Forestry stakeholders band together to lobby government

A number of stakeholders in the forest industry have united their voices to bring their message of crisis to the provincial government.
The Ontario Forest Industries Association, the Ontario Lumber Manufacturers’ Association, and the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association are working together to convince the McGuinty government to invest in the forest industry.
“We are joining in our efforts to lobby the provincial government to get them to recognize that the crises that we are in right now needs immediate action,” said Jamie Lim, president and CEO of the OFIA.
“Not next year, not next month. It needs immediate action,” Lim stressed.
The Northwestern Ontario Associated Chambers of Commerce, the Northwestern Ontario Development Network, as well as various labour unions and municipal leaders also are lending their voices to the cause.
“We have joined forces . . . to develop a strategy for bringing this issue very close to home,” said NOMA president Michael Power.
“It just speaks to the level of crisis that we’re in when you see the partners and the collaboration that’s been going on among key stakeholders,” Lim noted.
Both NOMA and the industry reps have asked for a meeting with Premier Dalton McGuinty to explain to him the importance of the forest industry in Ontario, but have had no word from the premier’s office yet.
The recent partnership comes in the wake of a report on the forest industry released by Natural Resources minister David Ramsay last month in Thunder Bay.
The Council on Forest Sector Competitiveness, made up of 17 municipal, union, First Nation, and forest industry reps, made a total of 26 recommendations in the report commissioned by the minister.
At the release of the report, Ramsay announced $350 million in loan guarantees “to stimulate new investment in value-added manufacturing, improve energy efficiency, and make better use of wood fibre.”
Ontario NDP leader and local MPP Howard Hampton called the government’s response “insulting.”
“Forest industry companies are drowning in debt. They want less debt, not more debt,” he argued.
Ramsay also promised the ministry would review the report further and “respond with an action plan in the very near future.”
“It is clear that some of the council’s proposals will require further study or the involvement of other parties,” he said.
“Within the Government of Ontario, there’s really only one person who understands the forest industry. That happens to be the minister of Natural Resources, David Ramsay,” Power said.
“We don’t think Minister Ramsay has support in government and we’re trying to build that support for him,” Power added. “He needs his cabinet colleagues to agree that investment in the forest industry [is] a good investment.
“The forest industry is the second-largest industry in the province of Ontario,” Power noted.
The largest industry in the province is the automotive industry, which received an investment strategy from the province, along with the film and agricultural industries.
“And yet there seems to be a view the forest industry doesn’t matter in the economy, that if all the forestry disappeared tomorrow, it wouldn’t make any impact in the province of Ontario,” Power said.
“So our responsibility is to make them aware that yes, it will have an impact, and what that impact will be.”
To that end, NOMA began a letter campaign to municipalities in southern Ontario to make them aware of the crisis in the forest industry—and how it could affect their communities.
“We’ve been able to identify 200 communities in southern Ontario that would be dramatically affected by any dislocation of the forest industry in the north,” Power noted.
“We were able to identify, for example, impacts in places like Mississauga, the city of Toronto, Oakville, Burlington, and a host of other communities,” he said.
“We then contacted the mayors of those cities and towns in southwestern Ontario to let them know how important the forest industry is to their economy as well, and what it can do to them.
“I can tell you the mayors in southern Ontario have been a little stunned by it. They had no idea that forestry touched them,” Power added. “The impact in all of Ontario is rather dramatic.”
For example, many value-added companies are located in southern Ontario. As well, mills in the north buy products and equipment from the south.
“The more people—like southern mayors and MPPs from southern Ontario—who are aware of it and bring it to the attention to the premier and members of cabinet, the more likely we can get a hearing,” Power said.
Part of the problem is the perception that the forest industry is outmoded and dying.
“It is not a dying industry. It is a very viable, living industry. It is changing with the times,” Power stressed.
“There is so much opportunity and room for growth that still exists,” Lim agreed.
From 1990-2000, the forest industry more than doubled its sales from $9 billion to $19 billion, and went from 64,000 workers to 88,000.
“It’s critical for the province to recognize that an investment in the industry is an investment in the province,” Lim added.
In order to help get that message across, the stakeholders have hired the international lobby group Hill & Knowlton “to develop a very comprehensive strategy on how we’re going to lobby government in the short-term, medium-, and long-term, in terms of the forest industry,” Power remarked.
The forest council’s report identified five mills considered at a high risk of closing, with another seven identified as at-risk.
Meanwhile, Grant Forest Products, based in Englehart, Ont., recently announced a $400 million (U.S.) investment in South Carolina.
“That investment could have been made in Ontario, but all of the companies are making it very plain that over the last three to five years, the climate in Ontario has changed dramatically,” Power noted.
“The companies are not profitable here. You invest where you are welcome and where you can make a profit,” he argued.
“Back in the 1990s, the business climate in Ontario was significantly different than it is now,” Lim said. “Right now, the industry finds itself operating in a high-cost jurisdiction—one of the highest cost jurisdictions in the world.”
The stakeholders will continue to lobby the government for support—against the odds.
“We have so few representatives in government from Northern Ontario. It doesn’t matter what party they’re in,” Power said, noting there are 10 MPPs from the north and 95 from the rest of the province.
Nevertheless, the message is relevant to all Ontarians.
“It’s not just a northern issue. It’s an Ontario issue,” Power stressed.