In the article Steven Hill describes a binder put together by two worker-historians from a Sturgeon Falls corrugated paper mill that was closed in December 2002.
At the time of the mill’s closing, High was teaching history at Nipissing University in North Bay. At a time when efforts to reopen the paper mill were underway, he began to interview workers for a research project about the closure.
A local resident who helped with the research project in the early days told High about a mill history binder – “the largest binder he had ever seen. He also told me that everyone he approached to be interviewed told him to first talk to Bruce [Colquhoun], one of its compilers (p. 235).” High subsequently met Calquhoun at the Action Centre, a job assistance centre operated by the paper workers union for the former mill workers.
“Bruce Colquhoun and the others treated the mill history binder as a sacred text or shrine to the mill: their voices lowered to a whisper and Bruce turned the pages with loving care. I instinctively did the same, as it was immediately apparent to me that this binder meant a great deal to these men.”
In a note, the writer adds: “It mattered to me too. I never came across anything quite like it in 15 years of research into mill and factory closings.”
“It was like a giant memory book, with clippings of old news stories, photographs, and photocopied material on the mill found in the old Abitibi Magazine,” notes High.
“Over the next two hours, Bruce told me stories as he slowly turned the pages. A soft-spoken man, Bruce noted that the mill factory binder was treasured by the mill workers and their families.
“He related how he would sometimes get requests to borrow the binder to show a visiting family member or a grandchild. Sometimes former mill workers just wanted to revisit their old lives inside the mill.”
High notes that the binder can be read as “a deep expression of place attachment.” He notes that professional historians sometimes look down on ‘amateur’ historians, because they usually do not have graduate degrees in history and are said to produce “flawed research that is sentimental, celebratory, excessively detailed, or lacking in analysis.”
Steve High notes (p. 235) that that the binder could indeed be criticized on any of thee accounts – yet to do so “would be to ignore what it is: a storehouse of memories from and for a workplace community that was shattered by a decision taken far-away. How displaced workers related to this memory book in the months and years following the closure tell us a great deal about the hold that the mill had on them.”
The binder was first put together by Hubert Gervais in 1995, updated in 1998 for the mill’s centennial, and subsequently revised by Bruce Colquhoun, whose father and grandfather had worked at the mill before him. “I worked [there] for 29 years,” in Colquhoun’s words. “My dad worked there for 41 years. My grandfather worked there.”
As the article notes, a web of kinship ties connected many of the mill employees together, and family memories of the mill often went back generations.