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PAPTAC Midwest Conference: Succeeding Together in a Changing World


November 1, 2003
By Pulp & Paper Canada

It is not a secret that the industry is presently recovering from a major slump, but if the players don’t all work together towards its recovery, then the industry will continue to suffer.This was the…

It is not a secret that the industry is presently recovering from a major slump, but if the players don’t all work together towards its recovery, then the industry will continue to suffer.

This was the message conveyed during PAPTAC’s Midwest Branch annual meeting in Thunder Bay, ON, from Sept. 24 to 26.

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“We are all equal partners in finding a solution,” said Ontario regional chief Charles Fox, speaking at the Presidents Panel discussion. “Whether it’s the bottom line of the corporation or employment of people in the community, we all have the same goals.”

A first in the industry

For the first time, leaders from different facets of the industry — company, government, union and First Nations — came together during the Presidents Panel discussion. The panel was composed of a company CEO (Abitibi-Consolidated’s John Weaver), a mill town mayor (David Canfield, City of Kenora), a union president (Brian Payne, national president of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union) and a First Nations chief (Charles Fox). The panel was moderated by Lakehead University’s president, Fred Gilbert.

“This is the first time I ever sat down at a pulp and paper conference and was invited to talk to industry people,” said Fox, who represents 134 First Nations communities in Ontario.

Branch chairman Ajoy Chaterjee of Bowater, Thunder Bay, expressed his delight in making this happen. “It was very well received, especially with the presence of Chief Fox,” said Chaterjee. “[Fox] said so himself — it was the first time he was invited to a conference like this — and to think that he is just our neighbor.”

The mayor of Kenora was also satisfied with the panel. “The industry is very well represented in this table,” said Canfield. “Partnership is the word — I hope there will be partnerships in this table.”

Industry is the town

“I’d like you to imagine our region without this industry,” Mayor Canfield of Kenora told the audience. “Mill towns depend on the company for survival. Without this industry, I for one would not be here today,” said Canfield, who was once employed by Boise-Cascade.

In this industry, the mill is the town, he said. It is a symbiotic relationship that should not be ignored. Mill towns are now constantly suffering severe hardships. For several years, the population in Northwestern Ontario has been in decline.

“We used to have three communities, now we only have one,” stated Canfield.

Combine that with the aging population in the area and the town really has a dilemma.

“The average age is between 45 to 55, and if it’s not addressed soon, we won’t have trades people left in the next few years,” explained the mayor. But addressing the problem is not the sole responsibility of the government, of the company, nor of the community. “We have to be a part of the solution for the forest industry’s survival,” he continued. “It’s all up to us because we’re in it together. We believe we’ve done our part in Northwestern Ontario, it’s now up to the municipal government to do theirs.”

And the city government is doing its part, particularly with the latest improvement in infrastructures for better deliveries. Apprenticeship programs were also introduced to encourage young people to be involved in the industry and stay in mill towns.

Canfield also recommended that issues be discussed appropriately, which means the responsible parties should address each problem and not pass it on to someone else.

“There are issues that have to be settled between the government and the First Nations, and not between company and First Nations,” he said, explaining that the days when people can just ignore the problems are gone. “We cannot do the business the way we did it before,” said Canfield. “If we don’t start to work together, then our community will continue to cry.”

A forum for mutual concerns

Fox insisted that relationship is very important in the industry, especially between the companies, government and the First Nations communities.

“As a member of the First Nations, I believe in my rights,” Fox said. “If you want access to my territory in Northern Ontario, you better sit down with me and talk about it — but the government refuses to do that. The idea of sitting down, due process, hammering out mutual concerns as people of Ontario, that’s what we want to do.”

He explained that the government continues to ignore the 134 communities he represents. Fox blamed the government for not providing a table for negotiation. He further explained that the First Nations communities prefer to settle the issues in diplomatic ways, instead of court battles, since both parties are after the same thing. This similarity in goals should be enough to start a diplomatic negotiation.

“Instead we fight in court,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to me. Certainty is what we all want: [the First Nations] want to be certain, [the companies and the government] also want to be certain. We have rights — you also have rights. The mentality is that if you ignore us and refuse to talk to us, then our rights would go away,” Fox lamented.

He said his community did the necessary steps to create a forum of discussion, including writing a letter of intent a year ago, which outlines a variety of issues that needs to be resolved in the province of Ontario.

“I am committed to work for my people. If you’re committed to that too, then let us all sit down and talk about it.”

Doing more with less

“The year 2001 was not a good year for the industry, but compared to this year, 2001 suddenly seems to be a good year,” said Weaver of Abitibi-Consolidated.

Changes in work attitude are necessary for companies to continue to be profitable.

“We have to find ways to do more with less, so there is a lot less capital spending,” he said. “We work hard to create economic and social opportunities and we work harder to utilize our communities.”

Sharing profits

For the CEP union president, success relies on fair distribution of rewards.

“Succeeding together depends on how we can share the profitability in our industry,” said Payne. “We have to work together as stake holders, we have to discuss how we distribute the gains,” he explained.

Payne said unless the industry is productive, no one will succeed. Companies should start looking at basic productivity training, as the current system is too uneven and too focused on company processes.

He also stressed that new technologies introduced by companies consistently reduce the workforce, which is not necessarily a good thing.

“Less workers is not always productive. With this, the shareholders are winning.” He told the audience about how a CEO recently told him of the shareholders’ demand to reduce the workforce, despite the fact that the company is the second most productive in North America. “Clearly the workers that will be laid off are the ones making this company productive.”

He also suggested that the industry be more representative of aboriginal people. But the most important, he said, is the focus on productivity.

“We have to keep an eye on the productivity ball, and not only profitability. We should not be caught up in the numbers game.”

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Midwest Looks Bright

“It isn’t getting any easier,” said keynote speaker Frank Schmeler of Albany International, Albany, NY, as he talked about the changes in the industry in the supplier’s viewpoint.

“Our future [as suppliers] depends on your future, very, very much.”

And the future, he said, looks promising.

“Beyond 2004, U.S. and Canada will see modest recovery, which will bring the industry to at least where we were in the 1990s.”

Norman Lord, president of Jaakko Pyry Management Consulting, Montreal, QC, corroborated Schmeler’s statement when he spoke at the gala.

“Shareholders have been impatient the last 10 years and it’s a tough environment to make decisions about capital spending,” he said. “But there’s going to be an opportunity, there’s going to be a need for investment in this industry.”

Robert J. Gregor, president
of Fort James-Marathon Ltd., was given the lifetime achievement award at the gala for his contributions in the industry, especially in Northern Ontario, where he started his career in 1972 as a woodyard labourer for Fort James-Marathon. Gregor is retiring this year after more than 25 years in the industry.#text2#


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