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Lockout at one of Canada’s largest smelters drags into 2nd year, with no end in sight

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A Discount mini-bus, escorted by several security guards, edges toward the makeshift checkpoint that guards the lone road in and out of the sprawling ABI aluminum smelter in Bécancour, Que.

The bus’s path is blocked by a dozen picketers, who cup their hands to the tinted windows and try to identify the obscured figures inside.

“There were scabs in there, for sure,” one locked-out worker says after they let the bus continue onto the main road.

The workers repeat a similar routine several times a day, just as they have done ever since 3 a.m. on Jan. 11, 2018, when the smelter’s management locked them out.

Without these 1,030 workers, the smelter 170 kilometres northeast of Montreal was forced to shut two of its potlines, the rows of electrolytic reduction pots used in the smelting of aluminum. A third has been kept running at reduced capacity by management and salaried employees.

The union, the 60,000-strong Syndicat des Métallos, believes management has also been using scabs, which is illegal in Quebec. The smelter’s majority owner, Pittsburgh-based Alcoa, denies the allegation.

Quebec’s labour tribunal held hearings on the matter last year and is expected to rule in the coming weeks.

Locked-out workers investigate vehicles that enter and exit the plant. They suspect management of using scabs to keep the smelter running. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

On the picket line, workers have developed their own sure-fire method of determining whether those entering the plant are managers or illegal replacements.

“If he’s got soft hands, it means he’s not a scab, because if he’s doing real work inside, he have hard hands,” said Claude Dumas, who operated a machine that pours out liquid aluminum before the lockout.

Digging in for long fight

The labour dispute enters its second year today, with little hope that the two sides will reach an agreement any time soon.

A mediation process broke down just before Christmas, perplexing Quebec’s new labour minister, Jean Boulet.

“It’s more complex than I thought,” Boulet told a local newspaper last month.

At one level, the conflict revolves around the retirement plan and seniority. Alcoa imposed the lockout after the union turned down a contract offer that proposed moving away from a defined-benefit pension plan and sought more flexible hiring practices.

“ABI’s management has always underscored the need to improve productivity and profitability at the smelter,” Alcoa said in a statement to CBC News.

But some observers have suggested something larger is also at stake. The collective agreement at the Alcoa smelter in Baie-Comeau​ is up this year, and they suggest the company might be trying to use the tough stand it’s taken in the Bécancour dispute to set an example.

‘There are small tragedies. Divorces, bankruptcies, people having to give up their homes. It’s sad. It affects everyone,’ said Claude Dumas, 49. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

“The employer’s demands have increased since the beginning of the lockout. There is likely a ruse in some of those demands,” Jean-Claude Bernatchez, a labour relations expert at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, told Radio-Canada recently.

The union, the Quebec branch of the United Steelworkers, is girded for a long fight.

It has amassed a sizeable war chest, drawn in part from donations, loans and the United Steelworkers international strike fund. In exchange for regular eight-hour shifts on the picket line, locked-out workers receive around $600 weekly, tax free.

That’s roughly half their regular pay, however. Some have taken on part-time work to supplement their income; others are just making do with less.

“It creates uncertainty for our families,” said Dumas, 49, who has three children in their early 20s.

“There are small tragedies. Divorces, bankruptcies, people having to give up their homes. It’s sad. It affects everyone.”

Nightmares and bad blood

As the conflict drags on, the mayor of Bécancour, Jean-Guy Dubois, says he worries more and more about a disaster scenario: the smelter’s closure.

Alcoa is the largest employer in this town of 12,000 residents. The smelter’s property taxes account for 17 per cent of Bécancour’s annual revenue. The smelter also supports several local suppliers.

“I don’t want to think about [a closure]…. All would change here,” Dubois says.

For the moment, that possibility seems remote. The smelter is less than 40 years old and is currently the third-largest in Canada, in terms of total capacity.

The union has amassed a sizeable war chest, drawn in part from donations, loans and the United Steelworkers international strike fund. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

But the absence of progress at the negotiating table alarms the Coalition Avenir Québec government.

In opposition, the CAQ had criticized its Liberal predecessor for doing too little to resolve the lockout.

The longer the dispute drags on, the more it is costing Quebec taxpayers: The Métallos claim provincially owned Hydro-Québec is losing more than eight dollars for every second that the plant is operating at reduced capacity. A year into the lockout, that figure is closing in on $220 million.

The CAQ promised during the fall election campaign to bring more high-paying jobs to Quebec’s heartland — the kind of jobs that are at stake in Bécancour.

Earlier this week, Boulet appointed a task force to determine what, if any, common ground could be found between the two sides, hopefully to pave the way for a new round of talks.

“I am extremely preoccupied by the repercussions of this conflict,” he said.

“I live in [nearby] Trois-Rivières, and I meet on a daily basis people who speak to me about the human consequences, the psychological distress and the impact on the economy.”

On the picket line, though, workers say it will take more than a settlement to get over the hard feelings that have been brewing for the past 365 days.

Bécancour Mayor Jean-Guy Dubois says if the smelter were to close because of the dispute, his town would be devastated. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

“When we go back in there, it’s going to take years and years to fix things,” says Dumas.

Behind him, his colleagues huddle around two steel drums that have been hollowed out and turned into a fire pit. A portable radio plays 1990s rock music as they wait for the next car to pull up to the checkpoint.

“We’ll never forget what happened to us,” Dumas says.

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Future of Ottawa: Coffee with Francis Bueckert

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Francis Bueckert: When it comes to the current landscape of coffee-roasting companies and independent cafes in Ottawa, I think we are at a really interesting moment in time. There are more local roasters that are doing artisanal small-batch production—with more attention to the quality and origin of the beans.

With larger corporations such as Starbucks closing locations, it has opened a bit of space for local players to grow. We have been lucky to work with many folks in the coffee-roasting community, and we have found that there is a willingness to collaborate among different coffee roasters. For example, when Cloudforest started back in 2014, we were roasting our coffee at Happy Goat and it was the expertise of their head roaster Hans that helped me learn how to roast. Other companies such as Brown Bag Coffee have also lent a hand when we needed extra roasting capacity. There are others, such as Lulo, Mighty Valley Coffee, Bluebarn, The Artery, and Little Victories that are also part of the growing local coffee community. It’s small roasters like these who have shown me what a coffee community can look like, and that we can help to elevate each other, rather than being locked in competition.

If you care to make a prediction… What’s happening to the local café industry in 2021?

We believe that there is hope and that 2021 can be a big pivot year for small roasters and cafes.

This year will not be ideal from a business point of view. However, it could create a shift in people’s attitude toward where they get their coffee. We are holding out hope that people will support the roasters and cafes that are local to help them economically survive what is in all reality a very difficult time.

It all depends on where consumers decide to go this year. People are starting to recognize that supporting large corporations at this moment will be at the cost of the local roasters and cafes. There is the growing realization that a future where there is only Amazon, Walmart, and Starbucks would be pretty bleak. So we have an opportunity this year to support the kind of local businesses that we want to see thrive.

In your wildest dreams, what will the landscape for local coffee roasters and cafés look like in your lifetime?

In my wildest dreams, all of the coffee roasters and cafés would be locally owned and independent. They would all be focused on direct trade and artisanal coffee. Each different coffee roaster and café would know exactly where their coffee came from. Ideally, each company would be a partnership between the farmers who grow the beans and the people here selling them. There would be a focus on how to cooperate and collaborate with the farmers in the countries of origin to share the benefits around. We would all work together and share orders of cups, lids, and other packaging so that we could get better bulk pricing. In this way, we would make our local coffee community so efficient that the large corporate coffee companies wouldn’t even be able to compete.

We would also like to see people use coffee as a way to create social good. For example, we started Cloudforest as a way of helping support farmers in Ecuador who were taking a stand against large mining companies. This remote community stood up to protect their environment, so that they could have clean drinking water and soil for the next generation. They started an organic coffee cooperative to help show that there are other models of development, and we are doing our part year after year to help support their vision. They have a vision of development that does not include mass deforestation and contamination, and organic coffee is a key (among others) to show that another way forward is possible.

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Special events in the Ottawa Valley dominate annual OVTA tourism awards

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The Ottawa Valley Tourist Association hopes that its annual tourism awards will provide a little sunshine during what is a dark time for local tourism operators because of the pandemic.

The Ottawa Valley Tourism Awards are presented annually by the Ottawa Valley Tourist Association (OVTA) to individuals, businesses, and events that recognize the importance of working together for the growth of the local tourism industry, as well as offering exceptional visitor experiences.

“After a year that saw a lot of businesses in the hospitality and tourism industry being challenged like never before, the annual Ottawa Valley Tourism Awards represent a bit of light on the horizon” said Chris Hinsperger, co-owner of the Bonnechere Caves.

The Ottawa Valley Tourist Association’s (OVTA) Awards Committee co-chairpersons, Meghan James and Chris Hinsperger, said they were very pleased with the recent nominations received, especially in the Special Events category. Submissions were received for The Farm to Fork Dinner Series at the Whitewater Inn; Light up the Valley; The Eganville Curling Clubs’ Rock the Rings; The Ontario Festival of Small Halls ; The Bonnechere Caves On-line Underground Concert Series; The Opeongo Nordic Ski Clubs’ Ski Loppet; The Tour de Bonnechere — Ghost de Tour 2020; and The Bonnechere Caves Rock ‘n Roll Parking Lot Picnic.

“During a time when communities were challenged, it is nice to see that people still made an effort to get together and celebrate, albeit under certain conditions. It just shows the creativity and resiliency of our tourism Community here in the valley” said Meghan James, director of sales at the Pembroke Best Western.

There are three Award categories: The Marilyn Alexander Tourism Champion Award, The Business of Distinction and The Special Event of the Year.

Hinsperger, is excited about this year’s awards.

“During this pandemic the hospitality and tourism industry was the first to be hit, was the hardest hit and will be the last of our industries to fully recover. As Valley entrepreneurs we owe it to ourselves, to our businesses and to our communities to be an active part of that recovery. Our livelihood and economic recovery depends on our efforts. And we will get back to welcoming people from all over the world to share a little bit of the place we are privileged to call home. This awards process leaves myself and others fully optimistic about our positive outcomes.”

Award winners will be announced at the Ottawa Valley Tourist Association’s virtual annual general meeting on Monday, May 31.

The OVTA is the destination marketing organization for the Upper Ottawa Valley and proudly represents more than 200 tourism businesses, comprised of attractions and outfitters, accommodation, food, beverage and retail establishments, artists and galleries, municipalities, as well as media and industry suppliers. The OVTA is supported by the County of Renfrew, Renfrew County municipalities and the City of Pembroke.

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Future of Ottawa: Farming with Jeremy Colbeck

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Jeremy Colbeck: Well first, let’s talk about what we mean by farming. Although farms, and farming as an occupation, are in decline across Canada, they are still a major part of our rural landscape. That’s even more true for a strange city like Ottawa which includes a LOT of rural areas and whose urban boundary takes, what, three hours to cross? About 40 per cent of the rural land in Ottawa is farmland. Most of that farming is corn and soybean cash-crop, as well as some dairy and livestock farming. That’s mostly conventional farming (the kind that is profitable but not exactly where you take your kids on a Saturday).

There are also a lot of agri-tourism businesses in Ottawa, which give you that oh-so-good Saturday spot for family donkey-petting and apple-picking. And it’s totally understandable from a business perspective, but sometimes surprising to find out, that even though they grow some of the Christmas trees they sell, they might also be reselling some that come from much larger farms far away. The farmland around Ottawa is also inflated in price because of its proximity to the city, where it is in demand by would-be hobby farmers—folks who want to do some farming on their property in their spare time but make their money (to subsidize their small-scale farming habit) elsewhere. Unfortunately, many of these properties will have large mansions built on them, which will then make them completely unaffordable for the average farmer

There’s also a segment of small-to-medium-sized Ottawa farms that grow “premium” (artisanal, unique, extra-fresh, ecologically- or organically-grown etc…) products that they sell directly to local eaters via farmers’ markets or other direct marketing channels, including on-farm stores and farm stands. That’s where BeetBox fits in.

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