About a seven-hour drive north of Montreal sits Chibougamau, Quebec, nestled in the heart of the eastern Canadian Shield and its lush boreal forests. The town’s 7,600 residents have always relied on the rich natural resources to drive the economy, with forestry’s significance reflected in the town’s coat of arms that displays a trio of spruce trees.
Here, for over half a century, a family-run forest management company has been a community cornerstone, employing more than 1,000 workers in the province and blossoming into one of North America’s top manufacturers of I-joists, glued-laminated and cross-laminated timber. That company is Chantiers Chibougamau, also known as Nordic Structures, and it continues to grow and thrive in Quebec. In fact, this fall it will open a newly revitalized mill that will add 300 jobs to the community and yield 300,000 tons of kraft pulp each year.
Its reputation, however, is not rooted only in refining high-quality forest products. Most importantly to forest preservation, it is about ensuring the region’s small black spruce trees are cultivated sustainably.
To that end, Chantiers Chibougamau was Canada’s first forest management company to embrace the new Forest Stewardship Council standard – developed one year ago to meet the urgent needs of Canadian forests.
The new FSC standard sets the most comprehensive mark for responsible Canadian forest management. It unifies all regional sustainability efforts and is now updated to reflect such pressing issues as the woodland caribou crisis, the rights of Indigenous Peoples, workers’ rights (including gender equity), conservation, and landscape management.
In a testament to its sustainability mission, Chantiers Chibougamau has transitioned 2.4 million hectares of land to the new standard, a major milestone in FSC’s goal to certify 100 million hectares by 2025.
Such a transition comes naturally, as the company’s core values align with FSC’s mission to promote environmentally sound, socially beneficial and economically prosperous forest management. While there was some industry buzz around the new certification being challenging to achieve, Chantiers Chibougamau saw an opportunity to learn, grow and push themselves to future-proof their operations, and the woods on which they rely.
The company first sought FSC certification in 2007, recognizing that it was important to have external credibility to validate its raison d’être and best-in-class status. Two years later, it had fully integrated the standard into its forestry practices.
“The FSC standard provides us with important guideposts and best practices that reinforce who we are and where we want to go as a company,” says Fréderic Verreault, executive director, corporate development. “If it were too easy to achieve the standard’s requirements, then it simply wouldn’t have the meaning that it does.”
Chantiers Chibougamau finds that many of its clients request its specialty materials be FSC-certified. This has evolved over the last decade from a nice-to-have to an important requirement.
“FSC provides a measure of how trustworthy we may be for anyone who may not know us. Within one minute of meeting prospective customers we share that we are FSC certified and can demonstrate our highly attractive carbon footprint,” says Verreault. “This has been crucial to our success in meeting the needs of today’s marketplace.”
Above all, Chantiers Chibougamau knew it had a responsibility to its community to keep the forests healthy, and to work conscientiously with Indigenous Peoples in the region. Achieving success and holding itself to FSC standards of responsibility would happen in unison.
“We take pride in forging strong relationships with the local Cree nation,” Verreault says. “From elders to trappers and Cree entrepreneurs, we collaborate to achieve a balance between our industry and their traditional ways of life.”
He says the most challenging aspect of the new standard was in protecting woodland caribou. “The science and data are always evolving, and it was important to equally balance the needs of Indigenous Peoples, environmental groups, and our own production goals,” says Verreault. “To help us chart course here, FSC provided us with a caribou orientation, which was very enlightening.”
It’s fitting that Chibougamau means “gathering place” in Cree, as this prosperous town in Quebec continues to be an important meeting place between wilderness, urbanity, and all the residents who rely upon it. It’s fitting too that Chantiers Chibougamau named itself for the community where it operates, as a deep respect for local ecosystems is ingrained into the company’s DNA.
Indeed, this family run business has set an example for how companies can be stewards of the land and partners to Indigenous Peoples all while innovating, growing and remaining an entrepreneurial torch for the region.
In 2019, for instance, Chantiers Chibougamau secured government funding to design two modular mass timber classrooms at a local school – which its workers then built in just two months. This marked the first time in Quebec that a modular class was constructed from massive wood, a new innovation in the fight against climate change as wood is a material with a relatively low carbon footprint. Yet, by storing carbon, mass timber also reduces greenhouse gas emissions – and thus far, the two classrooms have captured about 80 tonnes of emissions, equivalent to the output of 20 cars over an entire year. This local project was so well-received that Chantiers Chibougamau is now being asked to deliver dozens more such projects in the next few months.
This is the story of a forest management company that exists in a small town, whose success is rooted in the fact that it prioritizes doing right by its residents, its workers, and the canopy that surrounds it. Like FSC, it ensures that forests meet the social, ecological and economic needs of present and future generations – keeping forests for all, forever.