I guess [Zenabis] fell in love with this community and they really wanted to make a difference here."

But it wasn't quick or easy. 

Denis Cormier says that 30 years ago he wouldn't have expected he'd be lobbying to bring marijuana growers to his home town, but he did just that for the badly needed jobs. (Tori Weldon/CBC)

Denis Cormier, a co-owner of Central Garage, a car dealership in Atholville, said that 30 years ago, it would have been a stretch to think he'd ever lobby government representatives in support of cannabis growers, but times have changed.

"Good or bad, I think it's going to benefit a lot of people. We want jobs, here we have an opportunity to have some, we should benefit from it."

Cormier said Zenabis representatives came to his dealership in 2013 looking to lease a car, and there have been ups and downs since then.

Soucy and Régis Maltais, the former president of the Campbellton Regional Chamber of Commerce, were vocal in demanding support from government for the cannabis enterprise and asking Health Canada to speed up the process of granting a production licence to Zenabis.

The company didn't have a licence when it bought its 393,000-square-foot warehouse in March 2014, but it said it would create 400 jobs in the Atholville area.

New hope

Nicholas Caissy, compliance supervisor at Zenabis is from the area and moved moved back after going to university and building a career in Nova Scotia. (Tori Weldon/CBC)

Some 1,400 people applied for them, but the licence and the jobs were elusive.

In October 2015, went as far as listing the building for sale.

But support eventually came in the form of a $4 million loan from the provincial government for upgrades to the building, followed by the licence to grow cannabis.

Now that things are moving, Soucy is feeling a new sense of hope in the community.  

"Our youth were heading outside for a university degree or post-secondary education, and unfortunately they were staying in the place where they were getting their education."

I always considered it to be home, but it's good to be able to call it home and actually be here.- Nicholas Caissy, Zenabis employee

To make things worse, Soucy said, older people who missed their children and grandchildren were moving from Atholville to be closer to their families.

Now people like Nicholas Caissy are bucking the trend. He's from the region but left to go to university. After starting his career in the Halifax area, he decided to return home.

"I used to work for a company called Survival Systems Training over in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia," Caissy said. "It's a training company for offshore personnel, military, RCMP all kinds of groups, and I worked there as an operations maintenance supervisor."

He had been warned by friends that the job outlook back home was bleak, so Caissy felt lucky to find part-time work as a supply teacher upon his return.

Not a standard job

Jessie Boekelder, cultivation technician specializing in irrigation took online courses after graduating from university to make sure she was qualified to work at Zenabis. (Tori Weldon/CBC)

"There's a whole multitude of work out there, but a lot of it is part-time," he said. "And unfortunately part-time work doesn't give you much in terms of if you want to settle down, buy a house, anything like that.

"I didn't see much in terms of salaries that I would be looking for."

Then Caissy came across a posting at Zenabis, applied and got the job.

"I would not be doing anything nearly as exciting I can tell you that.'- Jessie Boekelder, Zenabis employee

"It's not just a standard job that you just go into everyday, and that's all you're going to do for the rest of your life," he said.

"For those with a path that they want to gain in, or they are looking for opportunity, I think it's a great thing for the region."

The 28-year-old can finally see himself staying.

"I always considered it to be home, but it's good to be able to call it home and actually be here."

A more exciting life

Jessie Boekelder, the cultivation technician specializing in irrigation took online courses after graduating from university to make sure she was qualified to work at Zenabis.

She is passionate about medical marijuana.

"I would not be doing anything nearly as exciting I can tell you that," she said. "I would likely be working at my old job,  which was just at a cafe."

With Bill C45 passed, recreational marijuana will be sold, legally, in Canada starting Oct. 17.

Zenabis is already on board, with one of three agreements to supply New Brunswick stores with cannabis.