“Rolling down the highway, leavin’ on a bus,
Never thought I’d leave this town, but now I’ve had enough.
First they closed the sawmill, then they shut the school,
Never thought I’d leave this town, but I ain’t no fool.”
THOSE ARE LYRICS to a banjo song I wrote over a decade ago, after going on a road trip through small towns with shuttered mills in Northern B.C. The song is as valid today as it was when I wrote it.
When a mill shuts down in a small town, everyone in the town feels it.
Mills have closed, but provincial lumber production has stayed relatively steady.
In 1990, the average medium or large mill in the Interior produced 121 million board feet per year. By 2004, mills were producing 177 million board feet per year. By 2017, the average mill produced 206 million board feet per year. That is, over the last 27 years, the average mill production almost doubled.
It now takes half as many mills to produce the same amount of lumber.
Cold comfort for the 172 people who lost their jobs with the announcement this week of the closure of Canfor’s Vavenby sawmill.
It could just as easily have been another mill of another company in another town. And next week, it may well be.
Mechanization, automation and computer software means sawmills run faster and faster, and produce more and more lumber out of the same logs.
But mechanization, automation and computer software don’t account for people’s lives.
The people who worked in the Vavenby mill didn’t just put their labour into their mill. They invested their savings into buying homes. They now face an uncertain future as to what their homes will be worth. They raised children in Vavenby and surrounding communities. Those communities’ schools will now have fewer kids in September. They invested as active volunteers in minor hockey, service clubs and 4-H to build a strong North Thompson.
Some of the millworkers closer to retirement may stay in Vavenby and the North Thompson, but younger folk will move away. Just last year, Canfor advertised to hire an accountant in Vavenby. That professional is sure to move away, as will electricians, millwrights, and engineers. The high paid workers will leave, and with them the money they spent in the community.
Truth be told, I’m as much a part of the reason for the mill closures as anyone. For five years in the late ‘90s, I worked for a company that manufactured lumber processing equipment. It was my job, along with others to create machinery which processed more, higher quality wood, faster. I specifically worked on an automated lumber grader, which is a job traditionally done by about to four human graders.
Automation is all around us. It’s not in itself a bad thing. Luggage is delivered in an airport with automation. Milk is packaged in a dairy with automation. The coal rail cars rolling through Kamloops every day were filled using automated machinery.
But with each mill closing because of automation, rural B.C. becomes an emptier place. Small towns shrink. Rural towns become poorer.
The B.C. government provides the B.C. Rural Dividend fund of $25 million per year to help rural B.C. communities diversify their economies. That’s a pittance. Last year alone, the Vavenby Canfor mill produced 216 million board feet of lumber, or about $115 million worth of lumber. Overall, there is more than $6 billion in softwood lumber production in B.C. each year.
As mill after mill closes because of automation, the province of B.C. needs to decide if it truly wants to support rural B.C., not just with a pittance of the current Rural Dividend fund. There are 140 towns in B.C. dependent on forestry for their local economy. This week Vavenby was hit with a closure, next week it could be just as easily be Lavington, or Savona, or Vanderhoof.
Automation is inevitable, but the people in small mill towns shouldn’t have to bear the lion’s share of the cost. Rural B.C. deserves more than a crumb of $25 million for the riches it has given all of B.C.
Nancy Bepple is a former City councillor of Kamloops with a strong interest in community building projects.