The Tobique First Nation has acted on their combined ambitions to create a business and employment opportunity for their community, having moved forward with the purchase of a local sawmill which had ceased operations and was offered for sale—and re-starting the mill.
The Tobique Maliseet First Nation is the largest of six Wolastoqiyik reserves in New Brunswick. The reserve is situated at the mouth of the Tobique River, at its confluence with the St. John River, in western New Brunswick.
The Tobique community is situated only a few miles up the St. John River from the Village of Perth-Andover, the home of the John W. Jammer Ltd. sawmill, which had been operating in the village’s industrial park for some 30 years.
The Jammer mill was a long log mill with its traditional log supply coming from Crown allocations, and from producers harvesting on private woodlots in western New Brunswick.
The mill traditionally operated seven to eight months a year. Daily production was 8,000 to 10,000 board feet, depending on the size and quality of the log input. Annual production worked out to around a half-a-million board feet.
In addition to sawing spruce-pine-fir construction grade lumber, the mill had a reputation for producing timbers and sawing off species, including tamarack, hemlock and cedar. The mill also produced white pine D log for residential construction, siding, and cants.
The Jammer mill had ceased operating in 2017, mainly because the owners were involved in other business enterprises and were unable to dedicate time to effectively manage the operation.
Subsequently, it became known that the Jammer mill was for sale, and shortly after that, Fred Bear, Tobique’s Director of Forestry, was called to a meeting with Band Chief Ross Perley. Perley and Bear discussed the mill and the business opportunity it offered. Bear was tasked to meet with the mill owners, and to detail requirements to make an offer.
Bear had become Director of Forestry in 2015, managing all forestry related activities of the band, including Crown harvesting and relations with the Department of Resource Energy and Development and Twin Rivers sawmill, native harvest crews, native pre-commercial thinning contracts with Acadian Timber, domestic firewood harvesting and worker training programs.
Bear had attended Algonquin College in Ottawa, and had completed twin degrees in Native Studies and Small Business Management, before he became a professional logger.
While finishing up his studies in 2000, Fred’s brother Allan called him and proposed that the two join forces to buy a skidder to harvest wood under Tobique Nation’s Crown allocation.
First Nations in New Brunswick have been granted five per cent of the provincial Crown timber allocation. The Crown allocation is divided up to individual bands, on a per capita basis.
In the early 2000s, Tobique Band members operated around 20 skidders, but that number has been lower in more recent years. Similar to other bands in New Brunswick, Tobique continues to have manual logging crews, while some of their allocation is sub-contracted to mechanical harvest contractors. Manual logging across the province has become less and less sustainable due to low wood prices, high equipment costs, as well as high worker compensation costs.
In addition to his manual logging work, Bear also helped develop a pre-commercial thinning crew, made up of Tobique forestry workers, which has contracted doing thinning work with Acadian Timber, as well as power line corridor clearing for NB Power.
The Tobique Band has the largest population of all the First Nation Bands in New Brunswick, and because Crown timber allocation is based on band population, they have the largest of the First Nations Crown allocations in the province. Tobique’s Crown allocation from License 9 is administered by Twin Rivers Paper Company, with on-the-ground management carried out by Acadian Timber Corporation.
The Tobique Nation’s Crown allocation consists of 33,000 cubic metres softwood, and 8,900 cubic metres hardwood.
The Jammer mill had a Rosser debarker, circular head saw, edger, trim saws, vertical resaw, chipper, and four-side Newman planer and chipper with screen. The mill’s lumber, traditionally, was marketed locally, and across the province to secondary manufacturers and retailers.
Additionally, pulp chips are delivered to the Twin Rivers pulp mill in Edmunston, bark and residue also go to Twin Rivers in Edmunston and Plaster Rock for biomass. Sawdust gets delivered to the Flakeboard Co. MDF mill in St. Stephen.
Chief Perley outlined the opportunities for employment for members of the Tobique Nation, and also to provide lumber for First Nation housing—and develop a viable business enterprise, with the Jammer mill.
“The sawmill business provides Tobique with the opportunity to diversify our commercial forestry enterprise by being able to cut the wood from our Crown allocation, mill the wood in our own mill, supply the wood to the community for repairing homes and building new homes,” explained Perley.
The first step toward making an offer to buy the sawmill required several meetings with the Tobique Nation, to allow band members to assess the opportunity and test if indeed it was a good, secure opportunity.
“The first meeting was with our elders which is a very important step in our culture,” said Bear. “Our elders come with a great deal of knowledge and experience, and they ask the hard questions. It was a very strenuous meeting, but we came out of it with the elders’ approval to go forward with a plan to purchase the mill.
“The next two general meetings, anyone was invited from the Tobique community—and there were no major negative concerns, save for questions about the state of the sawmill equipment.”
Chief Perley added that those in attendance at the community meetings were very supportive—many individuals were looking forward to building homes with wood from their own mill.
It was decided that a formal feasibility and business plan would be developed.
FPInnovations assisted Tobique Nation in completing a feasibility plan as a step towards purchasing and operating the mill. FPI engaged industry consultants to visit and assess the mill and its equipment. The feasibility plan also considered security and quality of the wood supply, and options to diversify the product line.
The result of the feasibility study indicated that the mill was being offered at a good price, and it was a good fit for the Tobique Nation to invest in.
FPInnovations contracted with New Brunswick-based Bio Applied Inc, to prepare a detailed business plan, and to guide financing and operating the mill.
Chief Perley explained that the analysis and guidance provided by FPI and Bio Applied helped tremendously with the project. Their work provided a comprehensive road map to maintain viability and enhance profitability with the investment.
Chief Perley explained that the Tobique Nation accessed their Economic Development Trust Fund, which was created through the Tobique Nation’s land claim settlement in 2016, to underwrite financing the mill purchase deal.
The purchase of the sawmill was completed in February 2018. The mill opened later in the spring with a 10-week training program. Only two former Jammer employees returned to the mill crew.
A team of new mill workers was hired, of which half were from the Tobique Nation. Former mill manager Norm Green hired on with the new owners, and conducted the training program for the mill crew.
The success of the mill enterprise requires a talented management team. The sawmill manager hat was given to Max Bear—who is a member of the Tobique Nation—and he also fills the boots as head sawyer. Bear has eight years’ experience, having worked in many positions in the Twin Rivers sawmill at Plaster Rock, and he is also the holder of a softwood grading license.
Rick Sullivan joined the management team as business manager. Sullivan has years of experience with businesses in the region.
Brian Johnson was yard manager with Jammer, and with his 30 years’ experience, fit right in at his former position.
The position of procurement manager was assigned to Fred Bear, who will add those responsibilities to Forestry Manager for the Tobique Nation.
The mill workforce in its first year of operation was 50 per cent First Nation. At the time, no other business in the Perth-Andover region ever had as high an aboriginal worker component.
“The mill provides employment opportunities in the operations and management,” said Chief Perley. “It also creates significant employment in harvesting, trucking, and delivery.” He added that the management and sales team has been working hard to sell lumber and mill residues into new markets.
No sawmill operation stands still, equipment-wise, for long, and the Tobique mill is no exception to that rule. There are plans install a new Morbark debarker.
The results of the mill now operating can be seen in the community.
Since Tobique First Nation has owned the mill, it has supplied the band with lumber to build a number of stick frame homes. Additionally, the mill has supplied lumber to some pre-fab home builders, and they will provide additional lumber for homes for the band going forward. A number of homes have also been constructed independently by band
members, with lumber from the mill.