Animosity builds over Ontario forestry legislation – by Ian Ross

Established in 1980, Northern Ontario Business  provides Canadians and international investors with relevant, current and insightful editorial content and business news information about Ontario’s vibrant and resource-rich North. Ian Ross is the editor of Northern Ontario Business and this article was posted April 2011.

Hearings on Bill 151 will be held in Toronto, April 11 and 13. These are the final hearings before the legislation goes to third reading. Community and industry rancor continues to build against the McGuinty government over the refusal to stage a final round of consultation meetings in Northern Ontario before a new forestry bill is passed into law.

Hearings on Bill 151 – Ontario’s Forest Tenure Modernization Act — will be held in Toronto, April 11 and 13. These are the final hearings before the legislation goes to third reading.

During a March 30 government standing committee, Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Mike Brown kicked a hornet’s nest when he shot down a recommendation to stage hearings in Pembroke, Timmins, Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie in favour of two days of hearings in Toronto.

The government said delegations from the North can appear in person or make their comments through video conferencing.

The move outraged regional community leaders and industry groups already suspicious of made-in-Queen’s Park legislation for the North.

It doesn’t sit well with Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce president Harold Wilson who said their concerns with the bill, prior to second reading, were not addressed.

He’s not happy that the chamber’s request to the committee, and local MPPs Michael Gravelle and Bill Mauro, for a hearing in Thunder Bay went unanswered by government. “We have a lot to say about it.”

Wilson said the latest wording in the legislation is not what they supported in January. It makes no mention of government-promised forest management models being field-tested over a five- to seven-year period, but proposes the controversial Local Forest Management Corporations (LFMCs), a network of area government agencies would manage and sell Crown timber.

It would preclude industry reps, or anyone with a financial interest, from participating on these management boards.

The industry is more welcoming of an Enhanced Shareholder Sustainable Forest Licence model where a group of area mills and harvesters form a company to manage Crown forests under a provincially-issued licence.

“Industry doesn’t seem to have been involved in the wording, and that’s a real concern,” said Wilson, who added the bill appears to be not that different from the original version.

“As we read through the (draft) legislation (last May), we came out strongly against it because it was not tenable.

“What was being proposed was not something that banks would be able to finance and that companies would be able to get investment for the long term. There were huge issues that we had with it and we thought that we’re moving away from some of that.”

Wilson said it flies in the face of supporting key industry stakeholders in the McGuinty government’s recently-released Northern Growth Plan.

“If the government really wants to discuss and debate this, come up here and talk about it.”

Wilson said the government’s lack of transparency on the passage of Bill 151 reminded him of the government’s 11th hour plans to rush through another controversial piece of legislation last September, the Far North Act.

He added he would have no problem with Bill 151 dying on the legislature floor by session’s end, “if it’s not something that we want in the first place.”

Scott Jackson, forest policy manager at the Ontario Forest Industries Association (OFIA), said “nothing has changed” from the original legislation with the McGuinty government leaning toward LFMCs, a model he calls a “massive and untested experiment.

“There is nothing in the proposed legislation that supports the enhanced co-operative model.”

OFIA supported the bill in January on condition that two pilot models would be tested over time to see which one works best. Now, Jackson said Queen’s Park appears to be “backing off on that commitment.”

Despite two rounds of consultations, Jackson said, “The government has not listened to what people have said in those sessions. They weren’t consultation sessions they were information sessions at best.”

With no industry representation on the board, Jackson said LFMCs will not work effectively.

“This has been a paper exercise by government.”

He calls staging the final hearings in Toronto as “disrespectful” to forestry workers and Northern and rural communities.

“If Skype is the solution why don’t they hold the hearings up North and have people from Toronto Skype in?”

Northern Development, Mines and Forestry Minister Michael Gravelle defended the hearings saying, it’s very difficult for the all-party standing committee to be on the road when the legislature is in session.

“We’ve made every accommodation to include Northerners through video-conferencing,” said the Thunder Bay-Superior North MPP. “In a perfect world we’d have hearings all across the North but it’s important to move this legislation forward.”

Gravelle emphasized the government is not abandoning trials of the two pilot models, mentioning the Enhanced Shareholder Sustainable Forest Licence is “an extraordinary important part of the legislation.”

“Whatever rumours are out there, that’s just not the case.”

Gravelle said he expected resistance from some in industry who didn’t want the current forest tenure system changed. But with the devastation in the forestry industry, a good portion of Crown wood wasn’t being used and a new system of harvesting and licencing was necessary.

Gravelle said the trial locations will be announced once the legislation is passed. He has no idea when the bill’s third reading takes place since it’s at the discretion of the House leaders.

Though Gravelle acknowledged there is some fence-mending to do with industry, he remains “quite confident we can come to an understanding.”

“I appreciate that there is some uproar because we’re not travelling in the North, but that is by no means a reflection of the fact that we want to hear from all those who want to express their feelings about the legislation. The goal is to make sure we come up with the possible legislation.

“I’m a Northerner. I represent a riding where forestry is very important and no one is more conscious of that then me.”

But he’s also anxious to pass the bill before the current legislative session ends, likely in June.

“We’ve had two years to get to this stage (with) a thorough second reading debate. I am keen to move it forward.”