Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Mill has gone, but community staying strong

Christmas feast shows its spirit

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POWERVIEW-PINE FALLS -- Generations of residents driving up Highway 304 looked for a cloud of steam to show they were almost home. A beacon of prosperity, the cloud came from the town's paper mill.

Now, two years after the mill closed, there is no steam.

But the residents know where to find home, and tough economic times are teaching them home is about more than a steady paycheque.

The pluck and compassion of local residents are particularly evident during the holiday season, with Christmas hampers and a community dinner to help neighbours in need.

"Our community has rallied back," said Bev Dubé, a councillor in this town 125 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.

Dubé is also on the town's Christmas hamper committee. She says the community has become more considerate of others since the mill closed.

"A lot of people who lost their jobs needed hampers," said Dubé. "The year the mill closed down, the Christmas hampers that were needed grew three times the normal number."

This year, Dubé says, the number of hampers needed has gone back to normal. Now, the community is giving back.

"People who got help before are starting to help others," she said.

Tembec, a Quebec-based forestry company, closed the mill's doors in 2010, a big economic blow because it meant about 230 jobs in a town of only 1,300 people. The mill was built in 1927 and had been a cornerstone of the local economy ever since.

The closure meant many families lost a reliable source of income, and one way the community rallied was to begin an annual Christmas dinner at École Powerview School. The meal has fed more than 450 people in the community.

"We originally put it on for members of the community who were experiencing financial hardship," said Trevor Reid, the school principal.

Every year, local businesses, organizations and churches donate food and door prizes for the dinner. People from the community volunteer.

"It's a nice evening out for families. We established a good tradition," said Reid. "Traditions are important for your community family."

Although food hampers and Christmas dinners are an encouraging sign of a community that cares, it would be naive to think they dispel the hardship many families are experiencing.

Wayne Barkhouse moved to Pine Falls with his family from Newfoundland in 1995. Now, the electrical engineer is working in Thompson, Man.

"It's a Monday-to-Friday job and it's an eight-hour drive to get there," he said. "Families have been separated because of this."

Barkhouse tries to come home as much as he can, usually for holidays and long weekends.

"We had one of the greatest industries in the country, and we let it go too easily," he said. "We didn't fight hard enough."

Joanne Raymond, owner of the Manitou Lodge and Papertown Motor Inn, says business has changed throughout the community.

"The dynamic has changed considerably. People don't go out as much because they're commuting back and forth," Raymond said. "It's not like it was."

But residents refuse to leave the community by the Winnipeg River.

Jody Johnson moved to Pine Falls when he was 10.

"We moved here from Winnipeg when my dad got a job at the mill," he said.

Johnson started working at the mill as a summer job in high school. He worked there for 25 years.

"I thought I might have to move because there wasn't any work here," he said.

But Johnson and his family couldn't imagine leaving the small town. Instead, he commutes to Fort McMurray, Alta., every week. "I'm fortunate I don't have to move. I like living here and I like knowing who my neighbours are."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 27, 2012 A4

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