FORT FRANCES, ON — Fort Frances town council won't back down from discussing a resolution criticizing Resolute Forest Products and its handling of the sale and possible demolition of its idled paper mill.
Community leaders are supporting the efforts of another party that has said it would reopen the mill with a new product line.
After Resolute threatened to sue over what it alleges are false and defamatory statements in a council resolution that was to be debated Monday, council decided to defer the matter.
On Wednesday, however, the town announced the resolution will be re-tabled for discussion at a special council meeting on Tuesday, February 19.
It is also inviting deputations from community, labour and Indigenous stakeholders.
"The proposed resolution...reflects our duty to stand up for our citizens. This is the job of Council. Resolute's legal threat is a class SLAPP tactic (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) intended to intimidate our community into silence about Resolute's private transaction that could drastically affect the wellbeing of our community," the announcement said.
Last week, Resolute informed the town that it had signed a tentative agreement to sell the mill property to a company that would demolish the mill, but was also running a parallel process inviting bids from other parties by March 15.
So far, the only other publicly-identified prospective buyer is Repap Resources, a private investment group. Resolute, however, won't deal with Repap until it signs what Resolute has termed a "standard" Non-Disclosure Agreement.
That's a key issue for town officials who have seen a copy of the NDA, and say it requires interested parties to "refrain from communicating with government officials."
The town maintains that Resolute's bidding process creates a big obstacle for buyers hoping to reopen the mill, because they are barred from talking to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry about a wood supply.
The Sustainable Forest Licence issued to Resolute by the MNRF for the Crossroute Forest states: "The forest resources harvested pursuant to this licence are to provide a supply of forest resources to the existing forest resource processing facility of the Company located at Fort Frances".
The mill was closed in 2014, but the Crossroute Forest currently feeds Resolute mills in Atikokan, Ignace and Thunder Bay.
In an interview with Tbnewswatch, Resolute Vice-President Seth Kursman declined to comment on the provisions of the SFL. "It's not appropriate for me to start getting into that kind of detail on licences and which forest would possibly support a re-start of Fort Frances," he said.
However, he reiterated his previous comment that Resolute and the rest of the forest industry in northwestern Ontario depend on cost-effective access to fibre, and that any diversion of fibre from existing operations would jeopardize their viability.
Despite a letter from Resolute's lawyers warning that the council resolution "constitutes actionable defamation," the wording of the resolution to be discussed next week is unchanged from what was deferred on Monday.
The town's statement notes "We remain of the view that the proposed resolution is well within the acceptable bounds of municipal government expression."
If it is passed, the resolution will be submitted to regional and provincial elected representatives.
Kursman said Resolute feels it was important that it go "on the record disagreeing with the general content and spirit of the resolution."
Not only does it contain false and misleading statements, he said, but it is "inappropriate for the town to be essentially negotiating a contract, in public, for one buyer versus another without all the facts."