It must have been a happy crowd that greeted the first train to arrive in Meadow Lake in 1931. The train would bring a steady flow into town of needed supplies and also provided for the steady outflow of the area’s agricultural and forestry products.
Easy transportation to the Canadian and American markets bode well for the many logging camps, railroad tie camps, and mills in the Meadow Lake region. But forestry was tough work. It didn’t pay very well and usually only provided winter employment. Workers were housed in cramped, rough quarters, the pay was $1 a day, and the work went on from dawn to dusk. Trees were cut with two-man cross-cut saws and were initially hauled out of the bush by horse until the roads improved and trucks could be used.
Lumber, railroad ties, and pulpwood went their way by train out of Meadow Lake. Wood was also used locally by the Northern Millworks which made boxes for the area’s berry harvesters and fish processors.
Seeing a vast country covered by the world’s largest forest, the earliest settlers set about with their saws and axes without giving much thought to forest renewal. Excessive logging and careless harvesting practices have left their impact on many of Canada’s forests, and many lessons were learned too late. These days, more care is given to ensuring a sustainable supply of timber, and responsible use of Saskatchewan’s forests is mandated by the provincial government.
In 1988, when NorSask Forest Products was created, they were given rights to a 3.3 million hectare area under a Forest Management License Agreement (FMLA). Not all of the area is usable timberland, only about half of it is. And NorSask was allowed to harvest 5000 hectares of it each year, of which 30% was the softwoods needed by the mill (primarily white spruce, jack pine, and balsam fir). The level of harvesting, along with the expected damage done by forest fires, would result in less than 1% of the forests being depleted each year – an amount which could be replenished.
Under the FMLA agreement, a user was to be found for the aspen hardwood and, in 1990, such a user was found and the pulp mill was constructed in 1992. NorSask and the pulp mill then created Mistik Management Ltd. to manage the FMLA. Mistik’s task was to supply logs to both mills, monitor regrowth, and to contract suppliers for road building and tree seedlings. Their plans were to be developed under a cooperative approach with northern residents. There are 22 communities in and around the FMLA, and many other uses of the forests needed to be considered, including traditional Native practices.
Mistik Management’s goal was to establish a forest management plan that was based on both science and traditional knowledge. They talked with scientists, naturalists, elders, trappers, fishermen, loggers, sawmillers and pulp makers. Not everything went smoothly at first. Northerners saw that modern mechanical harvesting methods were replacing traditional methods, and year-long blockades were staged at Canoe Lake and Waterhen.
This crisis actually spurred on the communication process with the northerners, and several co-management boards were formed to ensure that traditional ways and community concerns are incorporated into the forestry activities. There are now eight co-management boards and two advisory boards. The boards meet monthly with Mistik and help make decisions on such things as the size and locations of harvested areas and the methods of harvesting and replanting. The Boards’ ideas will also be incorporated into decisions concerning wildlife, hunting, tourism, and recreational resources, within their respective areas. This cooperative Integrated Resource Management approach is unique in Canada.
In 1997, Mistik became the first-ever Saskatchewan forest management company to receive Ministerial approval for their environmental impact statement on a Twenty-Year Forest Management Plan. The plan went far beyond short-term logging goals, instead producing guidelines that reach 220 years into the future.
NorSask Forest Products
From those early days through to the 1960s, sawmills were often operated by farmers as an additional source of income. Then, in 1971, the New York firm of Parsons & Whittemore built the Meadow Lake Sawmill. This mill was a major development in the local forestry sector and employed 80 to 100 people under a management team from Parsons & Whittemore.
The Parsons & Whittemore management team left after a few years and the sawmill languished, mainly because it had not been designed to meet Canadian weather conditions. The poor design often resulted in reduced production and there were long layoffs, particularly from November to January. In 1986, the mill was sold to the provincial government.
When rumours soon arose that the mill was going to be sold yet again, an employee buy out group, called TechFor Services, was formed, and partnership discussions began with the Meadow Lake Tribal Council. The result, in 1988, was that TechFor Services bought 40% of the shares of the mill, with the Tribal Council buying another 40%. The remaining 20% were later bought by Millar Western when that company built a pulp mill here in 1992. The new owners operate under the name NorSask Forest Products Inc.
In early 1998, the Meadow Lake Tribal Council became sole owner of NorSask, thus becoming the largest First-Nations forest products company in Canada. With the mill’s ownership finally secure, the goal was to ensure year-round operations by obtaining a secure wood supply and by upgrading the mill. The secured wood supply came through signing a Forest Management License Agreement with the Provincial Government which provided NorSask with a 3.3 million hectare landbase from which it could harvest 5,000 hectares annually.
Mill improvements, often done under adverse financial conditions, overcame the handicaps built into the original mill and helped the mill better utilize its logs. Within five years, new computerized equipment was maximizing the lumber recovery from each log, and the mill had doubled its 1988 production with premium lumber that was well above grade and was being shipped across North America. During 1997, the mill achieved record production levels, producing 101 million board feet of lumber.
On the morning of January 12, 2017 a fire broke out in the slasher deck area of the sawmill. Later that day, by the time the fire was extinguished, the fire had impacted the entire log infeed system of the sawmill (infeed deck, debarkers, slasher deck, sorter bins and log & waste conveyors). A plan was quickly put in place to rebuild the front end of the sawmill. The BID Group, along with the assistance of a variety of other engineering, equipment and technical service providers, had the mill fully operational within nine months. NorSask’s new log infeed system is a state-of-the-art asset that will ensure long term mill efficiency and quality outcomes for the NorSask sawmill for years to come.
Today, the mill’s production facilities are in excellent shape, plans are being made for secondary industries, and cooperative management agreements with northern communities will ensure that the mill’s activities will benefit all northerners.