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Workers say goodbye to Vale smelter and refinery in 'bittersweet' closing ceremony

'A big hit emotionally for everybody working there,' says union president
Vale Manitoba Operations employees, their families and other local representatives gathered together
Vale Manitoba Operations employees, their families and other local representatives gathered together for a photo during the June 9 closing ceremony for the smelter and refinery in Thompson.

Vale Manitoba Operations hosted a closing ceremony for its smelter and refinery June 9 with workers and others paying tribute to facilities that are almost as old as Thompson itself.

This event took place at the main plant site, and featured a barbecue, children’s activities, speeches from local dignitaries and a tour of the facilities themselves.

While regular production won’t be permanently shut down until July 31, Vale Manitoba Operations manager of corporate affairs Ryan Land thought it was important to put this event together while everything is still up and running, since it gave their family members the chance to get a closer look at the facilities that produced “the world’s best nickel for about 57 years.”

“Of course, it’s a bittersweet occasion,” said Land. “On the one hand we want to acknowledge [our employees’] efforts. On the other hand, we didn’t want to position it as a celebration because it’s obviously a challenging time for our employees and for the community as well.”

Some of the most heartfelt speeches came from the employees themselves.

According to United Steelworkers Local 6166 president Warren Luky, some of these speakers were even reduced to tears after recalling the years they dedicated to the local mining community.

“Many of us would have never believed that the work we were doing to create the finest nickel in the world through the smelter and refinery would come to an end,” Luky said during Saturday’s event. “The real work that took ore and made a highly sought-after nickel product is a magic that we all need to be proud of.”

Luky knows about this process all too well, having worked as a refractory mason in the smelter between 1995 and 2010. While the union leader didn’t shy away from describing the rough conditions that were part of his day-to-day routine in that job, he said it was all worth it thanks to the overriding sense of camaraderie he received from his fellow workers.

“The work was not only tough, but complicated, requiring highly specialized skills,” said Luky. “Despite the hazards that workers faced, and the challenges that they overcame, the years of operations were truly an amazing part of the Thompson mining experience.”

The closing of the smelter and refinery will result in more Vale workers losing their jobs, a process that began when the Birchtree Mine transitioned to care and maintenance status last fall.

With the smelter and refinery about to be shut down for good, and a few more rounds of layoffs on the way after that, Vale’s numbers will be whittled down to around 800−900 employees by the end of 2018.

This stands in stark contrast to the 1,300 workers the mining giant had on its payroll in Thompson at the tail end of 2017.

Even though Luky remains dedicated to helping these affected workers in any way he can, the union president said it is important to recognize that the closing of these two facilities represents a massive shift in how mining operations are conducted locally.

“It’s a big hit for the workplace and the transition process is very hard,” he said. “A lot of people are losing their way of life, so it’s a big hit emotionally for everybody working there and a big loss for the community at large.”

However, Land remains more optimistic about the future, pointing to Vale’s ongoing projects like the concentrate load-out facility that they are adding to the existing mill building.

“Even though this is obviously a challenging time, there remains a long-term mining and milling future and a great deal of potential in mining for the community.”

The demolition of the smelter and refinery is tentatively scheduled to begin sometime in 2023.

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