Don't let New Brunswick become 'lesser' with loss of Brunswick Smelter, urges documentarian
Prof. Tony Tremblay says it's time to talk about how to keep small communities like Belledune vibrant
A documentarian and academic from northern New Brunswick says a provincewide discussion about the value of small communities and their future is long overdue.
Tony Tremblay was reacting to the news Glencore Canada Corp. will close the Brunswick Smelter in Belledune by Dec. 31.
He says the impending closure is not just a blow to the 420 employees and to the village of about 1,400, but to the province as a whole.
It's about "what is lost when we lose our small communities in New Brunswick, especially small communities that grew up around industrial processes."
Tremblay, who grew up in nearby Dalhousie and worked at the local AbitibiBowater paper mill during university, says it's an issue he's all too familiar with. He was the fourth generation in his family to work at the mill before it closed in 2008, putting about 450 people out of work.
Tremblay, now a professor of English at St. Thomas University, wrote, directed and produced the 2011 documentary film Last Shift: The Story of a Mill Town, about how his hometown's "horizons were shaped and altered by the pulsing industry at its heart."
Although Dalhousie has worked hard to reinvent itself, focusing on tourism, Tremblay contends it's never been quite the same.
"My sense of what the value of those small communities is is that they incubate an incredible talent and they incubate some of the best that this province produces," he said.
Industrial towns teach people to work together, to work out their differences and to share their skill sets, said Tremblay. And the intimate relationships that develop help cultivate a sense of shared responsibility and self-reliance.
When small communities lose a major industry, they tend to lose the "vital social capital" of the specialized and knowledgeable employees who leave to find work elsewhere, he said.
"And if we lose that as a province, we're incredibly diminished, I think."
The lead smelter has been a major employer in Belledune for 53 years and provided spinoff benefits to the Port of Belledune, contractors, truck drivers and a variety of other businesses.
It has also provided about $800,000 in property tax revenue — roughly 16 per cent of the village's total budget.
But Glencore officials said the smelter hasn't been profitable for three years, losing an average of $30 million per year. The decision to close is unrelated to the six-month contract dispute with its unionized employees, who represent more than half of its workforce, officials said.
The village of Atholville, about 80 kilometres northwest of Belledune, faced a similar fate when its pulp mill closed in 1991, said Mayor Michel Soucy.
He worked at the mill at the time in human resources and was a village councillor. Soucy, whose children were aged 12, nine and six, and whose wife was a stay-home mom, had job offers out West, but he didn't want to move.
Instead, he took some business training offered through an assistance program for affected employees, he said. His wife also qualified for training through the assistance program and got a job.
"The most important thing at first is to take care of the employees and their families," said Soucy, referring to the Belledune smelter.
The company and all three levels of government must work together, he said.
In Atholville, the mill reopened in 1997 under the AV Group, a division of Aditya Birla of India, thanks largely to the drive and tenacity of the late former finance minister Edmond Blanchard, said Soucy.
It's unclear if any companies might be interested in taking over the smelter site, but Soucy thinks it's time to take a closer look at other proposed projects, such as Maritime Iron Inc's iron-ore processing plant.
"It's been on the works now for a while, so what's left to be done?"
The company, which has received $625,000 from the province in the last couple of years, wants to start building the plant this year and start production in 2022, depending on feasibility studies, former premier Brian Gallant has said.
Construction would create 1,000 jobs and the plant would employ more than 200 people when it is running, Gallant has said.
If these small communities die, then our province is lesser than it was.- Tony Tremblay, documentarian and professor
Soucy said it may be worth trying to move up that timeline — before the smelter employees move away, further decreasing the region's declining population.
Small communities are important to the province and offer residents a lifestyle they can't find in larger cities, he said.
"We will survive and we will find ways and means to improve the economy in the northern part of New Brunswick," he said.
Tremblay is also optimistic, pointing to the village of Charlo, which has managed to become one of the country's premier sports venues.
But New Brunswick needs to take its overall out-migration and the depopulation of its rural areas in particular seriously, he said.
"I really think that as a province, we have to come together and have this important discussion about how to maintain vibrancy in these small communities, because if these small communities die, then our province is lesser than it was."