The Mill and the Town: Domtar’s Espanola Mill
March 1, 2003 By Pulp & Paper Canada
Espanola was originally one of the domains of the native peoples of Canada. Documentation confirms that in the mid-1700’s, a tribe from the area embarked on a trading expedition to the southern region…
Espanola was originally one of the domains of the native peoples of Canada. Documentation confirms that in the mid-1700’s, a tribe from the area embarked on a trading expedition to the southern regions of the United States. When the party returned, they had a Spanish woman in their custody. In 1750, when the French voyageurs explored the area, they were reported to have been astonished to hear the Spanish language spoken in the native settlements. The area became known to the French as Espagnole, which the British later translated to Espanola.
The settlement of the present-day town traces its roots back to 1899 when the Ontario government signed the Espanola Agreement with the Spanish River Pulp and Paper Company. It permitted the newly-formed company to begin logging operations over a 5,600 kilometre area for the following 21 years. Under the agreement, a pulp mill capable of employing 250 residents was to be constructed. Construction of the Webbwood Falls dam followed in 1901, providing for the company’s expanding power needs. One hundred years ago, construction also began on residential housing in the area that stretched from the banks of the Spanish River to present day Second Avenue. Espanola was embarking on a rich historic journey as a company-owned town. The pulp and paper industry created Espanola, and to this day the relationship remains solid. It is not surprising that the local tourist board’s slogan is “We encourage you to discover Espanola…..a fine paper town.”
In 1903, as the Espanola mill began taking form, a new publication rolled off the presses in Toronto, one which was to evolve to be regarded as the journal of record for the pulp and paper industry. The first issue was only 32 pages and was printed in black and white. Its stated mandate was to reflect “the interests of the pulp and paper manufacturers and the paper trade”. The magazine, Pulp and Paper Magazine of Canada, and the town of Espanola share common historical roots. One hundred years later they both continue to stand as proudly as ever.
A little known, but intriguing, fact is that during World War II, Espanola was chosen among 20 other sites across Canada to intern captured German militia. Espanola offered existing facilities for accommodating large groups of men, and was also situated far inland, preventing potential escapes by sea. The prisoners of war were housed in the old mill buildings and the guards assigned to watch over them, moved into the abandoned houses in the company town site. At one point there were as many as 1,200 POWs held in the inactive pulp and paper mill that had been converted to a POW camp. A map of the world, drawn from memory by one of the German prisoners is still visible today and stands as a reminder of Canada’s involvement in the war effort.
Since 1998, Domtar Inc. has owned and operated the Espanola mill. Respecting the rich history of the operation, tours of the mill and the adjacent forestry operations are conducted during the summer months. It is difficult to separate the town from the mill, and this is what first caught the attention of mill manager Michel Deshaies, when he first visited the region in 2001. He said, “The lakes and forests are magnificent, but it is the people who are incredibly warm.” A native of Victoriaville, QC, Deshaies grew up in a region that is synonymous with paper production and he knows the industry well. After a stint at Domtar’s Windsor mill, he joined the Espanola team in June 2002.
Being an engineer, technological change in the pulp and paper industry has always fascinated Michel Deshaies. Much technological evolution has transformed the industry in the past one hundred years, and the Espanola mill certainly can be applauded for many firsts.
Deshaies pointed out that the industry’s relationship to the environment is the greatest achievement that he has witnessed. Indeed Domtar is known for its policy of utilising the “entire tree”. Chips are used in the pulp process, while bark and fines are used as fuel for boilers to reduce fossil fuel requirement. Company forest managers are mandated to ensure that the values of the forests are maintained and that decisions are made in conjunction with independent biologists and experts.
“I respect the values that Domtar stands for,” added Deshaies. “The shareholder, the customer and the employees are the three pillars that we stand for, and I believe in this strongly.” His working associates refer to him as a very effective leader. He describes his method as trying “to communicate on all levels, in an industry that is ever-changing.” As Espanola continues to evolve, it is in good hands with Michel Deshaies.
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