By Tony Kryzanowski
First Nations and Métis communities are playing a vital role in maintaining production flow at the recently re-commissioned Tolko High Prairie oriented strand board (OSB) plant in northern Alberta, with a corporation owned by the nearby Driftpile Cree Nation hired to manage all log yard activities.
Driftpile Cree Nation Enterprises Inc has signed a five-year contract with Tolko, with the option to renew after the third year, to unload trucks, deck the 16’ aspen and black poplar logs, transport logs from the deck to the plant infeed, feed the conditioning ponds as required, and look after overall yard and road maintenance.
The plant is capable of producing 700 million square feet of OSB on a 7/16” basis and operates 24/7, keeping employees in the log yard constantly busy. The log yard crew provides employment for between 25 to 35 people, depending on the time of year, managing logs harvested from about a 150 kilometre radius of the OSB plant, located west of High Prairie.
And they can be handling a lot of timber. During the winter months, there is the potential for 200 to 250 truckloads of wood entering the yard every day.
Driftpile Cree Nation Enterprises has five companies operating under its umbrella. Councillor Starr Sasakamoose says that the log yard contract was something they pursued as a diversification strategy. The additional employment opportunities are greatly appreciated, especially with the current downturn in the oil and gas industry.
“I don’t know of any First Nations community where there isn’t an employment need and this created a huge opportunity for our members,” he says. “Log yard management is something new for us, and it is not just our Nation members working here. There are quite a few employees from other communities.”
There was some initial operator training offered by the corporation right in the log yard and funded by the Driftpile Cree Nation, but they also sought out some experienced equipment operators to ensure that the venture would be a success.
The band is happy about the five-year renewable contract as it provides them with a better opportunity to plan equipment replacement, when each piece of equipment reaches the end of its service life.
They have four John Deere 3156 log loaders that are dedicated to loading, unloading, stacking decks, and feeding the conditioning ponds, as well as a larger Deere 3756 log loader for stacking higher decks, which helps to maintain log flow, especially when a lot of log trucks are entering the yard during the busy winter season. The log loaders are supported by a John Deere grader and dozer for yard management. They use three tractor trailer units equipped with log trailers and high floatation style tires to forward wood to the infeed. This helps to keep the trucks moving in wet weather.
Those hired to work in the Tolko log yard do not come exclusively from the Driftpile Cree Nation, but are hired from many of the First Nations and Métis communities surrounding the OSB plant. For example, the CEO for Driftpile Cree Nation Enterprises, Sanford Gauchier, is a member of the nearby Peavine Métis Community. He and his family have a long history of logging for several forest companies in northwestern Alberta, including as a logging contractor with Tolko High Prairie before it closed.
The OSB plant, which opened in 1996, was closed due to the collapse of the American housing market in 2008.
It re-opened in 2017, began producing OSB in January 2018, and is now capable of producing 40 per cent more OSB—thanks to over $50 million in capital investments—than when it closed,
Travis Romanchuk, harvesting superintendent at the Tolko High Prairie OSB plant, says that contracting log yard services isn’t a totally new initiative, as the company previously had different arrangements in place that involved a combination of internal and external contract operations, working together to deliver log yard services.
In addition to log yard management, Tolko High Prairie has also hired Gift Lake Logging, a logging contractor based at the Gift Lake Métis Settlement. Tolko has also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Whitefish Lake 459 First Nation, north of the plant, to co-operate on logging and hauling opportunities involving the First Nation’s Crown wood tenure and deciduous timber allocation (DTA). Wood from this location is transported to both the High Prairie mill and Tolko Athabasca plant in nearby Slave Lake.
Romanchuk says that this level of First Nations and Métis involvement in overall High Prairie operations makes sense because “all of our wood comes from someone’s traditional area and Tolko has many examples of Indigenous businesses as an integral part of our supply chain. Driftpile has proven to be a great Tolko partner.”
Tolko is rather unique in the industry with its approach to contracting out log yard services. It had an excellent template to follow, having launched a similar initiative for the first time several years ago at their Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan, OSB plant. Romanchuk says High Prairie managers certainly did investigate how the log yard is managed in Meadow Lake, as well as their log yard at their Athabasca OSB plant in Slave Lake, where they also contract out log yard services.
“They laid the excellent groundwork, and we have taken and built on it for our operation,” he says.
Tolko harvesting supervisor Stacy Brewer is highly engaged in the day-to-day supervision of the millyard and is involved in ongoing communication and co-ordination with representatives from Driftpile. This helps to ensure that everyone is on the same page and it allows for the planning and implementation required to efficiently run an operation of this scale.
Romanchuk says that Tolko appreciates the support that local First Nations have shown, helping to make it possible for the OSB plant to re-open.
“When the High Prairie plant was idle during the economic downturn that faced the forest industry, many Indigenous communities, including Driftpile, stood with Tolko to preserve our licences, enabling the re-opening of the mill,” he says. “Tolko continues to value that support and loyalty, and recognizes that our future prosperity is dependent on Indigenous prosperity. This project has definitely been a success from our perspective.”
Sasakamoose says that ultimately, this log yard management venture is a business, and the goal is to consistently deliver a good product to the plant.
“It’s brought a lot of pride back into our communities and our employees are really enjoying going to work every day,” he says. “It’s close to home, so they don’t have to travel great distances.”
On the Cover:
James and Susan Willis manage J.A. Willis Contracting with ambition, strict business acumen, with a focus on efficient and productive equipment and highly motivated operators—it’s a powerful formula. Part of their core equipment is a Tigercat 845 harvester James first started using in B.C.—and continues to use in the logging operation they now run in New Brunswick, which now has a staggering 70,000 hours on it. The Willis logging operation also includes some recently acquired equipment such as the new Peterbilt truck with BWS quad trailer pictured on the cover. Read all about the Willis operation beginning on page 18 of this issue (Cover photo by George Fullerton).
B.C. hard hit by mill closures, curtailments
British Columbia—particular the Interior of the province—has been hit hard by sawmill closures and curtailments, and it is having a definite, and big, ripple effect on the logging sector, says the new general manager of the Interior Logging Association, Todd Chamberlain.
First Nations keeping the wood flow happening
First Nations and Métis communities are playing a key role in keeping the wood flow happening at Tolko Industries’ OSB plant in High Prairie Alberta, with a First Nations corporation managing all the log yard activities at the operation.
Opting for off-species
New Brunswick’s Tony Boyd took a somewhat circuitous route to sawmilling, via the trades and logging, but he’s now established a solid business producing custom wood products from a variety of off-species in the region.
A logging package that delivers
James Willis has logged in the West and East, working with the same dependable, productive Tigercat 845 buncher, though these days he has a new Log Max 6000V head, and opted for the Rotobec continuous rotator, a package that delivers the goods.
Taking care of business
B.C.’s Homalco First Nation is looking to build up its forestry operations, to make optimum use of their logging equipment—and to continue to grow its business and provide jobs and training for the band’s members.
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from Alberta Innovates, Canadian Wood Fibre Centre (CWFC) and FPInnovations.
The Last Word
Canada’s softwood lumber negotiating strategy is hurting, not helping, forestry workers, says Tony Kryzanowski.