Mill closure hangs over opening
The reality of the recent closure of the local paper mill, and hopes of what the future might hold for Fort Frances, loomed large last Wednesday during the official opening of a new museum exhibit chronicling the past 100 years of logging and paper-making here.
Fort Frances Museum curator Sherry George said that when the committee which put together the new exhibit first started planning the exhibit, as well as the May 14 celebration to give the past its proper send-off, the mill was still open and running.
“Although we should be celebrating that 100th anniversary of that first roll of paper, we came up a bit short,” she acknowledged.
“As much as our planning committee wanted our exhibit to be a positive experience, with the mill closing only a week ago, it’s been very difficult to ignore that big elephant in this room,” George added.
“And it’s understandable. The mill and this town have grown up together, so it’s hard to imagine that one shall continue without the other.
“As the mill is at the very heart of our community, how do we just go on around it?” she wondered.
George lost her job with the mill in 2009 and for long afterwards, each time she would drive by the property, she would feel a horrible sense of loss; of exclusion.
“I’d belonged to the best club in town, and then one day I did not,” she recalled.
“Somehow I had been found wanting and all of my privileges revoked.
“As much as I tried to drum up anger being let go, I was mostly just sad,” George added.
“Clearly I was grieving.
“When the museum closed last night [May 13] and the students left for home, I walked around our exhibit,” George said.
“I looked at all the photos of the many people who had worked in the mill or in logging, and it made me realize something.
“Whether an old-time logger or today’s equipment operator, whether a newbie picking wood in the groundwood mill or a seasoned worker wrapping rolls in finishing and shipping, every one of us has more in common than not,” she remarked.
George said Fort Frances is, first and foremost, a community of hard-working people.
“We take pride in a job well-done,” she noted. “Maybe it’s the way we’ve been raised? A small-town trait, perhaps?
“But because we’ve seen tough times, live with uncertainty as to what the future will bring and have been forced to do more with a lot less, we’ve become extremely resilient and resourceful.
“We are not going to make any missteps going forward because we have already landed on our feet,” George reasoned.
“We might be grieving a little for what could have been, but we’re more than prepared to meet the future head on.
George said she was one of 10 employees who were let go in 2009 and every one of them has moved on to better things.
“The mill experience gave me many skills, some amazing opportunities,” she noted. “But most of all, it has given me a wonderful network of contacts and great friends that I will not only cherish always but who have been a huge support to me.
“My experience is not unlike many others out there, and if you will allow me to say so, has many similarities to what now faces Fort Frances,” George continued.
“We need to see the mill closing as just a hiccup, a small pause for reflection, before we move forward again.
“Our community’s future is out there, and the best is yet to come,” she said.
Fort Frances Mayor Roy Avis said the forest industry always has played a role in Fort Frances, and he hopes it will continue to in one way or another.
“There are many third- and fourth-generation families whose ancestors were attracted here by the logging industry,” the mayor noted.
“My family is one . . . my grandfather came here for the logging industry.
“I remember the days of the Ontario-Minnesota Pulp & Paper Company, the sale of the paper mill to Boise Cascade, and then the sale to Rainy River Forest Products,” Mayor Avis added.
“I kind of call that the end of the good old days.
“It is hard to believe where we are today,” the mayor conceded. “I, for one, thought that the closure of this mill would never come.”
Mayor Avis said the town appreciates all those who worked in the mill or logging industry over the past 100 years.
“These were the people who shaped our future and helped make Fort Frances what it is today,” he stressed.
The mayor also noted Fort Frances is situated in a strategic location—being the region’s main port of entry into the U.S. and with the Crossroute Forest “at our back door.”
“This is one of the best in Canada and it saddens me to know we’re no longer sharing in the wealth that the forest brings,” he lamented.
“As Ontarians, we must continue to lobby the government and protect what is rightfully ours, and bring Fort Frances back to the prosperity we had once enjoyed,” Mayor Avis stressed.
“We are the rightful owners of the forest.
“Timber is a renewable resource and can continue to be part of the economy for the next 100 years, and believe me, your council is working to bring this back to prosperity,” the mayor pledged.
“Tonight is to be a celebration of the past but I thought we should also look at the future.”
Jim Krag, the mill’s woodlands manager, spoke on the history of the forest industry and attested that area forests will continue to play a role in the community’s future.
Krag thanked the museum for recognizing the importance of the forest industry over the last 100 years, but noted the history of logging extends back even further.
“About 150 years ago, in one of the earliest commercial uses of the forest, aboriginal people were cutting firewood for the steamboats that plied the water between Lake Superior and Lake Winnipeg, following the Dawson Route,” he recalled.
“Shortly thereafter, the industry built several sawmills up and down the Rainy River system that utilized the red and white pine forest resource that was in the district.
“The Fort Frances paper mill, although built in 1914, evolved and adapted, often dramatically, over its 100-year history,” Krag added.
“However, as we know, the shifting markets due to the ‘Information Age’ have brought that era to a close.”
Krag said he’s been fortunate to participate in the local forest industry for nearly 40 years—not counting the years as a kid he jumped the log booms to get to his family’s cabin on Swell Bay.
“I have pride and confidence in the state of our forests,” he remarked.
“The district’s forest resource has been, and continues to be, sustainably managed and has the capacity to support a new and different industry,” Krag stressed.
“So although we’re here to recognize the last 100 years, I believe that the forest industry will continue to play an important role in our community in the next 100 years, as well.”
Local MP John Rafferty said that with news of the mill’s permanent closure last week, last Wednesday’s celebration was “sort of a bittersweet event in many ways.”
“It’s sad for the workers and their families and, of course, for the community itself,” he remarked.
“As you know, I am the NDP forestry critic and we have worked since 2008, since my election, very hard to try to get some things in place to make sure workers are protected, their families are protected, and the communities are protected,” Rafferty noted.
“I’ve called for a national strategy on forestry since 2008, and you’re probably aware of my battle for severance and pensions, and it’s an ongoing battle.”
Rafferty also said the community adjustment fund, which helps a community where major layoffs in a major industry have taken place, disappeared last year and he’s still fighting to get that back.
“Since 2008, we’ve seen almost 30,000 jobs disappear in Northern Ontario in the forest industry,” he said.
“Those are direct jobs, that’s not counting the tertiary or secondary jobs that also are affected.
“Northern Ontario has been harder hit than anywhere in Canada, including the west coast,” he lamented.
That said, Rafferty said he was glad to be at the exhibit opening and enthused that when he looked at all the photos of the mill workers from over the years, it reminded him of all “the blood, sweat, and tears that’s gone into forestry and gone into this community in the last 100 years.”
“And certainly those who are here today, and all those past workers and families, I do congratulate you.”
Rafferty also delivered a message from local MPP Sarah Campbell, who noted the mill workers and all the resulting spin-off jobs over the years have brought prosperity and a high standard of living to the region.
She congratulated those responsible for putting on the exhibit.