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[Editor's note: all pictures in the associated slide show, above, are also by Justin Langille.]

When Arnold Welsh and nearly 350 fellow workers lost their jobs at a Campbell River paper mill early last year, they didn't fret.

"We just thought it was a temporary down," Welsh said. "You know, the market's down a bit and we'll be back in a few weeks or a month."

For 30 years, Welsh loaded barges and trucks for paper producer Catalyst. His job helped support a family of five.

It's been more than a year since the company's Elk Falls mill stopped producing paper. Welsh is still jobless. He's collecting EI, and trying to find work elsewhere. He has good credentials and experience. But well-paying industrial jobs in Campbell River are scarce.

Since the mill closed on February 25, 2009, over 63 per-cent of his fellow workers decided to take a severance package from the company rather than wait to go back to work. The offer is tempting to Welsh. He isn't ready to give up though -- not yet anyway.

Negotiations between Catalyst and his union, the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers locals 1123 and 630, have been ongoing for the past year.

Two weeks ago, on the day I arrived in town, the union was still standing by a contract that was brokered in 2009. And Catalyst was arguing the Elk Falls mill won't be affordable unless workers take a big pay cut.

I spoke to Welsh only hours before he left for Nanaimo to meet with other union locals in an attempt to broker a collective wage deal. While I waited to hear back, I walked the streets of Campbell River, trying to understand a community in crisis.

Devastating closures

During the last two years, mass forestry lay-offs have hit Campbell River hard.

In February 2008, the TimberWest sawmill closed its doors and cut loose 257 employees.

Next month, Breakwater Resources announced its Myra Falls Mine would reduce its workforce by 187 jobs.

The following July brought lay-offs for 440 employees when Catalyst permanently closed its sawdust pulp and containerboard division at Elk Falls. Welsh lost his job when the entire mill closed in early 2009.

Important support industries were hurt by the removal of core sawmill jobs. Everyone from hydraulic equipment suppliers to marine mechanics felt the brunt of local closures.

Campbell River is just one of many small communities in coastal and interior B.C. that have lost major industrial employers in a failing B.C. forestry industry. Declining housing and newsprint markets in the U.S have lowered substantial stateside demand for Canadian lumber and paper products in recent years. Meanwhile, pine beetle infestations have rendered commercially viable stands of Interior timber nearly worthless. A rising Canadian dollar has also lowered the profit margin for Canadian companies that post their share prices in U.S. dollars, but operate with Canadian costs.

In the last three years alone, four-dozen sawmills have closed permanently or indefinitely in B.C., according to the Ministry of Forests and Range's 2008/2009 Service Plan Report.

"Not just the coastal, but the B.C. forest sector and the global forest sector has had the crap kicked out of it," says Doug Preston, executive director of the North Island Employment Centre.

An employment support organization based in Campbell River, NIEF understands how mill closures can devastate a community.

Compared to 2008, the group has seen a 27 per cent increase in people using its services this year. That amounts to 3,735 people of Campbell River's estimated 31, 328 residents seeking work.

Preston told The Tyee that 1,532 of them have been displaced resource workers. Of these resource sector workers, 1,149 were displaced forestry workers.

Free soap and toothpaste for the needy

Georgette Whitehead, co-coordinator for the Campbell River Women's Centre, runs a modest anti-poverty program.

She's seen way more people than usual come for free clothing and hygiene products. In past years, about 300 to 350 people a month would use the centre's drop-in program.

That's increased to around 450 a month this year, Whitehead said.

"Definitely people are coming here in the last couple of years who've never come to a community social service and asked for toothpaste before," said Whitehead.

The centre also has a diaper and formula voucher handout program for women and their families. In 2008, the $20 vouchers lasted all year. Last year, they were all distributed in three months. This year they were already gone by mid-March.

The centre and its anti-poverty program are valuable to Campbell River women and their families. Whitehead knows that Campbell River is a community in transition, one that is at the whim of larger changes at the provincial and global level.

Free soap and toothpaste will only go so far.

"It's a little bit of a band-aid. Right?" she asks.

Wait for negotiations or flee town?

Just outside of downtown Campbell River proper, among an assemblage of strip malls and parking lots, stands the wood-clad Labour Centre, headquarters for CEP local 630 and CEP local 1123. The two union chapters represent the workers of the Elk Falls mill.

On the second floor, I found 630's president Doug Ellis holding court with recording secretary Mark Steenvoorden and financial secretary Rick Dione waiting for me to arrive.

Stout and jovial with a bright red polo shirt, white hair and inviting disposition, Ellis handed me a paper cup of tea while Steenvoorden and Dione shuffled paper around the small office lined with binders, filing cabinets and trophies from bygone fishing derbies.

A sense of urgency was palpable.

As 630 president, Ellis was getting ready to join Welsh and other union reps in Nanaimo. The goal was to hash out a deal that would get Elk Falls started up with minimal wage concessions for employees.

Ellis was cautiously optimistic that the talks might bring progress. Catalyst CEO Richard Garneau had been towing a hard line on labour's last offer, a $40 per hour/$80 per ton (of paper) deal that would see employee wages cut 20 per cent from their pre-lay-off rates.

Some of those who were laid off haven't been able to wait for negotiations to succeed.

A year after the closure, more than two-thirds of Elk Falls employees have taken a $57,000 severance package, according to a news release on Catalyst's website.

The three Campbell River union reps conceded that some of their friends have done well, finding work with tar sands operations in places like Fort McMurray. But the majority has found it difficult to land work in any area close to Campbell River.

The reps are also mindful about the ripple effect that mill closures are having on the community.

"You only have to look around at restaurants and pubs to notice that attendance is down, Steenvoorden said.

"Every sort of business in this town is feeling the effect of it. Loggers are out, sawmill workers are out. It spins off into the community. Less dollars being spent in the community means less jobs and... less [of a] standard of living for everybody."

Ripple effect hurts laundry operator

Laundry services may not be the first business that comes to mind when talking about forestry-related job losses, but in Campbell River, business is way down.

"Overall, the revenue has dropped by about 40 per cent this last year," said James Rogers, owner of Campbell River Laundromat Ltd.

It's the central laundry in town, located in the very middle of Tyee Plaza.

Mill employees who did their laundry here have left Campbell River to work elsewhere. Maintenance crews from out of town who had contracts with Catalyst would bring their coveralls to be cleaned proper, but not anymore.

As well, local businesses that had their mats or linens laundered by Rogers and his staff have closed, moved away or cut staff and now have less to bring in.

If Catalyst were to open again, it would be an invaluable asset to his business, Rogers said. But he knows that things won't return to the way that they were.

"It's tough," he admitted.

Adjusting will take time, realtor says

Downtown Campbell River is adorned with a variety of healthy retail businesses. Restaurants, a bookstore, a skateboard store and other independent shops make up the face of local independent business.

These locations are also interspersed with empty storefronts shrouded with brown paper and dusty for lease signs.

A short walk around the corner from the popular Shoppers Row and the central stretch of the Island Highway that runs along the south-west side of Tyee Plaza reveals tattoo shops, gallery spaces and former First Nation band offices that lay vacant.

In 2005 and 2006, Remax Check realty was selling about three commercial properties a month. Now it's down to one in a good month, said realtor Randy Check. He's got an inventory of 75 or 80 properties, but those are all leases.

"It's an important service that we provide, but in terms of selling commercial real estate, [there is] very little activity,' said Check.

"It's a boom and bust type thing with a resource-based community like Campbell River. It's gonna take some time for things to adjust."

This lack of small business growth is made all the more ominous by the growing presence of big box stores on the periphery of downtown.

Save-on-Foods and London Drugs have opened locations in the last couple of years. Home Depot opened up a brand new store last year on Feb. 19, just days before the Elk Falls layoffs were announced. A new Wal-Mart promises much-needed jobs, but many people fear it could hurt local business.

New task force faces tough decisions

Mayor Charlie Cornfield is faced with an admittedly bleak economic future. But that doesn't deter him from thinking about the possibilities for Campbell River in the next phases of B.C. forestry.

The industry has always been cyclical, he noted. Campbell River shouldn't want to wait for the upturn in the market, he believes. It must take advantage of current opportunities.

The town is ideally positioned for forestry, Cornfield posited. Its land grows trees extremely well -- if you cut them down, you can grow more trees. The industry, he said, is totally sustainable.

He's optimistic the Task Force on Forestry started by council last August will be able to create incentives for a new mill to be built in the town in the future.

Composed of local forestry industry intelligentsia, the task force will be working to position Campbell River as a central player and location for future forestry industry developments.

It aims to "support a business enabling environment that will enhance and retain existing business and attract new forest industry capital to Campbell River," according to an August 2009 city press release.

Cornfield has been working hard with acting city manager George Paul to retain existing business.

Paul has recommended to city council that major industrial taxes be reduced to $3.5 million this year from $4.6 million last year. He has also proposed that further cuts be made to reduce the levy against industry even further by 2012 to $1.5 million.

These rates would meet the requirements of Catalyst CEO Richard Garneau, who lost to Campbell River in B.C. Supreme Court after only paying $1.5 million of $4.6 million in taxes for city services last year.

But slashing corporate taxes would likely increase residential rates from 15.5 to 16.7 per cent, according to some reports.

How far is council willing to cut industrial taxation to help to appease Catalyst and possibly restart the Elk Falls mill? It's a tough decision, admitted Cornfield. And one the city will face for years.

Union negotiations go nowhere

Two days after I first spoke to laid-off mill worker Arnold Welsh, news came that in Nanaimo talks between union locals and Catalyst stalled once again.

Catalyst's seven CEP locals told the company that, collectively among four plants, they would take a 15.5 per cent cut in wages. Union reps figured that would let Catalyst garner enough overhead to help the Elk Falls mill and others reopen.

Shortly after the offer was put on the table, the meeting broke for supper. Ellis, Welsh and the rest of the CEP members went to their hotel rooms.

Less than 15 minutes later, the CEP delegates got a call from Catalyst negotiators telling them that the deal was no good and talks were over. They left.

I asked Welsh to see what he thought about it.

"It was a good chunk of coin," Welsh said of the offer, with a sigh that rested somewhere beyond disappointment.

From here, Welsh doesn't really know what's going to happen in negotiations between Catalyst and his union or in his personal life.

Looking back a year, he never considered that things would come to this point.

In the future, he'll consider taking severance and cutting his ties with the company if he finds a job that he enjoys. When his EI runs out, he might not have any choice.

"I'd like to be in Campbell River, but if anything comes up anywhere else, I will be leaving. I have to supply my family with income."  [Tyee]

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