If the paperless office ever were to be realized, Dryden would be devastated. But few companies in the forestry sector, least of all Weyerhaeuser, are willing to take that bet.
While the recent economic slowdown is beginning to take a toll elsewhere, Dryden feels as prosperous as ever. A very good decade in the forestry sector has left its roads crowded with late-model 4-by-4s, and the main rail line that runs through the middle of town looking more like a city expressway in rush hour, with kilometre-long trains on every track.
Shadowing the rail line, the Trans-Canada Highway has its own signs of prosperity, with Wal-Mart, Canadian Tire and Holiday Inn Express leading to the edge of town. Most of the business emanates from one source, the big mill on the banks of the Wabigoon River that spouts a perpetual plume of smoke that frames the landscape here the way the mist does that of Niagara Falls.
Native co-operation was about more than forestry rights, as essential as those are to the company's success. In local native bands, it saw its future work force.
When the company took over the Dryden mill three years ago, it had its eyes on expansion, and saw the need to work with local communities to achieve it. But native co-operation was about more than forestry rights, as essential as those are to the company's success. In local native bands, it saw its future work force.
At the company's operation in Nipigon, an hour's drive east of Thunder Bay, more than one-third of the 190 employees are native. For a new mill scheduled to open next year in Kenora, about 90 minutes west of Dryden, the company went even further. It recruited an aboriginal leader, Louie Seymour, to sit on the four-member implementation committee that hired the mill's top managers and selected supplier firms, including the general contractor for the $250-million project.
"No doubt there's been a cultural barrier historically," says Fred Dzida, manager of Weyerhaeuser's Ontario timberlands operation.
Dzida, a tall, fit forester who looks like he could wield a chain saw as well as a policy manual, sits in a small office on the banks of the Wabigoon River, across the road from the mill. He says his presence here today is a bit of an exception. He spends much of his time on the road, on reserves where his task is to win the hearts, minds and signatures of native bands.
Originally from Toronto, Dzida has spent years in the North. He says he has learned not to approach aboriginal groups and say, "Here's a job," at least not in communities where few young adults have been trained for skilled positions. Such a simple approach to affirmative action was only alienating people like Roddy Brown, who found they had plenty of job offers but few real opportunities.
Instead, Weyerhaeuser helps to train natives in the art of filling out job applications, and posts vacancies on remote reserves at least two weeks before advertising them nationally. That leads to more aboriginal youths turning to the company for work.
For the Wabigoon nursery, the mill also allows its silviculture specialists to spend as much time as the band wants coaching Brown and his people on the art of growing seedlings.
In its first season, the Wabigoon operation exceeded its target by 10 per cent. It also lost only 8 per cent of its crop, one of the lowest rates in the region. Nurseries typically lose 20 per cent. But now, with another season under way, Mitani and Brown are looking for ways to cut their loss rate to zero.
Inside its mills, Weyerhaeuser is also training its own managers to detect and deal with harassment and racism, and employs a native ombudsman to deal with complaints. But those challenges may have been straightforward compared with Weyerhaeuser's next hurdle, which is its own union. The local workers are uncomfortable with the spread of jobs to non-union native companies, the Wabigoon nursery among them.
The company has so far come up with "letters of agreement" that lay out an informal set of labour standards in native companies that work under contract to the mill. But even Dzida quietly acknowledges that the culture gap, between his company, the union and the surrounding reserves, remains a source of tension.