01/18/2015 05:00 EST | Updated 03/19/2015 05:59 EDT

Iroquois Falls latest casualty of changing Northern Ontario economy

When the Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series in 1992, The Globe and Mail wanted to celebrate with a blue front page of the sports section. A call was made - to Iroquois Falls.

Overnight, No. 8 paper machine at the Abitibi mill turned out the blue newsprint.

They tell that story with pride today in the town. They talk about the time that Abitibi was the largest pulp and paper company in the world. Iroquois Falls - population 4,500 - was where it all began.

"They said it was the largest paper mill in the world. That was something to be proud of," says Ben Lefebvre, vice-president of the District Labour Council. In the '60s, he adds, "there were 1,000 people working at the mill, another 500 out in the bush."

Then the slide began for the paper business.

"You know when you see a piece of ice, and the sun shines on it and it melts away - that’s the way the town was," says Gilda Shay, 85, who has lived in Iroquois Falls all her life.

A lot has changed recently. The pride is still there, but a few weeks ago Resolute Forest Products, the newest corporate incarnation of Abitibi, announced the town's mill would be shut down. The last paper rolled off the machines three days before Christmas.

For the first time in 100 years there is no cloud of steam hanging over Iroquois Falls, no hum of the mill.

Now crews are in cleaning  up.

"Basically you’re digging your own grave," says Peter Jones, president of local 90 of UNIFOR in Iroquois Falls. "Last time we had layoffs we had an individual who hanged himself in the mill. I don’t want to see that again."

The news has thrown the company town, a single-resource community that relies on the mill for employment and tax revenue, back on its heels. The women at the Legion Bingo, the town councillors, the millwrights and the paper makers are all forced to confront harsh economic realities, and in the middle of a northern Ontario winter they're scrambling to come up with ideas of re-invention.

But many are uncertain about the prospects for revamping the town's economy.

"We’re the colony," says Charlie Angus, NDPMember of Parliament for the area. "We were set up as a resource-based colony for southern Ontario. There’s always a sense in the south that, well, these communities were never sustainable anyway. The northern perspective is that our paper goes south, our wood goes south, our gold goes south, our young people go south."

Colin Kennedy, 31, town councillor and owner of the Abitibi Funeral Home, is both determined and worried.

"I’ve watched what happened  in Northern Ontario over the last 10 years and I can’t help but think of how Joey Smallwood in Newfoundland closed down the outports, centralized the population - 'if you don’t want to do it willingly, we’ll take you kicking and screaming,' Kennedy says. "The economic breakdown in Newfoundland was no different than what we are about to experience here. They were built on fishing. We were built on paper.

"We need to meet with this company and with the government on a weekly even daily basis to remind them that we are people, not numbers."

Dismantling the mill

In Iroquois Falls, the shock of the closure is still sinking in. 

"People are pretty tough," Angus says. "They’ve been through shutdowns, seen a lot of heartache but certain busts are more traumatic than others."

As the mill machinery is dismantled, the mayor and town council are pressuring the company to at least keep the heat on in the building, to give people enough time to think about a way to re-purpose the plant.

Other pulp and paper towns in northern Ontario and in B.C. have been born again after their mills shut down. The facilities have been turned into wood textile plants, producers of Popsicle sticks, and one now makes wood fibre fill for adult diapers – a burgeoning industry.  

But along with the talk of resilience and transformation is a real fear about the future – for Iroquois Falls and other northern towns. 

Charlie Angus sees work camps where communities used to be, and in areas where resources are being newly exploited. The problem in Canada, he says, is that we’re  moving to a rip-and-ship philosophy.

"You get the resources, but you don’t put anything back into communities. If people fly in and fly out, the sense of connectedness to the resource and the obligation … the social obligation, gets cut. It breaks apart families, 12 days in and 12 days out, 12 hour shifts. It’s the Fort Mac-inization of Canada."

Gilda Shay takes the long view. "We have to fight  for everything we get in Northern Ontario. And we do. I don’t think, Iroquois Falls is going to collapse. Something is going to come out of this. We survived before, why not now?"

(For more on Iroquois Falls and the changing economy of Northern Ontario, listen to Karin Well’s audio documentary "Resolute" on The Sunday Edition or listen here.)