When McLeod Lake First Nation opened a new sawmill in Mackenzie, it was a decision grounded in the band’s longstanding philosophy: provide good value, work hard and achieve results.
McLeod Lake’s Duz Cho Forest Products Sawmill uses logs other manufacturers don’t want. Small-diameter logs – primarily logs attacked by the mountain pine beetle – are milled into cants (logs squared on the sides) and exported mainly to China and the Middle East. Sawdust and other wood residue are sold to a pulp mill in Mackenzie.
“We’re using an under-utilized resource, selling and marketing something that was not being pursued by Canadian manufacturers,” said Bob Inkpen, McLeod Lake’s economic advisor. “We are not competing with sawmills in Mackenzie, we are helping them by taking wood they can’t use.”
“We use waste wood that nobody wants, that would be left in the bush or burned,” said Lucy Martin, McLeod Lake’s economic development manager.
The sawmill is the next step in McLeod Lake's ability to capitalize on opportunity, and deliver economic benefits to its members and the broader northeast community. McLeod Lake assembled the mill using new and used equipment, and employs cutting-edge milling technology that minimizes waste.
The mill line is outdoors, under the building overhang to address dust control and combustible dust issues, providing an added element of safety for its 25 employees. It can process approximately 240,000 cubic metres of timber annually. Much of the lumber it exports is used in cement forms, and is much stronger than competing other species of pine coming out of South America, Inkpen says.
“Most companies take a while before they’re profitable. We’ll be achieving commercial profitability soon, we hope,” Inkpen said, referencing potential volatility in the forestry sector due to the softwood lumber dispute with the United States.
Duz Cho sawmill is the latest venture for McLeod Lake, a Treaty 8 First Nation, making its mark as an economic force in northeast B.C. The band also owns Duz Cho Construction and Duz Cho Logging. (Duz Cho means “big tree” in Sekani). The band has funded the construction of its sawmill internally.
These ventures are the result of an initiative started four decades ago by McLeod Lake’s leadership to create sustainable economic activity, jobs for its members and support for its services, culture and heritage. In that era, Inkpen said, logging trucks used to fly by the McLeod Lake community, and its members struggled to find employment.
Around 1986, and after much hard work, Duz Cho Logging received a modest contract to harvest 60,000 cubic metres of timber per year. Now it harvests 800,000 cubic metres each year and is a critical supplier of fibre to sawmills in Mackenzie. Duz Cho Logging also employees about 80 people, plus contractors.
“We are a significant generator of employment in Mackenzie,” Inkpen said. “But certainly without the mills, there would be no business. It’s all connected.”
McLeod Lake was able to use income from logging to fund its ultimately successful effort to be recognized as a Treaty 8 First Nation. The McLeod Lake Treaty 8 Adhesion and Settlement Agreement was brought into effect in 2000.
Duz Cho Construction was launched in 2002 to work in the oil, gas and resource sectors, and was seen as a natural progression from logging. The company has worked on Dokie Wind Ridge and Quality wind turbine projects; and Mt. Milligan and other mine projects. Both Duz Cho Construction and Logging are bonded companies, which allows them to be lead contractors as well as bid on government civil earthworks projects. Achieving bonded status is no small task and it took years for the companies to build their reputations as high quality and dependable.
“Bonding is based on trust by the insurance company of the capability of their clients,” Inkpen said. “It goes back to our original economic development policy. Our leaders wanted McLeod Lake to be known to do competent work. McLeod Lake pays its bills on time and we have a very good reputation in the business community."
Roughly 140 kilometres north of Prince George at the entrance to Carp Lake Provincial Park, McLeod Lake has also developed, constructed and opened Tse’khene Food and Fuel, the Ah'da Hotel, café and the Ah'da community centre, which will house McLeod Lake government departments. McLeod Lake has recently built a new fire hall at the site and is waiting for arrival of its fire truck.
The core goal of the companies and economic development is to meet the social, health and educational needs of McLeod Lake First Nation’s 545 members, of which 100 live in the McLeod Lake community. The companies provide revenues back to the McLeod Lake government, and career and training opportunities for members.
“As some of the members lack skills or suffer from social problems, work training has been established to provide skills and promote good work attitudes. It is the belief of chief and council that employment ... is important to the social fabric of the community,” Lucy Martin testified to a Senate committee more than a decade ago, and it rings true today.
“McLeod Lake has had economic development for a long time, with the same philosophy and policy. And that consistency is why we’ve been so successful,” Martin said. “There is a lot to be proud of.”
For more information about the McLeod Lake First Nation: www.mlib.ca/