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Picking up the slack


With the demise of the newsprint industry now a reality I wonder who will pick up the slack. But what slack are we talking about? Well, I'm talking about the slack of being a good corporate citizen. I am talking about an industry that has not only paid its employees well but also contributed to almost every aspect of community life. I'm referring to a company that provided financial stability to many communities through a grant in lieu of taxes and a company that stepped to the plate when things got tough.

My perspective -

With the demise of the newsprint industry now a reality I wonder who will pick up the slack. But what slack are we talking about?

Well, I'm talking about the slack of being a good corporate citizen. I am talking about an industry that has not only paid its employees well but also contributed to almost every aspect of community life. I'm referring to a company that provided financial stability to many communities through a grant in lieu of taxes and a company that stepped to the plate when things got tough.

Let me give you an example just how much slack will actually have to be picked up and by whom.

The paper industry here through its predecessor companies Anglo Newfoundland, Price Newfoundland, Abitibi Price, Abitibi-Consolidated and now AbitibiBowater, have put millions into the province through grants, in-kind contributions and out-right donations, not to mention taxes. The company was the first to industrialize central Newfoundland. Through company contributions, many Newfoundlanders not only educated themselves but brought stability to our region. Let's have a look at health care as an example.

The paper industry here built the first hospital (Lady Northcliffe) and supplied not only the equipment but the staff to go with it. During my early days, I can remember the company doctor (Dr. Brown), who actually made house calls. The company made sure that accommodations were available for hospital staff either at the staff house, later known as Carmelite House or the direct purchase of company homes. Providing the town with quality health care was a priority for the paper company and those charged with the responsibility should be given top marks for their contributions.

As the town changed from a company controlled community to a municipality, priority was given to a new modern regional facility. The company and its employees raised the money to build our current health care facility located on Union Street. The money was raised through payroll deductions and a direct contribution from the company. The man tasked with chairing the financial aspect of the fundraiser was the late Cliff Bond. This was an enormous task as one can imagine, but the industry was profitable and most in the town had a good standard of living.

In the late 1980s, the South and Central Health Foundation was formed to provide much needed medical equipment for the local hospital. At that time, the company was instrumental in spearheading this equipment expansion with a $650,000 contribution over five years. Another pledge of $350,000 was given to the local hospital in Stephenville. This obviously took the pressure off the provincial government to fund health care in these regions.

The company was equally as giving when it came to education. In addition to building the early schools the company provided valuable scholarships to assist young people throughout its operating area. While it's hard to put a cash value on these scholarships, many of the recipients I have spoken with tell me the contribution was a great benefit in securing a quality education especially if you were from rural Newfoundland.

Later, the company would be instrumental in contributing $25,000 for the setting up of a literacy program at the local college and presented high school awards to students at both of the high schools here. The company also reorganized the Sir Vincent Jones high school hockey challenge each year at a cost of $1,500 annually. New uniforms were provided to both schools and support of other recreation programs such as minor hockey, figure skating, minor baseball, the Paper Making Classic volleyball tournament and other successful programs were included in the local budget. Each year the company would contribute $12,000 to local sponsorships. An additional $12,000 went to local health charities on a rotating basis. I know because for 26 years I administered that budget.

Support for the annual Kiwanis Music Festival was never in doubt. In good times and in bad the company would contribute $2,500 to the financial stability of this hallmark event. At one point, the adjudicators were even guests at Grand Falls House and the company would always be there to host a reception. Provincially the company also had an annual donation for the provincial drama festival.

When the local university committee attempted to attract Acadia University to set up shop here the company was quick to offer its assistance.

The paper company once sponsored a young girl from Bosnia to come tell her story of torture in the concentration camps of that unholy war. Her speech during Remembrance Day ceremonies at a high school here will forever be a part of my memories. This sponsorship (money well spent) was seen as part of the company's social responsibility to educate its citizens and I was proud to have been a part of it.

The company also partnered with the town to establish the annual Salmon Festival and when things didn't go according to plan the company was quick to live up to its environment responsibilities. When an accident in the local mill put soot over the town in the late 1980's, the manager of the day, John Carson, was quick to authorize a clean up at a cost of over $350,000. Maybe you can remember that period. I do because I handled all of the public complaints and overseen the clean up. I often wondered what would have happened if the company simply refused to accept this responsibility. How could the company have spent that money to make paper?

Abitibi was there to assist the people of Badger and Bishop's Falls when nature flooded their communities. While some will be mean spirited to argue the company was at fault, there was never any physical evidence to suggest otherwise.

The company was also there to help the town of Grand Falls-Windsor celebrate 100 years of progress with a $100,000 contribution and valuable land was given to the heritage committee for a future home. Employees were participants in skating and family fun events and even today, despite all the doom and gloom, many employees are wearing their company jackets with pride.

While the company is not beyond criticism, it did do its part throughout the years to enhance Northcliffe's dream of building a healthy and prosperous community. Some will argue the company should have given more. Having said all of that, I now wonder who will pick up the slack?

(Roger Pike writes from Grand Falls-Windsor. He can be reached at roger.pike@nf.sympatico.ca)

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