People in Belledune are facing the harsh reality that the largest employer in the northern New Brunswick community will soon be shutting down for good.
"I only had four years to go before I could retire," Sterling Pursey said Thursday in a warming hut near a Brunswick Smelter picket line.
"Now, I don't know what's going to happen."
Glencore announced Wednesday that the lead smelter will close at the end of next month.
"It's going to hurt the whole region from Campbellton down," said Pursey, "and, of course, at Christmas time."
Worse for less-skilled workers
More than half the smelter's employees have been off the job since late April in a contract dispute with Glencore that has centred mainly on safety issues.
Pursey expects some of his co-workers, labourers especially, will feel the blow of the closure more than others, who saw it coming or have skilled trade certification.
"They're going to need a lot of resources to help people get through for not only money-wise and all that — it's going to be the emotional effect. The physical and emotional toll of this is going to be for years to come."
Fellow picketer Cleve Hickey is optimistic he'll find other local work as a welder.
"I grew up here and I was planning on staying here," said Hickey, adding he'll move away if he has to.
Hickey is married and has two children, aged 10 and 16.
"We weren't really expecting this. We were hoping that [the contract dispute] would come to a conclusion, but not this conclusion."
This situation is repeating itself for Terry McInnis of Dalhousie.
He worked at the Abitibi-Bowater paper mill in Dalhousie for 32 years before it shut down almost 12 years ago.
"It hurts and it's hard on the family. … It's hard on the heart. It's very hard on your system, mentally, physically — it's discouraging."
McInnis said he was shocked to find out Wednesday on social media that the smelter was closing.
"Nobody expected this. … Now what am I going to do at 63, 64 years old, to try to find a job? I'll have to go out West. There's nothing here."
Outside the local grocery store Thursday morning, retired smelter worker Arnold Guitard agreed.
"It's too bad this had to happen because we don't need this up here on the North Shore."
"It's sad. I mean, where you going to find work? There is none. ... I just gotta say it's pitiful."
'I loved my work'
The smelter has been operating for 50 years in Belledune, a village of about 1,500 people on the Bay of Chaleur.
"We knew when they built that place, it wasn't going to last for 80, 90 years," said Guitard.
"But I figured it would last longer because they did put a lot of money into it. I was hoping that it would last longer."
Guitard said his job at the smelter allowed him to have a home in the region and raise a family there.
"I enjoyed every day I worked there. I loved my work."
He still has friends and relatives with jobs there.
"It's a big family thing. It's sad to see that close. It's going to hurt your community here, hurt everybody."
That's the resounding assessment of others in the village as well.
"All our stores, and the men who worked there from Campbellton down to Bathurst and probably beyond that," said Emilie Harquail, outside a convenience store a short distance down the main road. Harquail delivers newspapers in the region and drives a school bus.
"It's going to affect everybody for sure — I mean, their homes, their families."
Harquail has a lot of friends who work at the smelter.
"It's very, very sad. It's not good."
She brings free papers to the picketing smelter workers daily. And along with a friend, she organized a recent fundraiser for them.
Harquail said she was shocked to hear of the permanent closure.
"I can't believe it came to this."
She worries about the rift that has developed in her community between the workers who have been off the job and those who have crossed picket lines.
"These guys are our friends and families and our neighbours, you know what I mean? It's just dirt thrown in their face ... They just cause a spider web of enemies."
At village hall, Mayor Joe Noel acknowledged members of his community will have to put aside their differences.
Despite the company's assurances the six-month-old contract dispute did not factor into its decision, some believe it did.
"Now is not the time to be bickering, fighting over whether it did or didn't, who's in the right or who is in the wrong," said Noel.
"We just have to move forward. You know, we have to come together and not hold grudges, but get things done. We don't want this to be the devastation of Belledune."
The smelter accounts for about 17 per cent of the village tax base, said Noel.
Its salaries and corporate spending provided support for everything from car dealerships and restaurants, to the construction of the local arena.
"Whole families worked there … their whole career was there," Noel said.
Noel plans to meet with other local mayors next Tuesday to discuss the situation.
"It's a big setback. But I think we'll overcome it."
There are some companies that may be interested in moving to Belledune, said Noel, and they should be aggressively pursued.
"We just have to get out there and hustle."
"We have really a lot to look at here. And we have to be rapid in doing that."
One of the complicating factors is that another major local employer is also under threat.
NB Power has to reduce its use of coal by 2030 so the coal-fired generating station will either have to be converted to use a different fuel or shut down.
"I don't think just throwing money at it is the answer here," said Noel.
"We need a long-term plan that we can put in place almost immediately."
The other main local industries are forestry — including a sawmill and wood pellet plant — farming and fishing.
"Maybe we should be encouraging that," Noel said. "That's something we've got to look at."