Mill closures will haunt Liberals – by Christina Blizzard (Toronto Sun – September 01, 2011)

Christina Blizzard is the Queen’s Park columnist for the Toronto Sun, the city’s daily tabloid newspaper.

THUNDER BAY — The battle in Northern Ontario for the hearts and minds of voters in the Oct. 6 election is being waged on many fronts here.

It’s about forestry and wood allocations. About mining and resources. And the Far North Act, which critics say will strangle development and turn economically-productive forestry and mining areas into parkland.

Thunder Bay-Superior North MPP Mike Gravelle is the Liberals’ Minister of Northern Development. He’s taking flak for making changes to the wood allocation system — the lifeblood of mills.

Like many others, the Buchanan Mill in Atikokan was idled following the housing downturn in the U.S. and was recently put into receivership.

It’s up for sale, but recently had its wood allocation yanked by the province, meaning it’s unlikely any purchaser will re-open it as a mill.

Atikokan Mayor Dennis Brown has been fighting to save it and its 450 direct and indirect jobs.

“It was our largest employer,” Brown said in an interview. He’s written to Premier Dalton McGuinty, asking the province to reconsider.

As it stands, the mill will be auctioned this month and probably scrapped.

“For the government to say there’s no wood, either they’re fools or they’re taking us for fools,” says Atikokan’s economic development director, Garry McKinnon.

The wood supply issue is pitting community against community as the province plays favourites with the allocations.

Wood means jobs in a place where families have been split apart, as bread winners “commute” three weeks a month to Saskatchewan and Alberta for work.

PC candidate Anthony Le-Blanc, is a former executive with Research In Motion, who made good in the south and has returned.

He says Gravelle should have been fighting for his hometown.

“What he’s been saying is that he has to be concerned about the entire northern region as the Minister of Northern Development,” LeBlanc told me.

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