STANDING TALL: ‘Forced retirement’ a reality for sawmill employees

  • Aug. 12, 2020 6:30 a.m.
Dorian Uzzell, owner and partner of Campbell River-based logging company Wahkash Contracting, says every position is highly skilled, requiring dedication and focus. Photo courtesy of Wahkash Contracting Ltd.

By Kristen Holliday

In the second of a three-part series highlighting stories from the forest industry, people employed in sawmills, including those who have experienced closures and curtailed production, discuss their challenges and achievements.

An uncertain time

As lumber mills across B.C. reduce production or permanently close, uncertainty envelops an industry long seen as a source of steady, well-paying jobs – more than 50,000 in good times.

Multiple factors, including less timber available for harvest, and weak international markets, have led to devastating impacts for communities.

According to the province’s mill status reports, 42 notices were issued by companies announcing temporary curtailments or closures in 2019. That’s double the number of similar advisories made in 2018.

B.C.’s ministry responsible for forests confirms that 39 mills were in active curtailment or closure as of mid-June. Half these measures are attributed to COVID-19, as the pandemic compounds difficulties for the sector.

In 2019, six mills shut down permanently, resulting in 885 people losing their jobs. In May, a seventh permanent closure was announced by Canfor, one of B.C.’s largest forest companies.

RELATED: B.C. forest industry ending 2019 in distress

RELATED: Twice laid off due to sawmill closings, B.C. worker ready for a new career

Kevin Porterfield, a Clearwater resident and former maintenance and clean-up worker, was one of 178 people laid off when Canfor’s Vavenby mill closed in June 2019.

The 62-year-old is now in “forced retirement,” but looking for work to bridge the gap until he can collect a full pension.

He says his work crew was like family. The mill closure was shocking.

Canfor sold its timber rights to Interfor, another private forest company, after closing the Vavenby mill.

“The way I’m thinking, it’s not their timber. That wood belongs to the valley,” says Porterfield.

“Yes, we give them permission to cut it and they would pay a stumpage fee and they would give us jobs. But now, they just sold it. So now there is not enough timber in this valley to start another mill.”

In an emailed statement, Canfor’s senior communications director Michelle Ward says the company is “exploring plans with interested parties to repurpose the [Vavenby] site to ensure further economic activity and opportunities for employment.”

Ward says that before the closure, Canfor’s Vavenby mill and Interfor’s neighbouring Adams Lake mill faced dwindling fibre supply (raw timber).

“Now, Adams Lake remains viable and continues to support some ongoing employment with our contractors and truckers,” Ward says.

Larry Black runs a bull edger for Teal-Jones Group in Surrey, with more than 40 years of experience working in sawmills. He says it’s heartbreaking to see these shutdowns.

“It’s pretty devastating, especially in a small community. When I was younger, there were mills everywhere; now you see fewer and fewer.”

He says most mills pay their employees well, so workers are able to raise families and pay mortgages, even if they only have high school education.

A log bucking system at Teal-Jones. The Teal-Jones Group operates three mills, located along the Fraser River in Surrey. Photo Kristen Holliday.

“This whole province is built on forestry,” he says. “It would be nice to keep some of the well-paying jobs in B.C.”

At first, Cody Neitch wasn’t sure about becoming a boom boat operator for Teal-Jones.

After his shift at the mill was cut, the only alternative was looking for another job.

The 22-year-old has operated the boat for four months. He guides log bundles from a boom and delivers them to mills along the Fraser River.

“An average bundle of logs weighs about 60 tonnes,” he says. “You really have to pay attention to every little bit that the bundle moves so you know where it’s going to end up.”

Once he delivers the log bundle to its destination, the next challenge begins.

“I have to pull my boat up to the side of the bundle, hop off the boat, cut the bundle wires that are holding it all together, and then get back on and pull away.”

The process takes about 10 minutes, and is repeated several times a day.

Despite the keen focus necessary for the job, Neitch says it’s relaxing on the water, “having the sun on you, a cold breeze.”

With his father working in the industry, Neitch knew there might be “ups and downs” for employment.

“It’s a pretty uncertain time with the lack of fibre. I am a little bit concerned about that.”

As for his new job, Neitch wouldn’t want to trade it for anything.

RELATED: B.C. delays increase to log export restrictions in COVID-19 crisis

Brent Stevenson, head saw benchman for Downie Timber, loves his job because he never stops learning.

Benchmen and sawfilers are certified trade workers who maintain saw blades and machinery used to cut timber.

Blades must be sharpened every two to eight hours, depending on the type and condition of wood being cut. Rocks and mud can damage saw blades.

Sawdust collects in a container just offshore from one of Teal-Jones Group’s sawmills. The mill is located along the Fraser River in Surrey. Photo Kristen Holliday.

Stevenson describes the trade as a lost art, saying it can take decades on the job before a filer has “seen it all.”

The trade is facing compounding challenges as mills close. With each sawfiler retirement, knowledge is lost.

Warren Upton, benchman for Interfor and a British Columbia Sawfiler Association board member, says when he started as a certified sawfiler 24 years ago, there were 1,700 others in the province. Now there are only a few hundred, he estimates.

The biggest challenge is convincing mills to invest in training new apprentices. It can be costly, but Upton believes it’s necessary. Without new filers, the future of the trade program is jeopardized.

“Without a [trade] ticket, there’s no proof that you know what you’re doing.”

Sawmills are hubs for employment, supporting skilled tradesmen, labourers, and contractors, creating economic growth, and supporting communities.

When mills close, towns change.

Porterfield says Clearwater was a giving community, with multiple community sports leagues that were sponsored by the mill and local contractors.

Now, the mill has closed and contractors moved on.

Uncertainty is a constant worry among people moving to find work. Considering the Vavenby mill shut down – even with a specialty cutting longer board lengths – closures could happen anywhere.

“They’re still closing mills down. I keep thinking, okay, this is it. Can’t get any worse now. Well, don’t say that, because it can.”

Log booms located near Iona Beach, in Richmond. Photo Kristen Holliday.

Next: workers and researchers for the pulp and paper sector discuss why they were drawn to work in the industry, and their hopes for the future.

Kristen Holliday is a 2020 graduate of the Langara College journalism program. She pursued this series in partnership with Black Press Media.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

forestry

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

B.C. Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau outlines her party's climate action platform at Nanaimo's Vancouver Island Conference Centre earlier this month. (News Bulletin file photo)
Green leader Furstenau declared victor in her home riding on Vancouver Island

Cowichan Valley voters elect freshly minted party leader for her second term

John Horgan has been re-elected the MLA for Langford-Juan de Fuca. (File-Black Press)
Horgan trounces challengers to be re-elected in his Vancouver Island riding

MLA has represented constituency of Langford-Juan de Fuca and its predecessors since 2005

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
Interior Health reports 18 COVID-19 cases, highest daily count since July

The total of COVID-19 cases in the region is now at 662

Carmi Elementary students voted through CIVIX Students Vote. (Lesley Evans photo)
Penticton students have their say in B.C. election

Twelve schools, including Carmi Elementary participated in Student Vote

A Kelowna clinic decided to immunize their patients in a drive-thru flu clinic earlier this month. (Twila Amato - Black Press Media)
Interior Health anticipates increase in flu vaccinations this season

Some 300,000 doses of flu vaccine ready for distribution across Southern Interior

B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry gives a daily briefing on COVID-19 cases at an almost empty B.C. Legislature press theatre in Victoria, B.C., on March 25, 2020. (Don Craig/B.C. government)
B.C. sees 223 new COVID-19 cases, now 2,009 active

Two new care home outbreaks in Surrey, Burnaby

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam responds to a question during a news conference Friday October 23, 2020 in Ottawa. Canada’s top physician says she fears the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths may increase in the coming weeks as the second wave continues to drive the death toll toward 10,000. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s top doctor warns severe illness likely to rise, trailing spike in COVID-19 cases

Average daily deaths from virus reached 23 over the past seven days, up from six deaths six weeks ago

Voters are saying they felt safe voting in person despite the current pandemic. (Phil McLachlan - Capital News)
Central Okanagan voters talk about their pandemic election experience

Despite an election taking place during COVID-19, residents said they felt safe voting in person

Efforts to replace the aging Rutland Middle School have been put off by another year by the ministry of education. (File photo)
Education ministry won’t replace Central Okanagan school anytime soon

New Westside Secondary top priority for ministry of education

Cole Collingwood casts his mock ballot at Vernon’s Mission Hill Elementary School ahead of the provincial election Oct. 24, 2020. (Brendan Shykora - Morning Star)
PHOTOS: Okanagan students cast mock election ballots

At Mission Hill Elementary, the election is a chance to learn about the democratic process

Thanks to efforts by a Kelowna shelter and Elections BC, anyone who wishes to can vote in the 2020 BC Provincial Election, even if they don’t have a fixed address. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)
Kelowna group ensures people experiencing homelessness can vote

Shelter supervisor says voting ‘a fundamental right’ even for those without a fixed address

The Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen is planning to implement transit service in the West Bench area in September, 2021. (Black Press file photo)
Regional district to bring transit service to West Bench in 2021

Residents of area near Penticton will be consulted before plans are finalized

Most Read