New Brunswick

Province not ready to accept closure of Brunswick Smelter, loss of 420 jobs

Premier Blaine Higgs held an emergency meeting with Glencore Canada Corporation officials Wednesday night to discuss the company's plan to close the Brunswick Smelter in northern New Brunswick by Christmas, putting 420 employees out of work.

Premier holds emergency meeting with Glencore Canada about plans to close Belledune plant by Christmas

Brunswick Smelter in Belledune opened in 1966. (CBC)

Premier Blaine Higgs held an emergency meeting with Glencore Canada Corp. officials Wednesday night to discuss the company's plan to close the Brunswick Smelter in northern New Brunswick by Christmas, putting 420 employees out of work.

"We're not at this point prepared to completely throw the towel in," Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour Minister Trevor Holder told reporters during a hastily called news conference.

The government doesn't want to create a false sense of hope, he stressed. 

"But we have more questions than answers right now.

'We want to make sure we understand what is exactly going on and why now."

A shock for workers

News of the immediate decommissioning and impending closure of the Belledune plant stunned many of the employees Wednesday morning.

"We had no anticipation of the closure whatsoever," said Royce McDonnell, an industrial mechanic for 36 years.

He said the decision left workers and residents in the village of 1,400 upset and in disbelief.

"We ran for 53 years and we've had struggles over the years, but we always managed to come out of it."

Glencore cited poor business results and financial forecasts when it announced the closure. 

Unionized workers, who represent more than half of the smelter's employees, have been off the job since April 24 in a contract dispute that included safety concerns.

Plant wasn't making money

But the contract dispute is unrelated to the decision to close, spokesperson Alexis Segal told CBC News.

"We need to be very clear that the plant was not making money for the last three years," he said. "In fact, the plant lost in average over the last three years $30 million per year.

"And after this last budget cycle it was evident that things would not be improved in the coming years either."

About 100 supporters of Brunswick Smelter's unionized employees gathered outside of the processing plant last month, yelling 'scab' as a car left the smelter's gated yard. (Tori Weldon/CBC)

The smelter has been "uneconomic" since the 2013 closure of the Brunswick Mine, which produced zinc and lead, said Chris Eskdale, head of Glencore's zinc and lead assets.

The company has been importing concentrate to process at the Belledune plant and has faced increased international competition, particularly from several new lead smelters in China, officials said.

"We have thoroughly assessed all our options and come to the unavoidable conclusion that the smelter is simply not sustainable, regardless of the recent labour dispute," Eskdale said in a statement.

Glencore had planned to spend up to $64 million on an acid plant at the smelter. The first phase, worth about $20 million, was completed, but the project was cancelled in August amid the dispute.

Belledune Mayor Joe Noel described the closure as "quite a blow," not only to the village, but the entire region because the smelter is one of the biggest employers and provides work to many contractors.

If the employees can't find trades work in the area and can't be retrained, they're going to leave, he said.

"We're struggling to try and get our population up now. So this this is definitely not going to help that."

Noel said the news was still sinking in, but he intends to meet with the other mayors to come up with some plans.

His priority, he said, is to ensure that the employees are given a proper severance, that their pensions are looked after and that those who were close to retirement get the opportunity to retire "with a good pension, like they expected to."

'It hurts'

Employees and the United Steelworkers union were informed of the closure Wednesday morning.

"Today is not a good day for us," said Paul Daigle, who has worked at the smelter for 11 years. He said he feels "let down."

"It's going to be hard on us."

Terry McInnis wonders where else he'll be able to find work at age 63. (Radio-Canada)

"It hurts," said Terry McInnis, who has also worked at the plant for 11 years, ever since he lost his previous job at the paper mill in Dalhousie when it shut down.

"It's hard on the heart. It's very hard on your system, you know, mentally, physically. It's discouraging.

"Now what am I going to do at 63, 64 years old to try to find a job? I'll have to go out West. There's nothing here."

McDonnell, who sits on the negotiating committee, thought the meeting earlier in the day at the Best Western in Bathurst was going to be about a forced vote to go back to work.

He expects some workers will qualify for early retirement but said many of them are young, have been hired within the past 10 years, have mortgages and are starting families.

"It's unfortunate … especially so close to Christmas."

Support for workers

Lawrence McKay, the union's area co-ordinator for Atlantic Canada, called the closure announcement disappointing.

"It's a hard go."

Union executives plan to meet with the local committee on Friday morning and Glencore's head of human resources for Canada on Monday morning to start negotiating a closure agreement, said McKay.

Glencore said it will provide pension, severance and outplacement support services for all employees.

It will also seek potential relocation opportunities at its mining and metallurgical operations in other provinces and countries, the statement said.

Glencore's companies employ about 158,000 people, including contractors, with offices in more than 35 countries.

It has eight other plants in Canada, none of them in New Brunswick. 

Eskdale described the decision to close the Brunswick Smelter as "a very difficult one."

The company will work closely with employees, unions and community stakeholders to mitigate the impact as much as possible, he said.

The labour minister said resources will be available for the soon to be out of work employees but did not offer any specifics.

10 to stay on for decommissioning

A maximum of 10 employees will be kept on for the decommissioning process, which could take a few years, including land reclamation and cleaning, officials said.

The union has called the work disruption a lockout, but the company said that because employees were paid until the strike deadline, it was a strike.

The union gave a 72-hour strike notice, but on April 24 — 14 hours before the deadline — the 281 unionized employees were sent home, with pay.

The last contract expired in February 2019.

With files from Tori Weldon, Harry Forestell, Jordan Gill and Radio-Canada

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