Canfor shuts down operations in Chetwynd and Houston, BC, cutting about 400 jobs

Canfor has announced the permanent closure of its Chetwynd, BC operations, as well as a temporary closure of its Houston sawmill, creating further challenges for forestry industry workers.

The company said closing its Chetwynd sawmill and pellet plant is part of what it calls a restructuring of operations in the province, while the temporary closure of its sawmill in Houston, meanwhile, is part of a restructuring focused on manufacturing.

Although the company did not say how many jobs would be cut, the union representing workers at both locations estimated that at least 400 people would be out of a job.

“My phone hasn’t stopped ringing,” said Jeff Bromley, chair of the United Steelworkers Wood Council.

“[There’s] lots of heartache, lots of confusion.”

Bromley said 120 people work at the Chetwynd sawmill, about 300 kilometers northeast of Prince George, while 280 are employed in Houston, about 300 kilometers west of the same city. Jobs will also be cut at the Chetwynd pellet plant.

He noted their remote locations make it unlikely for laid-off workers to be able to stay in their communities.

“It’s not easy to just sell your house and find another job,” he said.

“It’s a major, major impact on small communities.”

Dwindling fiber supply

The announcement comes two weeks after Canfor announced the loss of 300 jobs as it phases out one of its Prince George pulp lines.

In all cases, the company blamed dwindling long-term fiber supply for the changes as the amount of accessible timber available for harvest declines.

“We are making these difficult but necessary decisions to create a more sustainable operating footprint in BC,” president Don Kayne said in a written statement.

“Our goal is to match our mill capacity with the economically available fiber for harvest to enhance our ability to compete and to operate throughout the market cycles.”

An aerial view of the aftermath of a clearcut taken in the summer.
An aerial view of a clearcut east of Prince George, BC, taken in the summer of 2022. (CBC)

Canfor says it will wind down both Chetwynd and Houston operations sometime this spring, removing approximately 750 million board feet of annual production capacity.

Afterwards, it says it will begin redeveloping its Houston site to become “a globally competitive manufacturing facility,” aimed at producing “high value products from the sustainable timber supply in the region.”

However, Bromley warned that it would likely be a two-year process and result in fewer jobs than before.

“It will bring jobs back to Houston, but it won’t be 280, that’s for sure.”

Industry-wide challenges

Liberal MLA Mike Bernier, whose Peace River South riding includes Chetwnyd, said in a Facebook post he’d been told Canfor was unable to get guaranteed certainty on fiber supply, leading to its decision to close the plants.

“It’s hard to make any decisions to stay open when you can’t access wood anymore,” he wrote.

The reduced supply has been blamed on a number of factorsincluding fallout from the mountain pine beetle, forest fires and forestry management practices by companies focused on short-term profitability over long-term sustainability.

A man in a plaid shirt looks worried.
Peace River South MLA Mike Bernier represents the District of Chetwynd. (Kyle Bakx/CBC News)

Canfor isn’t alone in downsizing operations as a result: earlier this week, both Tolko Industries and Sinclair Forest Products announced further curtailments at operations throughout BC’s Interior and north, affecting more than 700 employees.

In response, the province announced several supports for the industry, including a $90 million manufacturing jobs fund$50 million to access hard-to-reach fiber in fire-damaged regionsand a $4.5-million investment to help re-open a Vancouver Island pulp and paper mill.

After Canfor’s announcement, forests minister Bruce Ralston and jobs minister Brenda Bailey issued a joint release saying community support teams have been deployed to provide resources and services to help affected workers following the job cuts.

They also expressed support for Canfor’s plans in Houston, saying the addition of a manufacturing plant will ensure “good forestry jobs remain in the region” in alignment with their overall strategy of creating more value-added jobs.

But while that might be a silver lining on the horizon, Bromley said for now, workers across the industry are worried about their jobs being on the line.

“I fear now there’s more [cuts] to happen,” he said. “We just don’t know where or when.

“The uncertainty is palpable.”

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