Reopening of sawmill welcome news on both sides of the Ottawa River

Sainte Therese, Que. – The Commonwealth Plywood Co. Ltd. Plant in Pembroke, which closed its doors in 2015 following a-half-year bitter strike that saw a workforce of more than 170 dwindle down to a mere 36 workers before it closed, is once again making news, but this time the Quebec-based company announced the re-opening of a vital sawmill located within an hour of Pembroke at Rapides des Joachims in Pontiac County, Quebec.

Commonwealth has invested over $1 million over the past year to get the sawmill operating and expects to open the mill in November.

The mill will begin by sawing white and red pine on one shift and expects to hire about 65 people to operate the mill and in the forestry operations in the very near future. The announcement was welcome news for the region that is still rebounding from external and internal pressures within the industry.

Officials with Commonwealth said the sawmill was closed for many years due to a number of factors external to the company. The company was one of many forestry companies that were forced to either close or scale back due to the devastating affects of the 2008/2009 recession combined with the restrictions imposed by the former NAFTA agreement that placed huge tariffs on softwood exports.

Pembroke Mayor Mike LeMay, who is winding down his eight-year tenure as head of council for the city that traces its roots to the lumber industry, said it is welcome news for the area.

“There are many in the area who at one time were employed in various forestry businesses in both our area and the Pontiac MRC and it will be interesting to see how the wages will compare to other industries for those seeking employment,” he said.

Mayor LeMay admits there is likely little chance of the former Commonwealth Plywood building, located in Pembroke for more than 60 years, resuming operations. Prior to Commonwealth taking over operations in 1994 from the former Canada Veneers, the company had been one of Pembroke’s biggest employers.

“From my understanding, that building was sold to an individual almost two years ago and I know the buyer had plans in place to renovate the site for operations, but I am not sure if it was forestry related,” he said. “There are currently ‘for lease’ signs on the building and I know the onset of COVID certainly stalled any plans that were set in place.”

With dwindling birch supplies in the early 2000s, the operation ceased veneer production, concentrating solely on plywood. On April 21, 2010, the remaining 36 workers of Commonwealth Plywood went on strike, a strike that lasted nearly six years before the workers’ union argued there was no point in continuing the strike. The Pembroke plant never reopened.

For residents and businesses on the Quebec side of the river, it is certainly welcome news for the industry and Commonwealth management acknowledged the efforts of Pontiac MRC for helping in the efforts to reopen the site.

“We would like to thank the warden of the Pontiac MRC, Jane Toller for her direct involvement and also the involvement of Forestry Minister Pierre Dufour and his staff for helping to make things happen,” the company’s management stated.

Warden Toller said she has been informed that the hiring process for employees will begin shortly as the equipment is fully operational and some last-minute tests for certain electrical components are currently underway.

“I have always been told that it is not an easy task to have a mill reopen once it’s been closed, and this one in particular was closed for the past 10 years,” Warden Toller said. “As your elected warden, I want to express how truly delighted I am for this reopening and want to thank Bill Caine Jr. and Commonwealth Plywood for their investment and commitment to the Pontiac.

“Forestry built the Pontiac and it is our goal to ensure that we continue to be a strong player in the industry. It is gratifying after five years of working with Commonwealth Plywood to see our dream of growing the forestry industry in the Pontiac come true. I believe this news will send a signal to the rest of Quebec that the Pontiac is resourceful and that we are back in business,” she said.

Commonwealth Plywood harvests, transforms and distributes forestry and related products. The company operates over 10 production facilities in Quebec and one in the United States.

Bruce McIntyre, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader