Canada is a big country, diverse in geography, people and economics. Some people live in big cities, others in small towns. Some of those people built cars, others taught, others still worked on their farms and some worked in the mines. As a country, we’ve gone through a lot of big changes to our communities, and not in ways that everyone across the country, typically in the larger centres, understand the extent of. As more and more people have moved to the cities, we’ve seen smaller, northern and rural communities go through some very hard times.

As those who have been reading my works for a long time know, I grew up in Northwestern Ontario, outside of Kenora. Kenora was a big forestry and pulp and paper mill town, as were Dryden and Fort Frances, the other larger communities between Thunder Bay and the Manitoba border. Those mills were the big employers in the region, the big drivers of the economy, the biggest contributors to the local tax base and became a large part of the identities of our town. When I was in high school, during soccer season we’d always get into trash talking chats with players from the high schools from Dryden and Fort Frances and after a lot bravado and such was said, the insults would invariably end up with “well your mill smells a lot worse than ours.”

Those who grew up there in those times know what I speak of and have their own opinions as to which was worse, but really that’s not part of the discussion anymore. The paper mill in Kenora closed for good in December of 2005. That mill was eventually torn down, leaving a massive blank property that has mostly sat empty ever since, although there is now talk that maybe a casino would be built on part of those lands. The closure was a huge loss to the community, one that it has never completely recovered from to this day. In 2014, it was time for the mill in Fort Frances to face its closure after years of fighting to stay open. The same impacts hit the border town that hit Kenora a decade earlier, that frankly the entire region has faced.

The Fort Frances story has gone somewhat differently, and not for a good reason. To their credit, the elected people and business community of Fort Frances have tried to get the mill re-opened under new owners, to sell new products, to give the town hope and a better future. But they have faced a serious barrier to their attempts, one that is shocking and extremely disturbing:

Fort Frances Councilor Douglas Judson lays down in detail the circumstances that the town has faced in it’s attempts to re-start that mill and rejuvenate their community. Standing in their way is the company that owned the mill, Resolute Forest Products. According to Judson’s piece, here is what the company allegedly has done to stop the town in their tracks:

  • In 2014 Resolute represented to Fort Frances that it was trying to sell the facility, but its unwillingness to cede control of any wood supply rendered a transaction impossible
  • In 2014, Expera – which planned to make investments in the mill to make value-added forest products – was unable to close a deal because Resolute refused to come to an agreement on a viable supply of Crown timber resources.  And the Ontario Liberal government of the day wouldn’t step in to facilitate negotiations for access to wood from the Crown forests licensed to Resolute.
  • In 2018, Repap Resources stepped forward to make their case publicly to restart the mill to produce packaging materials. According to Judson’s piece, when Repap met with Resolute they were confronted with a non-disclosure agreement which would have prevented them from speaking to all levels of government. When the town council tabled a resolution expressing their concerns about Resolute’s behaviour, they were actually served with a threat of litigation by Resolute’s lawyers.
  • When Resolute announced a bidding process for the mill’s assets this year, it declined Repap’s multi-million dollar offer, and sold the property for a nominal sum to a numbered company associated with scrap dealers and other troubled industrial demolition projects.
  • Once the sale of the mill properties was finalized, the municipality discovered that Resolute had affixed a series of restrictive covenants to the mill’s land title. These are agreements between the seller and new owner which prevent the mill from being used to make most pulp or paper products, and block any new owner from seeking access to wood fibre in the Crossroute Forest (the forest near Fort Frances that is the main wood source in the region), ensuring that no one could ever re-open the mill again.

Let’s get this straight everyone, just so we’re clear on what is being alleged here; Resolute closed the mill, put all the workers out of work, but kept the local wood to ship a few hundred kilometres away. Then Resolute is alleged to have actively tried to stop not one but two different companies from coming in and re-opening that mill by refusing to give access to wood to make the mill economically viable. Oh, and to top it off, they are alleged to have sold the property to a company that is “associated with scrap dealers”, seemingly looking like the mill in Fort Frances would face the same fate as the one in Kenora, and put conditions on the sale that bans it from even seeking assess to that wood or making most pulp and paper products. That folks is just ugly behavior on the part of this company and is surely not in the best interests of the people of Fort Frances.

And if this story of a company allegedly putting their financial interests ahead of those of a community using their own resources to rebuild their economy wasn’t enough to turn your stomach, it gets worse. You see, the Government of Ontario gave this mill $23 million in a loan in 2007 build a biomass boiler. The repayment of that loan kept getting pushed back, and pushed back, all the way until right before the 2018 provincial election, four years after the mill that contained that boiler closed, when the government forgave the loan. Yep, not only did Resolute walk away with a seeming veto over access to forest in a region they closed their mills, they pocketed that $23 million as well.

If the past of this story wasn’t bad enough, the future of it could still be worse. The Government of Ontario reworking the licensing model for forests and it turns out that the Crossroute Forest is being transitioned into this new model, one that’s supposed to give local communities more control over their forests. That should be great news, right? Well as Judson pointed out in his piece “ministry materials state that to complete the transition to the new model, Resolute must voluntarily transfer its existing license to the new framework.” You read that right…. Voluntarily. After everything that Resolute has alleged to have undertaken here to keep control of that forest, are we really supposed to believe they will just sign it over voluntarily? It seems that essentially the Ford Conservatives have given Resolute a veto to ensure that no one can get access to those forests in perpetuity.

We know that sometimes companies fail, or they need to downsize and while we don’t like that, it is part of the world we live in. But part of what usually comes with that is that the relinquish control over resources that they used to make their products. They usually can’t determine what industries can or can’t do on their old properties. Long story short, they usually don’t have the power to hold an entire town and region hostage, all to protect their own bottom line.

When a car plant closes in Oshawa, GM doesn’t get a veto on who can set up shop there who might compete with them. When oil refineries closed in Montreal, the oil companies didn’t get a veto on who could move in an refine more oil. And in this case, Resolute made a choice to shut down that mill in Fort Frances, and they shouldn’t get to hold that community hostage and stop it from moving on in the best way for that community. There are a lot of good companies out there who don’t behave the ways that are being alleged here, and obviously there is a good business case to re-open that mill, as two different companies wanted it to do just that. This is a time when people expect their governments to stand up for them and stop this kind of high-handed behavior. If this were happening in Oshawa, Ottawa or Windsor, you know for sure that the past Ontario government and the current one surely would have moved heaven and earth to fix this situation. But being a small town in Northwestern Ontario, we’ve now seen both of those governments sit on their hands. If small towns and rural regions across this country are going to continue to survive and maybe even grow, they need governments to be on their side in situations like these. Hopefully with a little more attention to the Fort Frances’ out there, government will stand up and call out this kind of alleged crap behavior by this company.

*UPDATE* Thursday January 16, 2020 – On Wednesday a new detail came out in this story, one that raises another serious question of the Ontario government that deserves some serious answers. I goes into that new piece of information & why it matters to not only Fort Frances, but all small communities out there. You can check it out linked here.