THUNDER BAY - Municipal leaders and forestry sector representatives say there is an abundance of harvestable wood in Northern Ontario forests, but they are worried changes to policies will make that wood inaccessible and threaten jobs throughout the region.
The Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs held a pre-budget consultation meeting in Thunder Bay on Monday. The meeting is one of several taking place throughout the week in cities across Ontario to gather input from businesses, community organizations, industry, and individuals on what should be included in the 2018 Ontario budget.
During the morning session of the consultation in Thunder Bay, forestry took centre stage. Jamie Lim, president of the Ontario Forest Industries Association, said she hopes the committee understands that forests are a renewable resource and with the right policies, the sector can grow and create even more jobs in the region.
“We find there is a lot of proposed policy coming forward that doesn’t have meaningful input from practitioners, professional foresters, stakeholders like mayors, or rights holders,” Lim said after her presentation. “So we’ve said to government for the last eight months, those are the people, the ones who have skin in the game, who need to be at the table with government bureaucrats creating workable policy that will provide certainty, keep mills open, and keep people working.”
One of the biggest issues affecting the forestry sector, according to Lim, is the uncertainly that will happen after July 1st, 2018, when the five year policy allowing the forest industry to operate under the Crown Forest Sustainability Act as opposed to the Endangered Species Act will expire.
“What is going to happen on July 1st?” Lim said. “That is the million dollar question.”
Lim said industry leaders are asking the government to fulfill its commitment to the sector and mayors it made in 2007 that would allow the forestry sector to work under the Crown Forest Sustainability Act.
Atikokan mayor, Dennis Brown, added that there is a lot of uncertainty in small communities throughout the north when it comes to the future of the sector and the availability of wood to feed mills if companies no longer operate under the Crown Forest Sustainability Act.
“It’s working out well and the forest companies would like to leave it that way,” he said. “The concern is that in July 1, 2018, it could end. That’s where the concern is. We don’t know what will happen then. We are asking the government to extend that for another five years or leave it on permanent, because it has been working well since 2007, so why should we change it now?”
“I am hoping that in the forestry sector that the province of Ontario pay special attention because we can’t afford to have any more land set aside for the caribou,” Brown continued.
For Brown, it comes down to the issue of jobs, which can mean the difference between a community like Atikokan surviving or disappearing.
“They have to be able to keep being able to get that wood if we are going to have our three mills in Ignace, Atikokan, and Thunder Bay continue to survive,” he said. “If they cut back on the amount of wood they are able to take away from the boreal forest that means less jobs.”
Victor Fedeli, MPP from Nipissing and member of the Ontario PCs, said he has been hearing over and over again about how not enough is being done to assist the forestry sector.
“In fact, the opposite is happening,” he said. “What is happening from the government is they are hindering the forestry sector. They [forestry sector] are basically saying: get out of the way and let us do our jobs so we can put people back to work.”
New Democratic Party finance critic, John Vanthof, agrees and believes the sector should be left under the Crown Forest Sustainability Act because it is essentially accomplishing the same goals as the Endangered Species Act, but is not hurting forestry jobs.
“What would be the best is for a long-term fix is to have the forest industry under the Crown Forest Sustainability Act alone, which its purpose is to protect species, protect industry, and protect the environment and the economy,” he said.
Yvan Baker, MPP for Etobicoke Centre, said the Ontario government is aware of the issues facing the forestry sector, but he also praised the successes it has been having.
“This is something our government is working closely with them on to find a solution working with the forestry sector while also making sure we are protecting the communities and the environment around those forests,” he said.