FORT FRANCES, Ont. — A spokesperson for Unifor forestry members is calling on Resolute Forest Products to cancel the restrictions it's imposed on the use of the company's Fort Frances pulp and paper mill.
Unifor national representative Stephen Boon said "the games can end tomorrow" if Resolute removes the covenants attached to the recent transfer of the mill property to Riversedge Developments.
"All it would take is for Resolute to say 'we'll lift the restrictions, we'll allow a purchaser to come in and work a deal with Riversedge to operate that mill.' That's what we're hoping for, and Resolute could do that tomorrow," Boon said in an interview with Tbnewswatch.
One of the covenants prevents a purchaser from talking to the province about accessing the Crossroute Forest for wood supply.
Resolute has stated repeatedly it needs access to "cost-competitive" fibre for its other northwestern Ontario mills, but Boon insists there is more than enough wood across the region to feed Resolute operations and all other mills.
"Over the last 15 years we've had, minimum, permanent closures of 15 operations including some large-sized operations, so there's plenty of wood out there. To say that if Fort Frances were somehow to run, it would be a threat, I think that's a fallacy," he said.
Boon noted that in the legislature this spring, Natural Resources Minister John Yakabuski said Ontario wood consumption has dropped over 30 per cent in recent years.
Resolute has cautioned that any diversion of fibre from its existing sources will have a domino effect on its operations.
The Crossroute Forest supplies the company's operations in Thunder Bay, Atikokan and Ignace, but Boon said "it shouldn't be community against community because, with the amount of closures, there should be more than enough wood out there to run Fort Frances and not affect other operations."
He added that Unifor members working for Resolute in Thunder Bay understand that "the whole point of a crown forest act" is that each community is supposed to reap the benefits of having a forest that's sustainable and creates jobs.
Boon maintains the province has the tools to persuade the company to facilitate the reopening of the Fort Frances mill.
"Minister Rickford [Minister of Northern Development] has the ability. They carry all the weight. They run the licensing, they run forest allocations, they run road-building funding, they run a lot of stuff to encourage Resolute to do the right thing and lift those restrictions."
Boon said the government "can make life very uncomfortable" for the company if it chooses to.
He also wants to know the contents of a confidential 2017 agreement between MNRF and Resolute which led to the government waiving repayment of a $23 million grant which helped pay for an electricity-producing turbine at Fort Frances.
The government had served notice In 2014 that the money was to be returned if the mill stayed closed, but also offered to consider "an alternative remedy acceptable to the MNRF."
The negotiated resolution of the issue remains secret, with MNRF maintaining it can't be released because it includes financial and commercial information which Resolute provided in confidence.
"It's absolutely crucial" to know what commitments were made in the agreement, Boon said.
"Someone sat at the table and forgave a $20 million-plus loan. You don't forgive that for nothing...What was the expectation of Resolute?"
Boon said "We're sitting here, two years later, and Resolute is saying 'we have no intention of ever having that mill operate.' Is that the message portrayed when the loan was forgiven?"
The Unifor spokesperson also pointed a finger at Riversedge, calling its announced plan to establish a cannabis production facility on the mill property "half-baked."
"Re-purposing the economic engine" of Fort Frances that way should be a last resort rather than anyone's preferred option, Boon said.