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Northern Ontario comes out STRONG


December 1, 2006
By Pulp & Paper Canada

The group was borne out of a collective endeavor to halt the closure of Tembec’s Excel sawmill in Opasatika, in 2005. The organization has since expounded both its mandate and member base (the group n…

The group was borne out of a collective endeavor to halt the closure of Tembec’s Excel sawmill in Opasatika, in 2005. The organization has since expounded both its mandate and member base (the group now counts over 5,000 members), but the essence remains the same. “We’re trying to unite Northern Ontario in solidarity to fight these issues,” Simard said in reference to energy pricing policies, corporate control and absentee governments. “One community can’t do it on its own. Obviously, that isn’t working.”

What is working is persistence, and STRONG’s efforts are gaining attention and spurring momentum. “We’ve had lots of support from the NDP, and a lot of media attention,” Simard modestly noted. What remains a sore spot with STRONG, and many Northern Ontario residents, is a lack of government communication in response to public outcry about issues such as energy policies, wood rights and the economic ruin that is stretching across the region.

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“The government just doesn’t seem to have the time or the interest,” Simard said. “We realize the industry is going through an extremely difficult period. But there need to be incentives for the industry to invest.” Incentives other than the interest-free loans the government is making available, a suggestion Simard views as counterproductive. “Mills have no cash,” he admonished. “A loan would only run them deeper into debt.”

So what should be done, according to STRONG? Energy pricing is top on the list; regional pricing if we are to delve into specifics. “Northern Ontario is paying three to four times for energy what it costs to produce it,” Simard notes. Although Howard Hampton, Leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party has come out to champion the suggestion, and the McGuinty government ‘says it’s looking into it’ as Simard duly noted, “just how much truth to that there is, we don’t really know.”

Wood rights remain another hot topic of contention for STRONG. As mills sell off facilities, close machines and restructure their operations, they maintain ownership of their legal rights to sections of forest. According to Simard, this clearly provides the company with substantial advantage when trying to sell off a mill, or if continuing to log on the area while sending the wood elsewhere proves profitable. This literally undercuts the communities surrounding the forest in a very fundamental way, Simard contends. “The wood is being entirely directed out of our region,” he said. “This is devastating for a community, where all of a sudden, the government permits its wood rights to be taken away.” The wood rights situation also renders a sale of the mill in question a relative financial gamble for a potential investor. “No cutting rights? Who will invest in that?” Simard questions. “We realize there are economic factors behind the decisions these companies are making, but governmental policies make it much worse. They should really be introducing policy that will change the environment so communities can actually survive. Even if a policy were in place only to keep a mill open for a year, it would give the town a chance to sort things out.”

In the wake of sweeping job losses (current estimates peg the Ontario region of recently swallowing upwards of 4,000 job losses) entire communities are being completely wiped off the map, Simard said. “Families are basically being destroyed. They’re losing equity in their homes. In many cases, these workers have minimal education, the skills they do have are not transferable, and so they’re forced to move into urban areas that they are completely unfamiliar with, to work for minimum wage. They can no longer afford to put their kids into secondary education, and a whole host of health problems, such as depression and in some instances suicide, ensue. These people are losing everything.”

In the meantime, STRONG is directing its resources and considerable energy towards law amendments, increasing public awareness, networking with other non-governmental organizations, creating linkages with regional First Nations, and a host of other objectives intended to help northern Ontario’s forestry sector back to its feet, in a sustainable way. As Simard noted, a balance needs to be struck at the heart of this goal. “We don’t oppose the industry,” he said. “We want the forestry industry to succeed. But we want our communities to be sustained at the same time. We want our communities to succeed.”


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