By Sam Odrowski
Concerned citizens packed Council Chambers on Tuesday evening to listen to stakeholders and voice their concerns around the potential sale of Resolute Forest Product’s idle mill here.
The district’s stakeholders and community members took to the podium to express their concerns at the special meeting before council deferred a resolution to wait until more information regarding its sale is revealed.
“We must keep in mind that council has not discussed this resolution as a whole, [but] we do know that our concerns about the proper designation of the mill are being heard,” said Mayor June Caul.
“Resolute and Repap [Resources] have come to the table to discuss a business proposal but we have little knowledge of any development there.”
“Until we have time to learn more from the appropriate government ministries and the status of the Repap proposal to Resolute I think the resolution read tonight should be tabled once again,” she added before voting on the motion.
Coun. Douglas Judson who authored the tabled resolution said that all in attendance are joined together in an act of solidarity and strength, to assert the town’s rightful place in the sale of the mill process.
“We do so tonight mindful of our history as a treaty people,” he remarked.
“We are bound by a sacred promise to live alongside one another and the Anishinaabe of this region with a commitment to sharing its resources for our mutual benefit as a community.”
“The situation we are faced with tonight is deeply at odds with that history, our duty as stewards of this forest and our entitlement to benefit from its economic potential,” he added.
Couchiching FN Chief Brian Perrault said his community has always believed that the territory of Grand Council Treaty #3 should benefit the people living there, which includes all who live within the district.
“I just want to say that we got some ideas ourselves about supporting the reopening of that mill and having those jobs here,” he remarked.
“In Treaty #3 we have our ‘Manito Aki Inakonigaawin’ resource law for our territory and things have changed over the years.
“I spoke to the Grand Chief just this morning and we’re willing to join in and try to pressure the government of Ontario to keep the resources and the wood fiber, benefiting our territory,” Perrault added.
“That mill is part of our territory and those jobs are for all our people, and our neighbours.
“Going forward it might be a struggle, but the days of the other governments not listening to us—those days are over—long over and there are things that we can do as a Treaty #3 Nation to help this situation,” he stressed.
Rainy River Chief Robin McGinnis concurred with what Perrault said and the town has his full support in getting the mill reopened.
“We, just like you guys have young people that need work,” he explained. “We see places closing in this town all the time and . . . we need to get this mill back,”
McGinnis stressed that he is willing to help in any way it can, especially through utilizing “Manito Aki Inakonigaawin” which states the extraction of resources from the Treaty #3 lands must benefit those who live there.
“Whether it’s through Grand Council Treaty #3, the area First Nations, or any political pressure … according to our resource law—you have our full support and I just want to get this mill up and running again,” McGinnis added.
Rainy River mayor and president of the Rainy River District Municipal Association Deb Ewald shared her thoughts at the meeting and stressed that whatever happens in one of the district’s municipalities is important to everybody.
“Fort Frances right now has a 100-year-old asset that someone’s interested in buying to create more jobs which in turn trickle down to the other town’s in this district as well,” she noted.
Ewald finished her remarks by saying Rainy River will do whatever they can do to help Fort Frances in facilitating a sale of the mill.
Emo’s deputy reeve, Harrold Boven, echoed her statements.
“I acknowledged that it may not be easy but I do encourage you to keep the fight going and if there’s any way Emo can support you, we’d be more than willing to cheer you on,” he enthused.
Sunset County Métis president Brady Hupet, who was employed by the mill for 38 years, said the town has a difficult struggle ahead of it.
“Nonetheless it’s a struggle we must have if we are to secure the future for our community, and future employment of Métis citizens and the youth in our area,” he remarked.
Hupet concluded by offering council Sunset County Métis’ full support.
National Unifor representative Stephen Boon cleared up some misconceptions Resolute Forest Products had been spreading around Sustainable Forests Licenses (SFL) and the sale of the mill.
“When I hear about taking wood from other mills, every company currently in operation in this province right now in Northwestern Ontario especially, already has a SFL so we’re not taking wood from anyone,” he explained.
“Atikokan, at the time . . . was under construction when the Fort Frances mill was still running so for Fort it wasn’t a quid pro quo where Fort had to go down in order for Atikokan to go up.
“There was always a plan that there’s enough wood for all the different operations and so Fort Frances has a wood basket,” Boon added.
The forest license for the Crossroute actually reads that wood harvested from the forest is meant to supply the existing mill located here, he noted.
“The license was for the facility, it wasn’t for an individual company,” Boon stressed.
“Forests do not belong to an individual company like Resolute,” he added. “They belong to us all.”
Boon also explained how scenarios where mills have been reopened in Northwestern Ontario always had the province at the table to help facilitate the deal.
An obstacle the potential buyer of the mill, Repap Resources, has faced is Resolute is requiring them to enter into a non-disclosure agreement.
The agreement prohibits the buyer from communicating with government officials—which is necessary to secure a wood supply and asses regulatory matters related to the mill and its return to operations.
“I don’t want to point fingers at minister Rickford but he is a minister, he represents this riding, He’s got the say, he’s got the clout, he’s got the ear of government,” Boon charged.
“He has an obligation to step up and use his role to make sure that those discussions take place.
“If the province doesn’t step up I fear telling everyone in this room that this mill will not be sold,” he added.
“They need to give Resolute a clear incentive to sell that mill, and threat to take back the forestry or we will not be successful.”
Rainy River Future Development Corp. chair Gordon Armstrong was very vocal about the need to address members of the province including local MPP Greg Rickford.
He asked Mayor Caul near the end of the meeting, “When are we going to go to the member parliament’s office . . . and demand a hearing to get this thing on the road?’
“We need to put their feet to the fire because that’s the people who have the power to turn this thing around for us,” he added.
Cathy Emes from the Fort Frances Chamber of Commerce, like many others who gave deputations, called on the province to help facilitate the sale of the mill as well.
“The Fort Frances Chamber of Commerce encourages the Minister of Natural Resources and our MPP, Greg Rickford to intervene to ensure the town and the Rainy River District’s interests are protected,” she said.
“We at the Chamber see the reopening of the mill as an opportunity for new jobs in Fort Frances and the district,” Emes added.
But reopening the mill wouldn’t only benefit the economy. Ontario Secondary Teachers’ Federation branch president, Kent Kowalski said it would also positively impact the town’s students.
“We have a rare opportunity to re-open a substantial industry in the town of Fort Frances,” he remarked.
“An industry that has potential for hundreds of jobs in the area which in turn would bring or keep people in the area, increasing the population and making the town more vibrant,” noted Kowalski.
“An increase in population has a profound effect on the education system as funding for the public school system is largely based on school enrolment.
“A growing educational community has the ability to offer more diverse educational programming which has many positive outcomes for the students and the staff in all of the schools,” he added.
During his career at Fort Frances High School, he’s seen the population drop from about 1,150 to roughly 625, where it’s at today.
“It has been difficult to maintain specialty programming and diverse extra-curricular events when there is less money and less students in the system,” Kowalski stressed.
“A surge of students equals an increase of educational funding that will provide increased opportunities for all of our children in the schools,” he concluded.
Coun. Mike Behan meanwhile, noted a 7.6 percent tax impact for town residents if the mill is demolished, creating a large burden to carry.
Before concluding the meeting Mayor June Caul shared with meeting attendees that Resolute recently informed them of their intention to open the future of the mill to a competitive bidding process which closes on March 15.
The non-disclosure agreement will make any potential sale of the mill to a forestry company nearly impossible, as the interested party would not be allowed to communicate with government officials to collect information necessary to inform them on their bid.
More discussion and information regarding the status of the mill negotiations will occur at council’s next regularly scheduled meeting for Feb. 25.