EDMUNDSTON, New Brunswick — Dan Beaulieu needed to get to the Edmundston hospital in a hurry Thursday morning to see his father, who had just received a heart pacemaker.
But the Fort Kent business owner and scores of other drivers trying to enter or leave Canada found their way cut off by 150 retired mill workers blockading the international bridge in an effort to bring attention to double-digit cuts to their pensions.
“This is a federal [border] crossing,” a visibly frustrated Beaulieu said from his idling car. “How can they block traffic?”
Beaulieu pleaded his case unsuccessfully with the demonstrators, who did allow a woman to drive through their blockade to pick up her children at day care.
“My father is retired from the mill and he took the same cuts to his pension,” Beaulieu said. “It’s unfortunate but the rest of the country is going to hell and the companies can’t give what they don’t have and [the demonstrators] should understand that.”
The protesters were all retirees of the former Edmundston mill of Fraser Papers Inc. Fraser Papers was sold to Twin Rivers Paper Co., which currently operates the Edmundston paper mill and the one directly across the St. John River in Madawaska.
Fraser Papers, which began restructuring when it filed for creditor protection in June 2009, originally had planned to reduce pension payments by 31 percent to deal with an underfunded plan, but New Brunswick’s superintendent of pensions mandated another 4.4 percent cut.
The Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union said earlier this year that the major creditor and shareholder of Fraser Papers, Brookfield Asset Management Inc., sought “to be relieved” under the restructuring plan of any liability for negligence or wrongdoing related to “brutal cuts” in pension plans faced by its members.
Some 2,000 unionized Canadian pensioners have seen their retirement investments slashed as a result. About 1,600 of those unionized retirees and future retirees are living in New Brunswick.
“We want people in the government to take a big look at our pension deficit,” Conrad Pelletier, a retired mill worker and organizer of the demonstration, said Thursday. “If we close the [international bridge] and cause a big brouhaha, it will get their attention.”
They definitely got Beaulieu’s attention who, after waiting more than 30 minutes, slowly drove his car through the protesters and into Canada, despite more than a dozen of the retirees attempting to block his progress with their bodies.
Pelletier was not happy with Beaulieu’s actions.
“We are fighting for Canadian laws,” Pelletier said. “Americans got a good deal on their pensions with government protection and we want our government to help us.”
Unlike their U.S. counterparts, the Canadian retirees’ pensions are not protected by any federal guarantees or insurances.
According to several retirees at the demonstration, the 35 percent cuts have translated into losses of up to $1,000 in their monthly pension income.
Retiree Daniel Boucher, 60, said the cuts have meant he has to pick up odd jobs whenever he can.
“There are no words to explain what that meant,” Boucher said of his reaction to learning of the cuts over a year ago. “I have to work part-time now, I have no choice.”
Pelletier, who logged close to 40 years with Fraser, said the cuts are compounded by increased expenses faced by retirees including fuel, food, taxes and household repairs.
“We still have to live,” he said. “Some have had to sell their cars.”
Many of the retirees hope Monday’s federal election in Canada will bring positive changes.
“We are the only country that does not insure pension plans,” Clarence Plourde, said. “We have no protection and our own government does not care — they just want us to go away.”
Retirees Mona Fortin and Evelyne Cote-Cyr also joined in the protest near the international bridge Thursday.
“I worked for Fraser for 40 years [and] it was my life,” Fortin said. “It was the life of my friends and the life of my family [and] we never expected these cuts. We paid into the pension every week but now the company stopped paying.”
The issue, several of the demonstrators said, should not be viewed as exclusive to the mill workers.
“If it can happen to our pensions, it could happen to anybody,” one demonstrator said.
Though a few angry words were exchanged between some motorists and the retirees, the demonstration was largely peaceful.
One demonstrator was detained for a time in the back of an Edmundston police cruiser after he attempted to physically block a moving car, but he was later released and there were no arrests.
The demonstration was broken up just before noon when Edmundston Deputy Police Chief Percy Picard was joined by a dozen other officers to escort the demonstrators away from the bridge.
“They were very cooperative when I told them they had to leave,” Picard said.