“Canada is the best country in the world; Ontario is the best province; and Kapuskasing is the best town!” boasts J.C. Caron, mayor of the town of Kapuskasing. His enthusiasm for the town and its environment is echoed by his staff and by members of the business community.
Kapuskasing, a town of about 10,000 people, is located three hours drive northwest of Timmins. Once known solely for its newsprint production, Kapuskasing is now also home to over 100 people who work at the Agrium phosphate mine and plant just 35 minutes from the town. The Kapuskasing Airport is serviced by AirCreebec, which connects with Air Canada. It is also serviced by train and bus on a daily basis.
Known in 1907 as MacPherson Station, Kapuskasing was first established as a railway water stop, and served as a base while another section of the new National Transcontinental Railway-stretching from Moncton, N.B., to Winnipeg, Man.-was being built. During the First World War, the federal government built a prisoner of war camp in Kapuskasing, and set up an experimental farm to investigate the agricultural potential in the area. The prisoners cleared the land and worked on the agricultural farm.
In 1917, the Ontario government, in an effort to maintain the settlement, launched an attractive land settlement program for returning soldiers. However, the harsh northern climate and isolation took their toll on the new settlers and many returned south. That might have spelled disaster for the town. But when Kimberly-Clark and the New York Times Company Ltd. joined forces in the mid-Twenties to spend $16 million in a new venture, a small mill became the Spruce Falls Power and Paper Company, and the future of the town was assured. The mill was the forerunner of much larger mills producing newsprint, pulp and cellulose.
Anxious to show its interest in the New North, the Ontario government undertook to build the company a new town. Hence Kapuskasing was developed as the “first modern planned town, a model for future northern towns,” complete with Tudor architecture and streets that radiate out from a central circle. Today, nearly 80 years later, although new businesses stretch out along the nearby highway, the circle remains the heart of the community.
MINING COMES TO TOWN
A first for the town of Kapuskasing and indeed for Canada as well, is the start-up of the Agrium phosphate mine (see page 13 in this issue). Agrium Inc., a large Calgary-based manufacturer of fertilizer products, recently began mining and milling at Canada’s first and only developed phosphate deposit. The Agrium mine contains over 60 million tonnes of high-grade phosphate ore. In fact, it will rank as one of the highest-grade phosphate mines in the world. There has been great socio-economic benefit to the town of Kapuskasing through enhanced diversification of the local economy. During the construction phase of the operation, Agrium Inc. employed over 200 people directly, and now that the mine is in production, over 100 people are employed full time. Associated indirect benefits are derived through the purchase of local goods and services. This mine has a potential life of 20 years.
J.C. Caron, the proud mayor of Kapuskasing, speaks highly of the Agrium management team, and refers to them as “great corporate citizens.” He is excited about the prospects of development of other phosphate deposits in the area. He is also quick to mention the potential for diamond discoveries, noting that several major mining companies have conducted diamond exploration programs in the area in recent years.
Although mining is a new and significant industry, forestry still provides the economic base of the Kapuskasing region. Softwood, primarily black spruce, feeds both the sawmill and newsprint industries, which jointly employ more than 2,000 people directly and thousands more indirectly. Today, Spruce Falls Inc. produces 360,000 tonnes of quality newsprint and specialty paper per year, 114 million board feet of stud lumber per year, and 150,000 bone-dry tonnes of wood chips per year. In an agreement with the province, Spruce Falls manages its own forest and harvests from timber limits extending over 1.7 million hectares-the equivalent of three times the area of Prince Edward Island. In 1998, Spruce Falls Inc. planted the 200-millionth tree in its reforestation program, which was initiated over 50 years ago. The Northern Clonal Forestry Centre in the nearby town of Moonbeam, provides the millions of trees needed for reforestation.
In 1991, the mill of Spruce Falls Power and Paper Company was up for sale. Through a series of events, an unprecedented employee ownership group was formed that purchased a 52% interest. In August 1991, Kimberly-Clark donated the mill to the employees; they brought in Quebec-based Tembec Inc., which eventually purchased 41% and was to be the operator. The remaining 7% was held by citizens of Kapuskasing. The new company was named Spruce Falls Inc. As a result of this undertaking by the employees and of $290 million in expenditures to upgrade and modernize the mill, it was transformed from one of the highest cost operations to one of the lowest, and the company was able to maintain production and market share. In 1997, Tembec Inc. increased its holdings to 100%.
Because of its northern climate, Kapuskasing is also home to substantial cold-weather testing programs in the automotive industry. General Motors Cold Weather Development Centre was established in 1971. Hyundai, and on occasion BMW, Jaguar, and Rolls Royce also conduct cold-weather testing programs on their products. TransCanada Pipeline is another local employer, regularly infusing hard currency into the economy as it adjusts and expands its gas lines in the area. Power utilities are also major employers because of the importance of hydroelectric power to the industries in the area.
With the establishment of a diversified economy and the resulting stability of the town, several new projects are underway that will promote tourism in the area. Situated on the highway between Timmins and Thunder Bay, “Kapuskasing is a good stopping-off spot for snowmobilers, hunters, hikers and fishermen,” claims Caron. As the lead community in an area that stretches west to Hornepayne and east to Smooth Rock Falls, and with over 5,000 cars passing through per day, Kapuskasing is the economic hub for an area that takes in approximately 23,000 people. This translates into more than 200 mostly independent specialty stores and businesses.
Kap is growing, with a large renovation underway at the Model City Mall. Plans are underway to add a new convention centre to the arena and to build a new curling facility.
Recreational facilities include two fields for baseball, soccer and track; public tennis courts at three locations; and a Sports Palace that features ice in the winter for skating and hockey, and doubles as a roller rink in the summer. Curling, snowmobiling, and cross-country skiing are other winter sports available. The Donat Brousseau Indoor Swimming Pool ensures year-round swimming. There is a nine-hole golf course with a modern clubhouse in the centre of town.
The Northern College of Applied Arts and Technology operates a campus, Collge Boreal, in Kapuskasing. Affiliated with Laurentian University, Le Collge Universitaire de Hearst provides services in Kapuskasing. Both of these institutions provide trained staff for the local industries.
Caron is optimistic about the future of Kapuskasing, stating, “There is a demand for new housing, apartments are all rented, and the mall in town is currently undergoing a $10-million renovation. There have been many requests for new businesses in town. With the start-up of the Agrium phosphate mine, the economy went over the hill!” The Kapuskasing Economic Development Committee, formed in 1998 and spear-headed by the mayor, has a “Vision 2000 Strategic Plan” with four objectives, one of which is mining.
Kapuskasing is full of proud, hard-working northerners not easily deterred by seemingly insurmountable hardships and difficulties. Early settlers had to adapt to the northern climate and to its isolation, and later to significant changes brought about by the economy. Through it all, Kapuskasing and its people have met these challenges head-on and have not only survived, but have also set several firsts.