Laid off mill workers rally for change in Alberni Valley

Denise Titian, December 5, 2017

Norm MacLeod of the United Steelworkers union speaks to a crowd gathered on Nov. 30 in Port Alberni to protest Western Forest Products' closure of the Somass Mill last summer. Mayor Mike Ruttan also spoke at the rally (following photo), as did Steelworkers Local 1-1937 President Brian Butler and Bob Bortolin, vice-president of business development for the San Group, which is actually growing its mill operations in the region. (Denise Titian photos)

Port Alberni — 

More than 200 laid-off Somass Mill employees and their supporters showed up at Tyee Landing Nov. 30 in an effort to save their jobs.

Owned by Western Forest Products Ltd., Somass Mill has been closed since a temporary shutdown was announced February 2017. On July 27, 2017 the company issued a press release stating the mill would be closed indefinitely, due to lack of log supply and the need for cost-cutting measures to remain competitive.

“We will be encouraging employees to explore opportunities for employment at Western’s other sawmills on Vancouver Island,” said Don Demens, President and Chief Executive Officer of Western.

Approximately 70 workers are directly affected by the closure of Somass Mill.

MLA Scott Fraser said in a delivered a message that the closure of the Somass Mill is a significant blow to the community. He committed to work with Forestry Lands and Natural Resources Minister Doug Donaldson on developing a fair and lasting strategy to save jobs, like finding ways to process logs in the province.

Babita Kuhnkhun, Senior Director of Communications at WFP, said the company is not in a position to make a final decision on the fate of Somass Mill or any other WFP holdings in Port Alberni. “We’ve committed to advising our employees in the community once a final decision has been made,” said Kuhnkuhn. When asked when that might be, Kuhnkuhn responded that she can’t say.

Concerned that the Somass Mill closure will create a domino effect, closing down the Alberni Pacific Division, WFP’s other Alberni Valley mill, workers and the steelworkers union called for WFP to either resume full operations and rehire laid off employees, or sell the mill to “a company that will maximize its operations to hire laid off employees and improve the local economy.”

Port Alberni Mayor Mike Ruttan wondered why, with the high price of lumber, that the mill was still closed.

And with the abandoned Somass Mill as a backdrop, speakers at the rally demanded change in the way forestry companies do business in Port Alberni.

“We need to explore innovative ways to create jobs,” said MP Gord Johns, adding that the mill closures are everybody’s issue. “We know that when we process fibre in the community we reduce greenhouse gasses by three-fold.” He vowed to hear the concerns of the people and bring them to Ottawa.

According to Mayor Mike Ruttan, Port Alberni could be the site of the next generation of diverse wood products if it had company owners with a vision for the future and money to invest. Port Alberni could produce a billion dollars’ worth of high value wood products every year but it doesn’t happen if you don’t invest, he said.

“We are calling on Western Forest Products to invest in this site and reopen it or sell it to someone that is willing to invest,” said Ruttan.

He went on to say that the Somass Mill site could provide hundreds of jobs and he called upon WFP to show a belief in the future of Port Alberni - or sell it.

According to information supplied by laid-off Somass workers and the steelworkers union, their understanding is that Western Forest Products is willing to sell its operations (two mills, Somass and APD) and its Tree Farm License separately. This would maximize the overall sale price for WFP, but have a negative impact on the town of Port Alberni and local First Nations Tseshaht and Hupacasath, as well as other nearby First Nations engaged in local forestry operation.

Back in May 2017, the San Group purchased Coulson Manufacturing Sawmill in Port Alberni and invested $45 million into an expansion of the mill. In addition, they increased the number of First Nation employees since they bought Coulson Mill. “Most, if not all, new First Nations employees are of Nuu-chah-nulth ancestry,” said Harley Wylie, San Group First Nations Development Director and Tseshaht First Nation member.

Owned by brothers Kamal and Suki Sanghera, San Group is the only company in western BC that has not only kept mills going but they’ve expanded them. “And they are willing to invest in us,” said Ruttan.

In fact, San Group is prepared to invest $30 to $40 million in the Coulson Mill over the next few years, according to Bob Bortolin, the San Group’s vice-president of business development.

He said that the San Group, a multi-level forest products corporation, has a vision of creating an economic area that is viable. “We want to bring Port Alberni back to what it was,” said Bortolin.

The San Group recognizes the First Nations of British Columbia, and says they have the utmost respect for their land, culture and sense of community.

“We look forward to furthering our relationships based on respect and integrity – a collaborative journey of betterment, for generations to come,” says the San Group website.