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Banding Together

The Cree First Nation of Waswanipi, Quebec has teamed with Domtar to build a new $6-million sawmill that provides jobs for band members, and lumber and chips for Domtar.

By Tony Kryzanowski
Copyright 1998. Contact publisher for permission to use.


The partnership between forest products company Domtar and the Cree First Nation to build and operate a sawmill at Waswanipi in northern Quebec is only one example of a growing trend towards greater direct native involvement in the Canadian forest industry.

And in a way, it's logical and a long time in coming.

While the forests have long represented an opportunity for traditional native activities such as hunting, fishing and trapping, some Canadian First Nations groups now realize that forestry is another opportunity that fits into traditional values which demand respect for the environment, because it is a sustainable activity. Many want to preserve traditional activities, but in the big picture those activities have offered little more than a sustenance standard of living.

Forestry also provides excellent fulltime and long-term employment in highly technical trades, opportunities previously lacking on many reservations. One drawback has been the remote location of many native communities. Wood fibre is one resource they have plenty of, though.

Often, however, native involvement in forestry has been limited simply to jobs provided by forest companies working in their midst. The latest trend has been toward actual partnerships or ownership of their own forestry business ventures.

The Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan First Nation has pioneered direct native involvement in both harvesting and lumber production, winning contracts beyond their own forestry operations and managing harvesting for other companies.

Another example is the Domtar/Waswanipi partnership that has resulted in construction of a $6-million dimension sawmill. In addition to sawmill jobs, the Cree First Nation project has also created jobs in harvesting, log hauling and other support services. "This joint venture allows the Waswanipi Cree First Nation to operate the sawmill, create jobs and, most importantly, develop business expertise within the community," says John Kitchen, Chief of the Cree First Nation of Waswanipi.

Together, the partners have created Nabakatuk Forest Products, which has a goal of producing 23 million board feet of green lumber annually. The company is owned 55 per cent by Waswanipi-held Mishtuk Corporation, and 45 per cent by Domtar. Their sawmill is located about three hours northeast of Val D'Or, Quebec.

Other than a few supervisory positions, Domtar's staff presence at the sawmill is minimal. "Ms project will create upwards of 70 jobs in forestry operations and at the sawmill," says Flora Kitchen, President and Chairman of the Board of Nabakatuk Forest Products. She adds that prior to the sawmill's construction, there were few job opportunities for band members, particularly for its young people. A number depended on welfare, and long periods of unemployment also resulted in social problems. She has noticed a huge change in attitude since the sawmill began operation.

"Today, these are proud people that have jobs," she says, "and they have something to look forward to." Some employees have had difficulty making the lifestyle transition from welfare dependency to gainful employment, but the community provides support programs to assist them.

Domtar has a large presence in the area, operating a kraft pulp mill further south at Lebel-sur-Quevillon. Their participation in the partnership has two purposes: to supply an additional 35,000 tons of wood chips annually to their pulp mill at Lebel-sur-Quevillon, and to enhance direct native involvement in forestry in an area where there are a number of Cree, Algonquin, and Obedjiwan First Nations. In fact, native people live on 95 per cent of Domtar's Abitibi/Outaouais wood supply area of Quebec. More direct native involvement is a key principle in the company's "Forests for all, today and tomorrow" policy.

While Domtar's presence at the sawmill is minimal, all manufactured green lumber is transported to their drying and planing facilities in nearby communities. They also market the lumber.

Michel Awashish, main line operator at Nabakatuk Forest Products and Waswanipi First Nations member, is one example of how the sawmill has provided highly technical job training to some of its young members. Prior to the mill's start-up in June 1997, he says, there were very few full-time job opportunities in the immediate area. The 25 jobs provided by the sawmill alone resulted in a 20 per-cent drop in the band's unemployment rate.

"Other companies cut the timber and we didn't get anything out of it," he says. "Sometimes, you wouldn't even know that the forest was being cut until you got there and it was gone. We've got control of it now' "

Because the sawmill uses technically advanced equipment, job candidates first had to complete appropriate job training. A total of 25 band members took part in job training for 17 mill positions, and all successfully completed the instruction. As many as 40 per cent already had sawmill work experience, but it was necessary to train them in the use of new technology and methods.

The mill began production in June 1997, producing dimension lumber exclusively from jackpine averaging between a 15" and 20" butt size. Their goal is to eventually produce 23 million board feet annually, on a two-shift basis. At present, because they are still in start-up mode, they are producing 12 million board feet on a one-shift basis, consistently hitting their daily production target.

"It's gone very well for start-up," says Domtar superintendent at Nabakatuk Forest Products, Eric Villeneuve. "For Domtar, we've had no problems. All of the guys work very hard." Awashish adds that of those employees who started working at the sawmill more than a year and a half ago, all are still employed there.

Start-up went so well, in fact, that they brought in a second shift. But they then had difficulty achieving daily targets consistently, so they decided to return to one shift and slow the pace of the learning curve. Plus, they now have more time for regular and preventive maintenance.

"When we had two shifts, it was really hard to do major jobs to improve the operation," says Awashish. "You would have only two hours between a shift. If you had a three-hour job, it wouldn't be the best job, or you wouldn't have time. With us back on one shift, we have the time to do a better job on preventive maintenance' " Their goal is to eventually bring back the second shift once they are sure they can consistently hit production targets.

The production line at Nabakatuk begins with a Barko loader feeding two conveyors into the sawmill. The logs pass through one of two Forano debarkers, which can debark logs from 2" to 18". Then a conveyor transports the debarked logs back to the slasher, which cuts the logs to either 8' or 9' lengths, depending on the sawmill's current production needs. They are then transferred to one of three decks. One contains small wood in the 3" range, one contains 4" logs for production of 2X3s and 2X4s, and the third deck contains mixed and larger logs.

The operator selects how many logs he will take from each deck. His main purpose is to keep manual lumber sorters at the outfeed area busy. Each sorter is responsible for stacking a particular size, so it is necessary for the operator to keep mixing his log selection at the infeed area.

The logs pass through a Sawquip twin canter, and then to a PHL 12-blade bull edger, with blades spaced 2" apart. Throughout the production process, the logs and cants are scanned with scanners provided by System M located in Amos, Quebec. After the bull edger, any planks or smaller pieces not capable of producing a 2X4 are manually redirected to a PHL resaw. The resaw operator punches in various choices on a computer screen to manufacture a variety of lumber dimensions. All the lumber is then transported for manual sorting and stacking. About 50 per cent of Nabakatuk's production is 2X4s.

The company has installed a conveyor system beneath the production line to convey non-productive wood to the chipper. Bark and sawdust is collected and sold to a co-gen plant in Chapais.

The stacked and sorted wood is then transported to Domtar planing and drying facilities in other communities. Company president Flora Kitchen says they are in the process of purchasing a kiln and dryer to finish the lumber at Waswanipi. She estimates that will provide an additional 20 to 30 jobs.

While Nabakatuk Forest Products wants to operate a totally modem and efficient facility, they want to be careful not to eliminate jobs. When they purchase a piece of equipment to make the operation more efficient, they want to try to ensure that those jobs which may be eliminated are replaced with jobs in another area of the operation.

So far, there have been no complaints about the band's partnership with Domtar, or Domtar's experience working with the band. Flora Kitchen says they have both learned to compromise. She feels it is important for natives and forest companies active in the area to learn to work together.

While the sawmill has brought a bit of the modem business world to the Waswanipi First Nation, they are also mindful to respect traditional values. For example, the sawmill shuts down temporarily for the moose hunt and the goose hunt. Harvesting activities have also been carefully planned so as not to interfere with trap lines. Mishtuk Corporation, a band-owned company responsible for supplying the sawmill with its timber, has been among the first harvesting companies in Canada to adopt the mosaic style of forest harvesting.

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