Cod was the mainstay of the Newfoundland economy for centuries. However, in 1909, an economic dynamo was unleashed in the interior wilderness with the opening of an industrial complex that harnessed the hydro power of the Grand Falls and used the nearby abundance of black spruce to make newsprint. Now, remnants of the original mill and its add-ons lie dark and silent - dead.
In 1965, as a summer worker in the mill, the place was going flatout (seven newsprint and one sulphite machines). Unimaginable then was the day that it would all come to a grinding halt!
Even now, nearly 21 years after the cod moratorium (July 2, 1992) cod are just showing signs of recovery. Yet, ever since the day the mill died it has been producing 75 megawatts of electricity. And the forest stands are in vibrant shape.
How vibrant? The Department of Natural Resources, Gander, is accepting offers for “Expressions of Interest: Central Newfoundland Timber Resource” up to 4:30 pm this very day - exact date of the mill shutdown (March 28, 2009). No time to get gushy! Time to get real - divvy up the spoils of expropriation!
The cod moratorium spurred the outmigration of tens of thousands whereas the mill’s closure had no similar repercussion. But we didn’t escape unscathed. Census 2011 shows Grand Falls-Windsor population grew 167. However, other Exploits Valley towns were down by 287 for a net loss of 106. Seal Cove (Fortune Bay), a home of many loggers saw its population drop by 52 (263 from 315) or 16 per cent. That’s huge for them!
The saviours of our economy - mill pensions, Duck Pond mine, Alberta commute, retirees and others moving here for convenient services have their limits in helping us through transition.
Duck Pond is short years away from closing unless more ore is discovered. Mill pensioners are a dying breed (funeral home websites) with 50 dead the past four years. Their big pensions will never be replaced by more retirees. The commute to Alberta has ended for some - they moved. And big Alberta paycheques may end sooner than expected with oil prices down and Alberta’s prime customer, the USA, aiming for self-efficiency due to fracking.
Where do we go from here?
The town’s official motto - E silva surrexi (From the forest I arose) is all about the birth of the place due to its hydro power and timber lands. And the same two major resources are still our two best hopes for a prosperous future!
Right now we can’t use the power to attract new jobs because it’s a “provincial resource”. What hogwash! Until the mill closed 55 megawatts were used here - totally. Entitlement to use the resource locally has been earned in spades - huge number of war dead, the injuries and deaths in the industry, near 100 years of year round shift work, paying taxes, and fundraising (hospital notably). All local sacrifices - not provincial!
Two gem job creators - Superior Glove (Point Leamingtion) and Norlantic Processors (Pleasantville organic mussel farm) were established without that 55 megawatts. What jobs are out there that we might attract if we had that 55 megawatts as our carrot?
Danny Williams, as premier, is not around anymore to scare the wits out of our town council and the Chamber of Commerce. Both bodies should now take a lesson from him, and publicly, become super-aggressive on the local use of that power once again!
Except for saw logs, all timber was used here, thus it shouldn’t be trucked out of here forever. What needs have the world market for that resource? Is it rayon, acetate, chopsticks? The Washington Post reports China uses 20 million trees a year to make chopsticks. That demand has environmental concerns. Could we help China’s environment and create jobs here?
For many reasons, Newfoundland needs to grow more of its own food and some of the best land is now available in the Exploits Valley. Tracts of forest lands ought be converted to farmland. Cranberries and blue berries have their place, but our farming future lies in spuds, turnips, carrots, cabbages and all the good stuff that could be grown in greenhouses heated by our plentiful sunshine along with access to that 55 megawatts.
The mill closed just nine months short of 100 years of production (Dec 22, 1909). What a feat in the industrial history of Newfoundland! Gone now forever are generations of paper making expertise, first class skilled and semi-skilled workers, managers and professionals. As well, we have lost high wage packages, future pensions and a sense of purpose.
Money Sense’s 2013 list, Canada’s Best Places to Live, has Grand Falls-Windsor rated 129 of the 200 - not bad. However, the details on that list show our jobless rate is the second worst of the lot with our town sitting in the 199 position. Who wants to boast about that discouraging fact? No question, it’s a great place to live if you’re retired or have a job! But if you looking for a job, you are surely taking your chances coming here! And how soon will our high jobless rate force others to leave?
A MUN professor stated it would take 10 years for the community to recover from the mill’s closing. As we begin year five of the mill’s death we have heard plenty about how good things are here - new houses, retail stores and the lipsticking of High Street.
But our high jobless rate, as noted in Money Sense, shows that employment reality triumphs over blarney any time!
No question, the geographical reality of Newfoundland makes our town perfectly centered. Desperately needed though, is the leadership, ingenuity and problem solving to steer us into a future that answers the question, perfectly centered - for what?
Andy Barker at email@example.com