Local push to stop demolition of remaining mill

By Merna Emara
Staff Writer

The paper mill in Fort Frances has been under demolition for almost a year, beginning in the fall of 2020. Because the mill’s significance is carved in the memory of many Fort Frances residents, many hoped that a new owner would return it to a functioning pulp manufacturing business.

However, permit after permit has been issued for demolition and buildings have been brought down, along with any chance to bring a revival to fruition. Even though a demolition permit has been given to the Kraft Mill, the Town of Fort Frances has not received a demolition request for the Biomass Boiler.

David Kircher, a Fort Frances resident, has been strongly opposed to the mill demolition, mainly because he believes the mill should have been sold and run by a different company. Kircher also questions the transparency of the process by which the Boundary Waters Forest Management Corporation (BWFMC) obtained the licence.

Kircher gave a presentation to the mayor and council last month which sparked an inquiry by the mayor into the BWFMC.

“I represent many people who lost their jobs when the mill was shut down,” Fort Frances Mayor June Caul said. “We can’t just ignore what somebody is trying to make us understand. [Kircher] has opened my eyes to things I was not aware of.”

Part of the inquiry the mayor made is providing all details pertaining to the enhanced Sustainable Forest License (eSFL) for the Boundary Waters Forest and the previous Sustainable Forest License (SFL) for the Crossroute and Sapawe Forests, including wood allocations.

In an interview with the Times, Mike Willick, president of the BWFMC, said enhanced forest license is not a legal term. They use it for convenience.

“The legal term is a Sustainable Forest License,” Willick said.

A Sustainable Forest License (SFL) is a long-term license granted for up to 20 years that grants the right to harvest all species of trees found in the licensed area. SFLs are reviewed every five years by an independent forest audit, according to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF). 

Resolute Forest Products, the former owner of the mill, held the Crossroute Forest SFL for 20 years, from 1997 to 2017. 

This license stated that the forest resources harvested are to provide a supply of forest resources to the existing processing facility of the company located in Fort Frances. This facility was the Fort Frances paper mill.

After 1997, five year audits were to be carried out in order to ensure the licensee has complied with the terms and conditions. Two audits were done from 2002 to 2007 and from 2007 until 2012. 

The audit from 2012 to 2017 was only found on the ministry’s archive portal. The audit mentions the closure of the Fort Frances Mill. 

However, Kircher says this audit was not presented to cabinet when Resolute applied to extend their license for 20 years, ending in 2032. This was only based on the 2007 to 2012 audit, according to the Order in Council, used to request the extension.

If the 2017 audit was included in the presentation to cabinet, the minister may not have granted the extension because the licensee would not have complied with the terms and conditions of providing wood to Fort Frances, as stated in the license itself, said Kircher. 

The extension of the license that gave Resolute access to the wood and ruling out any chances for another company buying the mill in town, is something Willick said was a game well played by Resolute. 

“Two things were required,” Willick said. “You needed someone that was going to own and operate the mill and you needed the wood supply. Resolute had both. No one could force Resolute to sell an asset of theirs if they did not want to. It’s a sad thing.”

The restrictive agreements Resolute put into the sale of the property entailed two primary rules: that the new buyer does not seek access to the wood from the ministry and they can not produce products in competition with Resolute or its affiliates, including newsprint, uncoated mechanical paper, recycled market pulp, kraft market pulp and tissue.

That being said, the license that the BWFMC holds is the same number of the Crossroute Forest SFL. However, the phrase “Fort Frances” was removed from the license when it transferred to BWFMC in 2020.

According to Kircher, the closure should have completely repealed the license. A new license should have been issued to the new management company as set in the Crown Forest Sustainability Act (CFSA).

The CFSA states that a SFL should be cancelled and a new one is to be granted to a company that was formed for the purpose of carrying out forest management responsibilities.

The CFSA adds that this company should not be associated with any particular forest resource processing facility in which the holder of the cancelled license was offered an opportunity to participate.

Willick said Resolute followed the process to get the result they wanted until the license was transferred.

“I would have preferred more active intervention by the province early on in the process,” Willick said. “The provincial government says that the trees are for the greater good of Ontario, not assigned to any one community. That’s just the way it is.”

Kircher said this is not a transferred license, but an amended one and according to the legislation, the license should not be extended past 20 years.

“The pieces that have been played in this whole thing have been from corporate MNRF,” Kircher said. “That representation to cabinet was not truthful. It’s not backed by an independent forest audit. It’s still the Crossroute Forest license that’s been amended and you cannot amend the license that doesn’t exist.”

Therefore Kircher said he is calling on the mayor and council to seek a judicial review.

“I really believe there should be an investigation into all of this,” Kircher said. “This is not politics. This is the destruction of taxpayer value, not just in Fort Frances, but throughout Ontario.”

Caul said this is a discussion for council to make.

“It’s not for me to say,” Caul said. “Unfortunately I don’t know whether it would help us out or not. I don’t know whether I’ve got all of the support of council on that. We have to have all of our ducks in a row.”

During the presentation given to council, Tannis Drysdale, economic consultant to the Rainy River Future Development Corporation, said the town sought legal opinion from firms. The verdict, she added, was that the wood is Ontario’s, and Fort Frances is secondary to the licensee.

The Times reached out to Drysdale and the MNRF for more comments, but none were provided as of press time.