“This government, quite frankly, has completely lost touch with reality…” Bisson

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Ontario Votes

Ontario VotesQUEEN’S PARK – As the critic for the New Democratic Party on this issue and on behalf of our caucus and our leader, Andrea Horwath, I want to put a few comments on the record on this very short debate at third reading.

The government is, yes, moving forward on this initiative for the change of the forest tenure model and the pricing system of timber in this province, something that we’ve opposed for a number of reasons that were laid out at second reading, were laid out in committee and were laid out through the media through the north and through all of Ontario.

However, we listened to the government. It’s really interesting: Here’s the government saying that if the member votes against this bill, we’re voting against northern Ontario. What a preposterous comment for the minister to make. This bill is problematic.

You’ve got the Ontario Forest Industries Association, the people who represent the forestry companies in northern Ontario, saying, essentially, you’re wrong. You’ve got major forest operators in this province who are saying that you’re wrong. You have almost every mayor in northern Ontario saying that you’re wrong. You’ve got pretty well every chamber of commerce in northern Ontario saying that you’re wrong. You’ve got unions and workers and communities across the north that say you are wrong. And you say somehow we’re opposed to the north by voting against this bill? I think you’re the ones who are wrong, and I think it will be proven on October 6.

This government, quite frankly, has completely lost touch with reality. They’re not listening to what people in northern Ontario have to say, because if they were, they would have been listening to Jamie Lim at the OFIA. They would have been listening to Tom Laughren and other mayors in northern Ontario. They’d be listening to Mr. Wilson from the chamber of commerce up in Thunder Bay. They’d be listening to all kinds of people who have been saying, “We’re not opposed to change. We understand what change is all about. We’re a resilient bunch in northern Ontario. We’ve understood for a long time that northern Ontario has some challenges, and we’ve always risen to those challenges. But this is not change that’s going to move us forward. This is change that’s going to put us back.”

You’re mucking around with the licences of forestry companies, and you can ill afford to do so. If I, as a company, go out in order to finance myself for modernization in my mill or any kind of an investment I need to do for expansion, I’ve got to be able to show that I’ve got the ability to secure the money that I’m borrowing. How do you do that? Yes, it’s by the assets you have and, yes, it’s by your balance sheet, but it’s also by being able to prove you’ve got trees to put in the mill. You’re putting those licences at risk. Forest companies have been saying to you right from the beginning, and the OFIA has been saying to you, “If that is not the case, then put it in the legislation. Put an amendment in place that is absolutely clear that you’re not going to muck with somebody’s licence, and then we can go to the next step.”

But you couldn’t even get off the curb in this debate. You came out of the cabinet room, sat on the curb and announced to northern Ontario what great ideas you had, and then you failed to listen to anybody in northern Ontario. We said, “At least travel the bill to northern Ontario so people in the north can have an opportunity to speak.” “No, no, we don’t have to send this to the north. Cabinet knows better. The minister knows better. Mr. Brown certainly knows better. We just know what’s got to be done in northern Ontario, because Queen’s Park, after all, is the best place to make decisions about northern Ontario.”

Well, let me tell you, as a northerner: Absolutely not. The people of the north had to be consulted and they weren’t. Were they consulted prior to this bill being introduced? Absolutely. Were they consulted sufficiently? Not a question. The problem is, what people talked to you about at the consultation pre-drafting of the bill was very different from what they saw come out of the process once you had drafted the bill.

So on the first point, you’ve mucked up the issue of licences for forest companies, and that is not a good thing. It puts us in line with a whole bunch of other jurisdictions where there isn’t the kind of security that companies can have in order to make the investments in their jurisdictions.

Effectively, what it does is this: For one of these companies that is either a Canadian-based or North American-based forest company which has operations across Canada and the rest of North America, and they have to decide, “Okay, we have X amount of money to invest this year, and we have to decide where we’re going to invest it,” it makes it very difficult for them, as a company, to say, “Well, let’s put it in Ontario,” because in Ontario, life has gotten very tough. We have energy rates that have gone through the roof—and I hear the Conservatives talk about energy. God, you guys started this fiasco. The nerve of the Conservatives to get up and say they understand energy, when they started the problem. Then the Liberals put it into overdrive, and on top of that, now you’re mucking around with the licences. The companies, the boardrooms and the directors, are going to have to say, “All right, I’ve got X amount of money to invest. I can invest it in Manitoba, I can invest it in Quebec, I can invest it maybe somewhere in the United States, or in Ontario.” And it’s going to make it very difficult for them to invest in Ontario, once this act becomes law.

I promise you this: After the next election, if we form a government, I’m going to scrap this thing. I’m telling you right now. Absolutely. This is bad legislation.

Should we do something to deal with some of the issues that the minister raised? Absolutely. There’s not a municipality, there is not a company, there’s not a chamber of commerce or a mayor who says we should do nothing. However, what you’ve done is completely opposed to what they want. What people wanted was security of tenure, number one, and a way to utilize unutilized timber that already exists in the act that you as a minister and previous ministers of the crown under the Liberal government have refused to use. You haven’t used the power that you have in the act now.

I agree with my friend Randy: All of this is kind of like creating a LHIN, in the sense that if I move everything over to the—what do they call them?—enhanced LFMCs, local forest management corporations or whatever, and I shove the responsibility over to the private sector, then, “Don’t come to me when there’s a problem. It’s not my fault,” says the government from the Liberal side. “It’s them.” It’s the same idea as the LHINs. You’re trying to put a buffer between you and the decision-makers. You’re the minister; you’ve got the seat. You’re the government; you have the majority. You control the cabinet. The decision is yours.

I’ll tell you what I would have done if I was minister over the last seven years, and I know there are some people who would disagree with me in northern Ontario, and certain people within industry. But when a company shuts down, we currently have the authority to take the wood if they’re not going to reopen—the first thing I would do is say, “What can we do to keep your doors open? Is this a temporary closure or a permanent closure?” If it’s a temporary closure, they’ve got to hold onto the wood; otherwise, the community doesn’t have a chance in heck to be able to do anything after. If the company is going to say, “No, this is a permanent closure,” as was the case with Excel in Opasatika, as is the case in Smooth Rock Falls, I would say, “Okay, as the crown, the minister, I’m taking that wood back,” because we have the authority to do it now without this bill, with the current act, “and that wood will remain tied to those communities,” so that as the economy turns around, we have an opportunity to restart something in that community.

But the government isn’t doing that in this bill. They’re going to a forest tenure model that, at the end of the day, is not going to give the communities any more say about what happens to the trees in their backyards than the decisions of the government today. The government says, “Oh, the answer is the LFMCs. We’ve created two LFMCs, and boy, that’s like sliced bread. It’s so, so good; it’s like ice cream with cherries on it.” Well, that’s not what communities asked you for; communities asked you for a community forest model. They wanted some way of being able to have a say about the trees and how the forest is harvested and where the trees are going to be processed in their own backyard; that’s what they were asking you for. When the town of Hearst, the town of Dubreuilville and other communities went to your pre-hearings prior to the introduction of the bill, the communities were saying, “We really do want a community forest approach.”

I recognize there are some challenges with that; I’ve put that on the record. I understand there are some problems with that, and yes, it’s a bit of a balancing act. But at the end of the day, I think the essence is, you can’t muck with the existing licence. The licence is there, and you can’t take it away unless the company closes down or doesn’t meet the terms and conditions of their licence. I can tell you that in the about 20 years that the current sustainable forestry development act has been in place, there hasn’t been a case, quite frankly, where a company has not lived up to their commitment on the licence. Why? Because they’re responsible business owners. It’s not to their advantage to muck these things up. They understand that they’ve got to operate within the rules of Ontario. They’ve got to demonstrate to the public that what we do is sustainable—that, yes, it’s green.

The forest industry is a green industry, something that a lot of people don’t recognize. It frustrates me to no end, as a northerner, when I hear people talk about forestry as if it’s some sort of brownfield industry. God, we’re the greenest industry going. We cut a forest that is about to die or burn down and then we replant it. We’re farmers, except we have a crop that takes 80 to 90 years to grow. We do a good job at it, and we do so by making sure that we watch out for the habitat. We make sure, through our forest management plans, that we deal with issues having to do with the water, having to do with fauna and animals, making sure that our cutting approaches are able to respect those things.

But back to the bill: The government then says, “We’re going to do these local forest management companies, these LFMCs.” Well, you’ve missed the point on that one, too, so I’m telling you now, this is bad legislation. Thank God we’re four months before an election and the government is not going to have the chance to even enact this legislation—well, they may enact it, but they won’t have a chance to put it into play for a while yet, because the regulations certainly won’t be done by October 6. So we have a bit of breathing room, thank God, because this is really bad legislation.

On the issue of the LFMCs, one thing that I want to put on the record: You are now going to go to a competitive bid system on that wood. What the government doesn’t want to accept is that, yes, the Americans are extremely protectionist when it comes to their market and when it comes to Canadian softwood imports into their country—exports from ours—they are going to use absolutely everything, as they have before, to make the argument that we’re somehow subsidizing our industry.

We’re not subsidizing our industry. Time and time again we’ve gone before the various tribunals and we’ve made the point, and the American government has lost their case each and every time. But now, all of a sudden, if you go to a competitive wood bid system, you open two problems.

One is, let’s say they get money under the roads program—because we build these roads not just to do harvesting, but also to access the forest; there’s a dual use for our roads. Do the Americans now argue, “Well, how can you have a competitive system and, at the same time, subsidize your roads?” It’s just going to invite more countervail. I don’t know why you’re doing that.

On the other point, it’s going to be the highest bidder who will get the wood. That’s the way the model works. When you have a competitive system, it’s never the lowest person who gets the product; it’s always the highest bid that gets the product.

What do you do if, for example, you’re an LFMC, where all of a sudden you’ve got wood in your jurisdiction. You have some use that you would like to use it for locally so you can create jobs in your neighbouring community or your own community. Then all of a sudden, somebody from afar comes in and says, “I’m prepared to pay a premium on that wood.” They can be so much from afar that they can be from Manitoba, Quebec, the United States. There would be nothing to stop us from allowing them to buy that wood on a competitive bid system, and I’m going to predict that’s exactly what’s going to happen. We’re going to have situations where the LFMCs are going to have wood that’s up for sale and somebody’s going to bid for it away from the community that the wood came from. You’re going to see some local jobs when it comes to the harvesting and the transportation of the wood, and then people in the community are going to sit by the side of the highway and they’re going to be waving as the wood drives by their house to some community farther away in Ontario or a community outside of this province altogether. I just say that this is really, really bad news on the part of what the government is doing to northern Ontario.

To the issue of allocation of wood: The government has argued, “Oh, we need this because people are hoarding wood.” If people are hoarding wood, it’s your fault. You have the authority under the act now to allocate timber that is underutilized or not being utilized. The government says, “No, we don’t have the right.” What the heck was your allocation process that you just went through? You put up, through RFP, all kinds of wood through a competitive wood bidding system that you set up about two years ago for people to bid on. You did that because you had the authority under the act. And the government says, “Oh, we need to stop the hoarding of wood.” Give me a break. You have the ability to do whatever you want with underutilized or non-utilized timber, period. You have the right to put up an RFP process. You have the right do whatever you want by way of crown wood because it is the crown, it is the province that controls that underutilized, unutilized wood. So instead, the government says, “We’re doing this because we want to stop the hoarding.” I would argue that you have the authority already under the act to deal with the hoarding issue.

Let me get to the Rentech issue that was raised by the minister. Yes, that’s good news. Listen: You’re not going to hear me, as a New Democrat, say that the idea of finding a use for timber in northern Ontario is a bad thing, but a couple of questions have to be asked about this particular project. First of all, what you’ve done is, you’ve allocated timber from other communities like Dubreuilville—

Mr. Michael A. Brown: No.

Mr. Gilles Bisson: Well, he says no. You’re going to get a chance to correct my record if you want. The point is, there’s a limited amount of wood that’s available. The community of Dubreuilville and the community of Marathon are up in arms because at the end they’re saying, “Listen: The wood that’s going over to White River”—and thank God for them; they’re going to get something—“is at the expense of our communities”—number one. If that is true or not true, clarify, but that is the sense that people are getting in Dubreuilville and Marathon.

The other issue is that we need to ensure it’s a best-end-use policy when it comes to the wood that goes into that mill. The only way you can do that is to find a way to make sure that the mills in Dubreuilville and Marathon and other communities can open up, take the timber, pass it through their mills, and the wood that goes to White River is basically chips from the mills or it’s tops and scraps from the trees as they’re cut in the forest. If you do that, then that makes some sense, because we do know there’s a lesser market for chips today and that is a problem for our sawmills. That’s one of the reasons why the sawmills are shut down.

In the province of Quebec, they have a policy that says you can’t grind round logs. You can’t grind trees to make chips for mills in Quebec; they have to be residual waste from sawmills. What that does is, it allows the sawmills to make money on the sale of their chips, which allows them to keep their doors open, more so than they have in Ontario, and then supply the chips into the paper mills and into the pulp mills of Quebec.

If the government was to have an approach that says, “We’re going to work at making sure that the wood that goes into the Marathon project is going to be residual wood waste from the forest floor as we harvest the trees and the chips from the mills by which the logs are going to,” then there’s some sense to this; then that’s a really good thing. At the end of the day, it means to say that the sawmill in Dubreuilville or Marathon or wherever it might be goes into operation, because they’re going to need a lot of wood. The project in White River is over a million cubic metres of wood a year. That’s a fair amount of wood. Let’s ensure and guarantee that that mill is going to be operating with wood waste and not grinding logs, because that is what’s starting to happen in this province. In Terrace Bay, for example, they’re chipping round logs because there’s no place to send the trees through the sawmill because of the set-up we have in Ontario, and they need the chips to operate, so they’re grinding. Grinding 80- or 90-year-old spruce or whatever else you might be using is not good policy, so we need to ensure that the White River mill, when it moves forward, is one that operates on wood waste and doesn’t necessarily operate on grinding timber in the forest.

The second thing is: Is the financing really put together for this project? I had a chance to speak with Angelo last week when I was in White River at another event having to do with Agent Orange at the health fair that they had there. He seemed to think, “Yes, probably.” But there really isn’t any guarantee at this point that the financing is even in place for this particular project, and it’s probably a fair amount of time away before that project ever gets off the ground.

I say to the government: This is not a bad thing that’s happening to White River. You’re not going to hear New Democrats say it’s a bad thing. But what I’m saying is, we need to make sure that this is a win-win situation not only for White River, but that it’s also a win for the province; that it’s a win for the communities in the neighbouring areas around White River, that their sawmills are going to be able to get up and running again; and that it’s a win for the local economy and the people working there. I think we have an opportunity to do that, and there are some questions that have yet to be answered: Does the deal, at the end of the day, follow those principles that I set out?

I say to the government in this debate: To try to say all of a sudden that voting against this bill is voting against the north is completely off track. It makes no sense.

I’ll just use the last minute or two that I have to say to what degree the Liberals are out of touch. Mr. Bartolucci, the minister of whatever, was up in Timmins at FONOM last week, I believe on Friday. He spent 40 minutes in his speech talking about how it’s not true that the government is not consulting northerners. For 40 minutes, he stood in front of the mayors and various aldermen from across northern Ontario and various people who were there and said, “We’re consulting. We’re doing a good job. You know, the Liberals are doing so great. It’s the NDP and the Conservatives who are lying to you.” That a minister of the crown has to go to Timmins and spend 40 minutes to try to convince northerners that this government is consulting tells me that they’re not consulting, and I think it’s pretty indicative of where this government is at. I think this is sad.

For a government to introduce such legislation at this point in their mandate tells me that, politically, they ain’t very wise and that, number two, they really do not understand after almost eight years in power what they could have done to make life in northern Ontario better. It will be the people of northern Ontario who will judge the results. We’ve had a precursor, looking at the federal election, where the Liberals ended up in third place in pretty well every riding except a couple in northern Ontario. It pretty well tells you what’s going to happen in the next provincial election with this government.

Gilles Bisson MPP

New Democrat Critic

Ministry of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry