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The AbitibiBowater sawmill in Mackenzie, B.C. Conifex last month announced it was buying AbitibiBowater's sawmills, a boost to a suffering forestry community. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
The AbitibiBowater sawmill in Mackenzie, B.C. Conifex last month announced it was buying AbitibiBowater's sawmills, a boost to a suffering forestry community. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Mackenzie, B.C.'s revival continues Add to ...

It was a weepy event as union leaders and politicians gathered Friday to proclaim the revival of the town of Mackenzie.

Forest Minister Pat Bell announced a $20-million deal that will see the dormant pulp and paper mill acquired by Paper Excellence, a subsidiary of Indonesian-based Sinar Mas.

It's just the latest reversal of the town's fortunes.

A year ago, Mackenzie was the symbol of the hard times in rural B.C.'s forest-dependent communities. Starting late in 2007, the town's six mills shut down one by one, wiping out 1,500 jobs in a town of 5,000. But last month, Conifex announced it was buying AbitibiBowaters's sawmills, and Canfor's sawmill has now restarted two shifts.

"Hopefully it's a go and the town can live it up a bit," said long-time resident Evelyn Poulin. She came to Mackenzie in 1966 - the year the town was incorporated - with her husband Jack, and together they raised a family while earning a living in the forest industry.

Mrs. Poulin was given a retirement package in 2008 when the Abitibi mill where she worked shut its doors. But on Friday, her husband was back at work.

She doesn't expect the town to fully recover, but hopes the pulp-mill deal will be enough to start bringing home people who left their families behind to go find work.

"It's just the breed of people that live in small towns," she said. "They just don't give up."

Karen Cooling, a spokesperson for the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, said the union had to make some compromises to get a new collective agreement that would see the pulp mill reopen.

"Sorry, I'm going to get a little bit emotional here," she said as she described the union's local president as a "working class hero" for holding his membership together throughout.

Mr. Bell was also teary eyed throughout the news conference announcing the deal. When asked about it, he struggled for more than half a minute to respond.

"It tore my heart out to see that community go down, but they never left me," Mr. Bell said when he had composed himself. "I wouldn't have blamed the people of Mackenzie for throwing me out in the last election. It has to be tough for the 5,000 people who didn't know what they were going to do. But they didn't. For me, today … Mackenzie is back."

Jim Clefstad has run a clothing shop in town for 35 years. On Friday, he said he could feel the optimism returning.

"What we have gone through in the last 24 months, it has been traumatic for a lot of families." But as he sorted through a new shipment of Carhartt's, the heavy-duty canvas dungarees and bib overalls favoured on the worksite, he was happy to have some new stock on the shelves. "I'm starting to buy with less caution," he said.

However, the pulp-mill deal wasn't universally applauded. Greenpeace is targeting the parent company, Sinar Mas, saying its environmental record in Indonesia includes illegal logging and rain-forest destruction.

"Sinar Mas should expect their environmental record in Indonesia and the Greenpeace campaign to follow their business wherever it goes," said Greenpeace campaigner Stephanie Goodwin.

Mr. Bell said he has met with Greenpeace to hear their concerns, but is confident the company is in full environmental compliance at its only other Canadian mill, in Saskatchewan. And, he added, Sinar Mas won't be doing the harvesting for the mill's fibre supply. The forest licence has been awarded to the McLeod Lake Indian Band.

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