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PULP AND PAPER IN CANADA: Its First Century

The manufacture of pulp and paper began in Canada in the early 1800s, with the first paper mill reportedly established in Argenteuil, Quebec in 1805. For roughly the next half century, paper productio...


May 1, 2003
By Pulp & Paper Canada

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The manufacture of pulp and paper began in Canada in the early 1800s, with the first paper mill reportedly established in Argenteuil, Quebec in 1805. For roughly the next half century, paper production remained a relatively insignificant component in the colony’s (and after 1867, the country’s) economy, and the mode of production looked very different than it does today. Because paper was made largely from rags, mills were located in or near urban centres, from which supplies of raw materials could be most easily obtained. The paper plants were also situated on major rivers, whose energy was needed to grind and process the rags into paper. The limited supply of rags and the small size of the mills also kept the price of papers such as newsprint relatively high. In fact, its price only fell below $200 per ton for the first time in the mid-1870s.

Technological changes and other factors revolutionized the manufacture of pulp and paper over the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The critical element in this process was the conversion of the industry to wood fibre, which was exponentially more abundant (and thus far cheaper) than rags. Complementary developments in the fields of generating and transmitting hydro-electricity allowed industry to harness far greater quantities of energy. At the same time, a rapidly rising literacy rate and the growth in the number and size of newspapers created an immense demand for newsprint. These forces all contributed to a dramatic increase in the number and productive capacity of pulp and paper mills, which resulted in a precipitous decline in newsprint prices. By the late 1890s it was selling for under $40 per ton.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the industry was producing a variety of pulps and papers, of which groundwood was the most common. It is made by using immense amounts of energy (usually derived from flowing water) to grind logs into their fibrous components. The resulting pulp is relatively weak because it retains the waste elements of the wood that are unfit for paper but are not eliminated from the concoction. This mix is relatively cheap to produce, however, making it ideal for use in high consumption paper such as newsprint. Because there are no chemicals added to the mix to whiten or strengthen it, the colour and quantity of the wood fibre used in its manufacture is critical. The whitest and strongest fibre comes from spruce, specifically black spruce. Unlike groundwood, a number of other pulps — sulphite, sulphate and soda — are manufactured using chemicals and heat instead of friction to break down logs into pastes. They are more expensive to produce, but are superior in quality (i.e. stronger and finer than groundwood) because the non-fibrous waste material is eliminated from the mixture through a cooking process. Newsprint was made from combining four parts groundwood with one part sulphite.

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While Canada’s abundant wood and water power resources made it apparent in the late nineteenth century that it was an ideal place to manufacture pulp and paper, its natural endowments combined with political forces to dictate that its production would be confined largely to newsprint. The Boreal Forest Region covers a wide swath of the country east of the Rockies. Within this zone, black spruce — the prime species for making newsprint — predominates, and fairly large rivers –which could be tapped to generate significant hydro-electric power — criss-cross the landscape. In British Columbia, hemlock was the species of choice for newsprint and it, too, was prevalent in the province’s woodlands, which were also marked by rivers with harnessable hydro-electric potential. This combination was ideal for producing massive quantities of newsprint relatively inexpensively. Moreover, manufacturing chemical pulps in Canada would have required expensive chemicals (particularly sulphur), which would have to be imported at significant cost from the United States. In contrast, relatively little sulphur was needed to make newsprint. Finally, the massive bounty of Canada’s natural resources compared with its sparse population had historically dictated that it exported most of what it produced, and in this regard pulp and paper was no different. While the United States, by far Canada’s biggest trading partner for most of the twentieth century, had erected stiff tariffs in the late 1800s on all pulp and paper products, by the eve of World War I it had eliminated the duty on one item: newsprint. Thus, Canada’s plentiful timber resources and water powers were ideal for producing newsprint, a product towards which American trade policy was also favourably disposed.

Consequently, beginning around 1900 and lasting for roughly the next three decades, the Canadian pulp and paper industry — specifically its newsprint sector — grew exponentially. Canada became the world’s centre of newsprint production, and it was heavily dependent upon supplying the American market. In fact, between 1900 and the mid-1920s, Canadian mills went from supplying virtually none of the American demand to about two-thirds of it. In particular, rapid population growth in the mid-western United States drew mills into northwestern Ontario and Manitoba, away from the original pulp and paper manufacturing centres in Quebec. Incidentally, although over one dozen mills sprang up in central Canada as a result, the area between the Rockies and Winnipeg would be without its own pulp and paper mill until well after World War II.

During this period of rapid expansion, the industry was defined by a high percentage of foreign — specifically American — ownership. British investors had been important players in Canada’s pulp and paper mills in the early 1900s, but within a few decades most of the country’s newsprint capacity was held by interests in the United States.

The meteoric rise of the Canadian industry had a dramatic impact on the country’s demography. By the eve of the Depression, several dozen communities in remote parts of the fledgling nation had either been established or significantly expanded because paper mills had been erected there. Places like Kapuskasing, ON, Chicoutimi, QC, Powell River, BC, Dalhousie, NB, and Grand Falls, NF, all owed much of their vitality to the arrival of the pulp and paper makers.

These developments had also ensconced the industry into a critical place in the Canadian economy. By the mid-1920s, pulp and paper was the country’s second most valuable export (behind wheat) and contributor to its balance of trade. Moreover, making pulp and paper had become Canada’s most important industrial activity, and it ranked only behind agriculture in terms of capital investment.

It was during this period that the industry achieved some impressive — but seldom noted — accomplishments. The mills’ ever-expanding productive capacities created a demand for rapidly rising volumes of timber.

This placed increasing pressure on “Woods Managers” to develop means by which the plants could be guaranteed adequate timber supplies both in the present and far into the future. A number of pioneering foresters took up this challenge, and the result was the implementation of a series of progressive silvicultural initiatives. These were undertaken by the likes of Benjamin Avery in north-central Ontario, Ellwood Wilson in the St. Maurice Valley and Otto Schierbeck in the Saguenay Valley of Quebec, and later by H. R. MacMillan in British Columbia. Avery’s and Wilson’s achievements are especially noteworthy. By the early 1920s, the former had convinced his firm, Spanish River Pulp and Paper Mills (with plants in Sault Ste. Marie, Espanola and Sturgeon Falls, Ontario), to manage its timberlands on a sustained yield basis. Likewise, Wilson had single-handedly undertaken a commercial-scale reforestation programme for the Laurentide Paper Company beginning in 1908. From that date until the late 1920s, he oversaw the planting of over 10,000,000 seedlings. Later, foresters such as Desmond Crossley in Alberta and Gordon Cosens in Ontario would follow in their predecessors’ footsteps.

Although the
industry stagnated during the Depression, it re-commenced its growth during World War II and continued thereafter. Mills began to fill the void which had heretofore existed on the prairies, as American companies such as St. Regis and Weyerhaeuser moved into places like Hinton, Alberta and Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. Existing facilities not only expanded significantly in size, but they also began diversifying their production. Newsprint still remained “king”, but the industry produced a wider range of products as the domestic demand for everything from fine papers to cardboard packaging increased. Likewise, Americans continued to control the bulk of the Canadian capacity, but other nations — like Japan and Sweden — also entered the picture.

During this phase of the industry’s growth, it achieved several additional impressive achievements. One firm proved especially adept in developing means of coping with the exigencies attendant upon World War II. The Ontario Paper Company in Thorold, Ontario, was owned by and supplied the newsprint needs of The Chicago Tribune. During the early 1940s, “OPC” — as the firm was commonly known — focused its attention on recovering and selling as many by-products as possible from its paper mill. After investing substantial sums in research, OPC was able to develop means of producing commercial quantities of artificial vanilla and ethyl alcohol (ethanol) from waste sulphite pulping liquor. In addition, during World War II the company began using recycled newsprint in an effort to maintain production in the face of increasing difficulties in obtaining raw fibre.

During the past century, change has been a constant part of the Canadian pulp and paper landscape, as revolutionary developments have occurred in both the mills and woodlands. The most noticeable of these is the extent to which human power (elbow grease) has been replaced by mechanical force (hydraulic grease). In the production end, this has meant that computer networks now run machinery that previously required dozens of hands to operate it. In addition, many plants are able to process far more than solely spruce — Canada’s “Cinderella” species — as they now utilize a variety of conifer and deciduous species. An increasing number also rely exclusively on “non-virgin” fibre. Similarly, the forests were formerly places in which work revolved around cross-cut and Swede saws, shanty camps, horse skidding and river driving. Now, in the main harvesting and delivering wood to the mills involves massive feller bunchers, skidders and haul trucks. The end result of all these changes is that far fewer workers and communities rely directly upon the pulp and paper industry for their livelihood.

Undoubtedly, this has played a role in altering how the general public feels about the industry. In the early 1900s, the industry’s incipient growth was generally hailed as a source of pride. At this time, issues such as ending the export of unprocessed pulpwood to the United States (for which the Canadian mills were fighting) aroused strong support a mari usque ad mare. Moreover, harvesters who toiled in the bush were heroically portrayed in Canadian folklore as the hardy and robust “lumberjacks” who, it was hoped, personified the character of the nascent nation.

Over the past several decades, however, this perspective on the industry and those who toil in it has been transformed. With the country’s population becoming increasingly urbanised, each year sees more and more Canadians being disconnected — both physically and spiritually — from their natural environment. As a result, the general attitude towards the pulp and paper industry’s activities is based less and less on first hand experience and increasingly on reports of its activities. Not only is the bush worker no longer mythologized, he or she is often vilified in the public mind.

As much as change has defined the industry’s last one hundred years, one aspect of this enterprise has remained remarkably consistent over this period. This is the concern about forest tenure. The colonial legacy of Crown ownership of the public domain guaranteed that securing wood for pulp and paper mills in Canada would be intensely political. From the start, the industry lobbied for government to grant it secure tenure to the timber upon which its operations depended. In 1905, for example, P&PC lobbied the Ontario government to guarantee the cutting privileges of the province’s pioneering pulp and paper makers on the timber tracts they had leased from the Crown. In railing against the arbitrary provisions the provincial politicians had inserted into the mills’ timber leases, the magazine concluded that “investors will be slow to put their money in concessions of the type now existing, for the reason that the main security — possession of an adequate source of pulpwood supply — is precarious”. Today, the issue still remains very much alive.

One final aspect to the industry’s development over the past century warrants mention. When paper was made from rags prior to the mid- to late 1800s, mills were located in urban centres to be near sources of raw material. Thereafter, the conversion to wood fibre drew pulp and paper producers out of the cities and into the hinterland in order to be near the new raw material: trees. Recently, however, the re-conversion of some mills to recycled fibre has again created a niche for paper plants to operate within urban centres.

As the industry looks to the future, many challenges await. It must learn to cooperate with Canada’s First Nations in developing the country’s natural resources. It must also continue to be sensitive to a host of environmental issues, ranging from concerns over harvesting practices to the nature of mill emissions.

Nevertheless, the industry has proven to be remarkably resilient and adaptable during the past century. Although few Canadians realise it, it is still one of the leading contributors to the health of the nation’s balance of trade. Ultimately, P&PC’s one hundred year old prediction that “Canada is destined to be the greatest pulp and paper manufacturing country in the world” has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Dr. Mark Kuhlberg is a part-time professor of history at McMaster University and a full-time forestry consultant. His thesis focused on the development of the newsprint industry between 1894 and 1930.


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