VANCOUVER - Workers at the Canfor (TSX:CFP) sawmill in Quesnel, B.C., cried and hugged each other in the company parking lot after hearing the facility would be permanently shut down and they'd lose their jobs.
"We're all in total shock," said Baljinder Johal, choking back tears. "It was pretty emotional for the guys out there. For myself, I've got a wife and two kids and we haven't decided what our future is going to be."
Johal, 40, said Friday that he was called back to work for the 3 p.m. meeting in the lot on Thursday, after leaving at the end of his shift at 7 a.m.
"Here at Canfor, in Quesnel, we've got great employees with great hearts who did everything for the company, whatever they asked and more," said Johal, who began working for the company straight out of high school in the "beautiful community" where he was born and raised.
Johal and his colleagues were laid off for six months in 2010, but returned determined to keep the mill, which is a huge part of their town, even more vibrant than ever before.
"Our guys pretty well gave their hearts and souls to the place to make sure we do everything to keep the mill running," he said, adding the news was so devastating that he, along with others, couldn't bare to work the night shift on Thursday after sharing the news with their families.
Along with Canfor, West Fraser also announced Thursday that it would shut down operations in Houston. The closures are expected to happen next March.
Both companies blame a lack of timber — due to the pine beetle infestation across swaths of British Columbia forests — as the reason for their decision, saying they would make provisions for their employees.
More than 400 people will lose their jobs.
Forests Minister Steve Thomson said the closure of the two sawmills in the province's interior is not unexpected because of the pine beetle, although the Steelworkers Union said workers who are in shock obviously don't feel that way.
Frank Everitt, president of Local 1-424, said that while fibre supply has been a problem because of the beetle, the closures came as a surprise at this point.
"You can't imagine the effect it has on folks simply because that's the whole community, that's their neighbours. Sometimes you've got two and three generations that work in the mill."
He said the union will work with the companies and the province in efforts to transition workers to other employment.
"For the folks who just got the announcement there's more to be done," Everitt said of Thomson's comment that the government has invested $880 million in diversification programs since the beetle epidemic took hold.
New Democrat forestry critic Norm Macdonald said the government has known for years that mill closures were possible because of the pine-beetle epidemic but it had no plan to protect workers during the fibre crunch.
"They've had internal reports that have said years ago that we can expect it around this time period, the beginning of closures," Macdonald said.
He said a report on the matter was tabled about two years ago, but previous reports delivered similar predictions on the employment front.
"To have nothing in place for what was predictable for eight to 10 years is a massive failure in leadership and there are people who are going to bear the brunt of that failure," he said, adding that doesn't make sense considering the Liberals' much-touted jobs plan.
Macdonald was the mayor of Golden, B.C., when the Evans Forest Products mill shut down before it was bought in 1999 by Louisiana-Pacific. He said all the workers kept their jobs.
"We had a jobs protection commissioner that was in place and he brought the resources of government," Macdonald said of the then-NDP government's strategy and the position that was brought in by the Social Credit government.
Macdonald said the plywood mill switched to making laminated veneer in the region that is not affected by the pine-beetle epidemic.
"There has to be resources and energy put in place for the fibre shortfalls that are coming," he said, adding communities that are so dependent on forestry need transition plans.
However, Thomson said the Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training will be dealing with the workers over the next six months to help them transition to new employment if that is necessary.
"I think the critic is misinformed to say there is no recognition of this and no planning taking place," Thomson said from Beijing while he is on a forestry mission to Japan and China.
"The pine-beetle coalitions have been looking at diversifying the economies," he said, adding he will be discussing the issue with his colleagues in other communities.
Canfor has said its 209 workers in Quesnel will be offered jobs elsewhere in the company and West Fraser has announced it will help its 225 Houston-based employees to transition into other positions within B.C. and Alberta, where possible.
The companies also said they have agreed to exchange timber rights, with Canfor taking over forest tenures to support its mill in Houston, while West Fraser will acquire timber for its Quesnel sawmill.