Today was devastating for Prince Albert and for the Province of Saskatchewan. The news that Weyerhaeuser was shutting down their Prince Albert pulp and paper mill operations and displacing the jobs of nearly 700 employees is a devastating announcement. Yes, it is an economic blow to the area and to the province, but more important is how families will cope with the news that their jobs are lost.
The Premier responded favourably by appointing a committee to consider the ramifications of this loss. Hopefully the committee will consider all possible options for salvaging something positive out of what, at this time, seems to be a hopeless situation.
The most positive response was from the statement made by Prince Albert’s Mayor. He just bit the bullet and confidently proclaimed that Prince Albert would persevere in the same way our pioneers persevered when tough times hit them. His comments were absolutely courageous and gave Prince Albert a line, however thin; to hang on to as his city begins to grapple with Weyerhaeuser’s decision.
It should be noted that Weyerhaeuser purchased the Prince Albert pulp mill, along with a chemical plant and sawmill, from the government of Saskatchewan in 1986. At the same time Weyerhaeuser announced their intention to construct a new fine-paper mill in Prince Albert. This project was completed in 1988.
Ironically, in 1998, Weyerhaeuser invested $315 million in a project to, among other things, dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The project, for the most part, was intended as an environmentally sound corporate move for Weyerhaeuser to comply with the principles of sustainability outlined in the Kyoto Protocol.
To add to the irony, the government of Saskatchewan issued a Press Release on May 19, 1998 congratulating Weyerhaeuser on this major upgrade to the Prince Albert plant. One of the key Ministers quoted in the News Release at the time was Economic and Co-operative Development Minister Janice MacKinnon. Mackinnon was quoted as saying, "Weyerhaeuser Canada is declaring its confidence in the future of our province and the Prince Albert region by investing $315 million in this project," MacKinnon said. "The announcement also confirms that for many years to come, Prince Albert Pulp and Paper will be a major source of jobs and economic activity in our important forestry sector." How wrong was Mackinnon on this statement?
Energy and Mines Minister, Eldon Lautermilch was also named in the Press Release congratulating Weyerhaeuser. He now is apparently going to head up the Premier’s committee to investigate Weyerhaeuser’s decision to shut down the Prince Albert plant. How effective will that be?
Weyerhaeuser could have handled this decision with more compassion and concern, but they didn’t. The reality is that the free market and lack of demand for pulp and paper has changed drastically since 1998. Both the NDP government Ministers and Weyerhaeuser failed to read an unpredictable market future and as a result nearly 700 jobs are expected to be lost. It is sad and tragic, but a harsh reality of world economics.
Positive attitudes like the comments by Prince Albert’s Mayor are encouraging. This was unfortunately offset by the simplistic and negative position taken by the SaskParty in their statement that the Weyerhaeuser announcement was reflective, in part, due to the poor business climate in Saskatchewan under the NDP government. Are we to believe that Weyerhaeuser would not have shut down in Prince Albert under a SaskParty government? Not likely, and it is little comfort for a city that is currently reeling from Weyerhaeuser’s decision. The SaskParty should be joining all stakeholders that are moving in to support Prince Albert as opposed to their sad attempt to gain political points.
I am hopeful that the resilience of the people of Prince Albert will prevail. They have strong leadership. Solutions will not be easy. The livelihood of families has been uprooted and it is devastating. We can only hope that positive stakeholders will find the necessary positive solutions.