End of an era

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

Gone in one thundering moment.

At just before 5:00 a.m. on the morning of Saturday, November 27, 2021, I was ready to watch the implosion of the remaining structure of the Fort Frances kraft mill.

‘Ready’ in a technical sense. Turns out I wasn’t exactly prepared.

I don’t know if the man in the security truck took pity on me standing in the softly falling snow at five o’clock in the morning, or if he just wanted me to be all-in on the spectacle, but he called out to me.

“One minute to go.”

Then as that minute wound itself down to the final seconds, I could hear the caller come through on the security radio.

“Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Fire.”

The flashes came first. Then there were the incredible booms. After that, the sound of crashing, rending metal.

Then there was nothing but a pile of rubble, an overwhelming sense of finality and an unexpected lump in my throat.

Like many people in town and the surrounding district, several members of my immediate and extended family have worked in the mill over the years. People still tell me stories of working with my grandfathers at the mill. My dad was among the last few crews to be given the boot.

I protested the closure. In 2016, I wrote emails to then-Premier Kathleen Wynne and Bill Mauro, the Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry, asking them and their government to intervene on behalf of our town. Of course, at that time we couldn’t have known, or even foreseen, that same government’s 2017 forgiveness of a $23-million loan to Resolute that had been issued years earlier in 2007. Neither were we in a position to be aware of the questions now being raised around inconsistencies surrounding wood rights audits that look like they could have had some impact on Resolute’s dealings in the area. With a time machine, maybe things could have been different for our little town. Maybe.

I think this whole mill thing will be a sticking point for a while yet. People will talk about what could have been done, who did or didn’t come through for us, if those in power went far enough, fought hard enough, for a little town on the edge of wild Ontario. As we move forward, talk will turn more to what will or won’t be done with the grounds, though it may be more appropriate to ask what can or can’t be done with them in the first place.

But none of that was on my mind as I stood at the corner of Sinclair Street and Victoria Avenue on Saturday morning. Following the earth-shaking noise of the explosions and collapse, the pre-dawn morning was eerily quiet, in that way it only can be in the dark during a snowfall. I watched trucks and cars make loops of Victoria Street, down to the riverfront to check the view from the old truck entrance, then back towards Church Street to see if they could find a better vantage point. I can’t tell you who was in those vehicles, but it really doesn’t matter. That morning we were all the same. We all felt the need to be witness to these final moments. Not long after the implosion, the security barriers were lifted and we could all make our way to the scene.

There are few words I can give to the feeling of seeing the aftermath up close for the first time. In place of the towering blue building I had known my entire life was a pile of scrap. It was jarring, staring at that twisted heap of metal and comparing it to the version that stands tall in my memories. I remember dropping off and picking up my dad from some of his shifts. I remember going through the old car wash that used to operate just metres away from the building. I remember coming home from away; the image of the giant stacks belching steam into the sky was always the first visible sign that we were, finally, close to home. And now, I suppose, I’ll remember the way it fell.

There’s something to be said of the way the mill represented our town for a hundred years. While I was away from home, in southern Ontario or in Calgary, I would be asked, “What kind of town is Fort Frances, anyway?” My answer was always, “It’s a mill town.” Or at least, it was. I think we’ve all had that experience while Away, having struck up a random conversation with a friendly stranger. And every so often they would surprise us by mentioning they had managed to visit our little corner of the country.

“Oh yeah, I’ve been there,” they would say. “It stinks.”

And we would laugh, or get defensive, but yeah, it did stink. For us, though, it was the smell of economic prosperity.

Think of this: without the mill, not one of our lives would be the same. You don’t need to have had a grandparent, or even parent, who worked at the mill to have been affected by it beyond measure. How many businesses would have set up here without the mill? How many restaurants? How many dentists, optometrists, or doctors? Countless people came here or were born here and made their lives because of the mill, even if they never set a foot inside of it.

Say what you will about the industry as a whole, but for a long time our region was given purpose, in large part, by that stinky steel economic behemoth. You might not have been able to draw the Fort Frances skyline by memory, but you would have recognized it in an instant. For years we were identified by the kraft mill and its smaller, but no less important, sibling buildings. They gave us security and reason and Good Jobs™.

Things are different now. We are reckoning with the fallout of losing that industry. We are being asked to do more –or even the same– with much less. After years of having the mill at our backs, we are being forced to move forward into an uncertain future. How do we recover from that loss? Can the mine continue to be our economic breadbasket? Will another industry move in to provide those Good Jobs™? Can the town ever return to its previous fortunes?

We are lucky to have people asking these questions and working towards answers. We are fortunate that there are people in town who still believe there is something worth saving here. It would be easy to let the naysayers reign, the ones who moan on Facebook about the mill being lost, shoot down any talk of rebuilding in its place, but who offer no ideas or alternatives. We don’t all agree on what the best way to move forward is, but nothing will be accomplished by sitting idle and complaining. Like Dylan said: “The times, they are a-changin’.” It’s up to us to change with them, or be left behind.