Pic Mobert CEO Norm Jaehrling spoke about the community’s economic development successes on April 21 at Nishnawbe Aski Development Fund’s Forestry Expo in Thunder Bay.

Pic Mobert CEO Norm Jaehrling spoke about the community’s economic development successes on April 21 at Nishnawbe Aski Development Fund’s Forestry Expo in Thunder Bay.

By Rick Garrick

Pic Mobert has achieved full employment through its White River Forest Products partnership with the Township of White River and other economic development initiatives.

“We really are coming out of a long period of economic struggles,” says Norm Jaehrling, Pic Mobert’s CEO. “We’ve gone from, like many of our communities, from very high levels of unemployment to over the course of the last couple of years basically almost full employment. If you are able to work, you will have a job.”

Jaehrling says the community of about 351 on-reserve and about 600 off-reserve citizens partnered with White River and former Tembec CEO Frank Dottori to restart the town’s former Domtar sawmill. The communities’ objectives were to buy the assets and protect them from the wrecking ball, and to secure the forest licence so there was still an opportunity for a mill when the industry recovered.

“We wanted to focus on restoring the economic benefits of the mill for the region and ensuring meaningful economic benefits for Pic Mobert and our members,” Jaehrling says. “The communities were equal stakeholders, we felt, and should therefore have equal ownership in the venture. A must of our First Nation was that at least half of the future wood requirements of the mill would be supplied by our community.”

The two communities bought the mill in 2009 and reopened it in 2013 after the forest industry improved and Dottori joined the partnership. Pic Mobert currently owns about 14 per cent of the mill.

“The mill is fully operational now and has been operating for a number of years,” Jaehrling says. “We just completed over a $10 million capital program and now have one of the most modern efficient saw lines. That place that was ready for the wrecking ball now employs over 150 people.”

Jaehrling says the mill currently employs more than 30 Pic Mobert community members in the mill. He says the mill did not employ a single Pic Mobert community member when it closed in 2007.

“In a community that has a population of 350 and a workforce of about a third of that, that is pretty significant impact in our community,” Jaehrling says. “We have the agreement to supply 50 per cent of the wood required by the mill, which is about 200,000 cubic metres per year, although we have aspirations to go beyond that.”

Jaehrling says the community also has options to provide other services in the future, such as yard operations and road construction.

“We are also pursuing training and business development that will be supported by a trust fund we have created in partnership with White River Forest Products,” Jaehrling says.

Jaehrling says the community has also achieved success with a number of other economic development projects.

“It is one of the most exciting and active times in our economic development,” Jaehrling says. “We’re just completing the commissioning of about a 19 MW hydro-electric development on the White River, which we have a 50 per cent interest in with a company called Regional Power. We also have interest in various ground-mounted and roof-top solar installations in southern Ontario.”

Jaehrling says the community’s development corporation is also working on projects in civil construction, mine reclamation and clearing and road maintenance.

“We’re just doing our first foray into real estate,” Jaehrling says. “We’re constructing the office for a regional agency.”

Pic Mobert also has a longstanding relationship with Barrick Gold’s Hemlo operations, which employs about 24 community members on a full-time basis, including skilled trades employees and apprentices.