More than 200 jobs will be lost when Tolko Industries shuts its Nicola Valley sawmill in Merritt in December because of a lack of lumber.
“It’s a dark day for Merritt,” said Marty Gibbons, president of United Steelworkers Local 1417. “We’ve lost one of the two major employers in town.”
He said the 203 workers will be out of work on Dec. 16. The average age of mill workers is early 40s to early 50s and the crew at Merritt is “pretty senior,” he said.
“We’ll try to help them into pensions,” he said.
And he will be working with the company to find other positions for the younger workers at the company’s other plants. Tolko has other mills in Armstrong, Vernon, Quesnel, Williams Lake, Kelowna, Kamloops and Lumby, and in other provinces.
Gibbons said he the shutdown wasn’t market-driven but caused by a lack of supply of timber.
The union was aware of the drop in annual allowance cuts, which the company said in a release was caused by the end of the supply of pine-beetle-killed lumber, but a closure “is always a surprise. You can never prepare yourself for it,” said Gibbons.
He called on the province and Ottawa to replace the jobs.
“They need to step up to the plate and to help those workers,” he said.
But he didn’t know in what sector.
“It’s tough in the Interior,” he said. “I don’t have an answer to that right now.”
But he claimed the province didn’t plan for forestry’s future.
“The provincial government had no long-term plan,” he said.
“Making the decision to close an operation is never easy,” said Tolko CEO Brad Thorlakson in a release. “We have determined there is not enough timber to supply all of our mills.”
It will mean the “removal of 250 million board feet of capacity from the lumber market,” he said.
Merritt Mayor Neil Menard said he’s angry about the decision to close the mill and hopes to meet with cabinet ministers next week at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in Victoria.
Forests Minister Steve Thomson said the province will send a transition team to Merritt to help the city look for other opportunities and provide support services for workers.
“Tolko’s decision to shut down its operations in Merritt is difficult news,” Fraser-Nicola MLA Jackie Tegart said in a news release. “The impact of the loss of these jobs will be harshly felt by the workers and their families and throughout the community.”
In April, the mill told the Merritt Herald it wasn’t expecting to lay off any more workers, after letting go 29 full-time employees in November, 2015.
At that time, the province announced the annual allowance cuts dropped to 1.5 million cubic metres from 2.4 million, a 37 per cent drop. The chief forester also said, that by 2021, the annual cut would drop to 1.2 million cubic metres, according to the Herald.
Thomson at the time said, “We need to make sure that for the area we have an ongoing sustainable level of harvest.”
“Our remaining lumber operations are performing very well and we are well equipped to fulfil our commitment to customers now and for the future,” Pino Pucci, Tolko’s vice-president of sales said in the company release.
Tolko also announced recently that it was shutting down its mill in The Pas, Man., where 332 worked, also in December, because it wasn’t “financially sustainable.”
Tolko earlier this year had been named one of B.C.’s top 100 employers for 2016 in an annual competition organized by the editors of Canada’s Top 100 Employers, based on the workplace, atmosphere, vacation and benefits, employee communications, performance management, training and community involvement.
Tolko is a family-owned private company based in Vernon that produces lumber, plywood, veneer, oriented strand board and unbleached kraft papers.