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.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.

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.

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.

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

Emergency crews were called to an ATV rollover on Harrison East Forest Service Road on Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021. (Google Maps)
UPDATE: Two people involved in ATV rollover 100 feet down ravine in Harrison, at least one injured

Incident happened shortly before 5 p.m. on Harrison East Forest Service Road

An amethyst rock was stolen from Swinstones Granite Shop’s showroom in Chilliwack on Yale Rd. West, and they are hoping it will be spotted and returned. They discovered their window smashed and the purple rock stolen on the morning of Jan. 17, 2020. Here a portion of it is pictured to the right. (Submitted image)
Amethyst stolen from Chilliwack stone shop’s showroom

Window smashed at business where purple rock has been on display for nearly 16 years

sdf
Another Mission student arrested for assault, in 2nd case of in-school violence this week

RCMP notified of local Instagram page with videos (now deleted) showing student assaults, bullying

Two people on a paddleboard take advantage of a calm Cultus Lake on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
WEATHER: Forecast calls for lots of sun in Fraser Valley this coming week

Most of next seven days will be sunny for eastern Fraser Valley, according to Environment Canada

The slide on the east side of Harrison Lake came down on Wednesday (Jan. 13. 2021) but has not impacted the forest service road. (Screenshot/Tery Kozma video)
VIDEO: Harrison Lake rock slide caught on camera

The slide is not impacting the eastern forest service roads

Justin Kripps of Summerland and his team have competed in Olympic action and World Cup competitions in bobsleigh. (Jason Ransom-Canadian Olympic Comittee).
QUIZ: Are you ready for some winter sports?

It’s cold outside, but there are plenty of recreation opportunities in the winter months

Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage addresses the attendees while Tom Olsen, Managing Director of the Canadian Energy Centre, looks on at a press conference at SAIT in Calgary on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Greg Fulmes
‘Morally and ethically wrong:’ Court to hear challenge to Alberta coal policy removal

At least 9 interveners will seek to join a rancher’s request for a judicial review of Alberta’s decision

Pindie Dhaliwal, one of the organizers for the Surrey Challo protest for Indian farmers. She says organizers were told by Surrey RCMP that the event was not allowed due to COVID-19. Organizers ended up moving the protest to Strawberry Hill at the last minute. (Photo: Lauren Collins)
Indian farmers rally moves as organizers say Surrey RCMP told them they couldn’t gather

Protest originally planned in Cloverdale, moved to Strawberry Hill

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
COVID-19: Provinces work on revised plans as Pfizer-BioNTech shipments to slow down

Anita Anand said she understands and shares Canadians’ concerns about the drug company’s decision

Tourists take photographs outside the British Columbia Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday August 26, 2011. A coalition of British Columbia tourism industry groups is urging the provincial government to not pursue plans to ban domestic travel to fight the spread of COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. travel ban will harm struggling tourism sector, says industry coalition

B.C. government would have to show evidence a travel ban is necessary

(Phil McLachlan - Capital News)
‘Targeted’ shooting in Coquitlam leaves woman in hospital

The woman suffered non-life threatening injuries in what police believe to be a targeted shooting Saturday morning

(Photo by Kevin Hill)
40 cases linked to Surrey Memorial Hospital COVID-19 outbreak

Fraser Health says two death are associated with the outbreak

JaHyung Lee, “Canada’s oldest senior” at 110 years old, received his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. He lives at Amenida Seniors Community in Newton. (Submitted photo: Amenida Seniors Community)
A unique-looking deer has been visiting a Nanoose Bay property with its mother. (Frieda Van der Ree photo)
A deer with 3 ears? Unique animal routinely visits B.C. property

Experts say interesting look may be result of an injury rather than an odd birth defect

Most Read