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A Dream Come True

True Quebec's Donohue Inc provided the technical know-how and financial backing to help a First Nations band fulfill their dream of building- and operating-a sawmill in a remote area of the province.

By Tony Kryzanowski

For many aboriginal people living in remote communities in Canada, the dream of a steady, good paying job offering technical training has usually meant moving away from family and friends. However, the Scierie Opitciwan sawmill in Obedjiwan, Quebec is an example of how the forest industry is stepping in to help solve that problem. The $7million sawmill is owned jointly by the Atikamekw First Nations Council of Obedjiwan and Donohue Inc, Canada's largest lumber producer east of the Rockies. The First Nations band is the majority owner with 55 per cent, while Donohue is a 45 per cent shareholder. If you don't know Quebec well, it's actually easy to place the community of Obedjiwan. Just visualize Montreal on a map and look north-way north. In fact, Obedjiwan is about 150 kilometres due south of Chibougamau near the Gouin Reservoir in the Lac Saint Jean region. For many years, Donohue has maintained a close relationship with the remote native community, and worked with the band on timber harvesting rights and other common forestry related issues. The sawmill partnership takes the relationship a step further. "With the opening of Scierie Opitciwan, a dream long cherished by the Atikemekw Council of Obedjiwan is now a reality," says Simon Awashish, president of the board of directors in charge of operating the sawmill. By forming a partnership with Donohue, he says, the band acquired the forestry technical support it needed to help build the sawmill, set up woodlands operations, train staff, and meet production targets.

A random length operation, the combined sawmill and woodlands operation at Scierie Opitciwan has provided about 325 jobs to the community, which suffers from high unemployment primarily because of its remote location. The federal and provincial governments were significant contributors to the total cost of building the sawmill. Both governments, regardless of their political stripes, have stated they want to foster the economic development of native communities. They view the mill as a concrete project that will create a significant number of direct jobs in the community. The sawmill has now operated for a year and a half and has reached 90 per cent of its production target of 25 million board feet per year, using timber primarily from an allocation granted to the band by the provincial government. At present, native people make up 95 per cent of sawmill staff, working two shifts, five days a week. On the equipment side, logs entering the bucking station are debarked along two lines equipped with 17inch Nicholson debarkers.

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They are then scanned for diameter using a system designed by Quebec based Maxitour and sorted into three bins. The logs are fed into a single processing line. A number of the sawmill's primary components are second hand equipment moved to the site from another Donohue sawmill. The logs are processed through a Forano twin canter. Once through the twin canter, the cant is scanned using an Autolog transversal optimizer, before lumber is manufactured using a PHL bull edger. Sideboards from the twin canter are kicked to a side conveyor leading to an operator who feeds the boards manually through another PHL edger. The lumber from both PHL edgers is transported to a manual sorting area where about 10 employees stack the lumber. At the present time, green lumber is transported to a drying and planing facility in Lac Saint Jean.

The management group hopes to eventually install a kiln and planer at the sawmill, thus creating more jobs as well as producing a higher value product. Even though a number of the main components are second hand, the sawmill is incredibly versatile, with the ability to manufacture a variety of products as the market dictates. While the majority of their production is 2x4s in 16 foot lengths, they can also produce 2x4s in 12 and 14 foot lengths. They can also adjust their widths to manufacture 2x6s and 2x3s and can even manufacture lumber as small as 1x3 and 1x4. As part of the joint agreement, Donohue has agreed to purchase and market lumber manufactured by the sawmill. "We are producing common market products right now," says Michel Bouchard, Donohue's general manager of woodlands and sawmill operations. "But we are trying to develop other markets with the band. We feel that it's a good project. There are improvements that still have to be made in the efficiency and quality, but that's normal."

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A number of the Scierie Opitciwan sawmill's primary components are used and were moved to the site from a Donohue sawmill. Logs are processed through a Forano twin canter and then scanned using an Autolog transversal optimizer. Lumber is manufactured using a PHL bull edger

Scierie Opitciwan has opted for a cut to length harvesting system, consisting of a Samsung SE210 harvester as well as a Tigercat 845B harvester, and two Valmet 646 forwarders. Opitciwan Forest Services, a company owned by the Atikamekw Council of Obedjiwan, is responsible for forest operations. They also own a Tanguay loader to load five trucks that transport the 16foot logs an average of only 30 kilometres to the sawmill. Short haul distances is one advantage to locating a sawmill right in the midst of the wood supply, although the downside is having to ship lumber further to market. They harvest primarily spruce and a small amount of jackpine, with average butt size of six to eight inches. Annual harvest is 120,000 cubic metres per year. The amount spent on forestry operations includes road construction equipment. They have a John Deere 892 excavator, Komatsu D85 dozer, and a Champion 760 grader. Donohue vice-president Andre Dupras says this is the first time the company has entered into such a direct partnership with a First Nations community.


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The company already has significant forestry operations in progress in the area as part of its forest allocation in the Lac Saint Jean region, and sees its partnership with the Atikamekw as a win win situation. Now that Donohue has concluded its training commitment to sawmill and woodlands staff, it has left overall management to the board of directors on which it has representation. The amount of investment shared by Donohue, the federal government, and provincial government includes an additional $1.3 million in woodlands infrastructure. Donohue is doing more these days than just spreading its wings with new partnerships, such as Obedjiwan. It is also cautiously expanding beyond its traditional Quebec borders. It owned a 50 per cent stake in a sawmill operation in Mackenzie, BC, but this past August it acquired Slocan Forest Products' share of this venture to become the sole owner of the two sawmill operation. Donohue is the latest forest company to join in the consolidation trend in the industry.

Abitibi Consolidated announced in February it would acquire Donohue. Companies tend to avoid locating sawmills in terribly remote areas because of the usual problem of attracting employees. However, high unemployment in remote native communities and a desire to attract industry, as in the case of Obedjiwan, quickly solves that problem

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This page last modified on Tuesday, February 17, 2004