By Heather Hudson
Located 400 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, the 11,000 square kilometres of boreal forest in the Ogoki Forest is about as remote as it gets. Characterized by rugged uplands and lowlands, it’s home to woodland caribou and hundreds of other wildlife species. Neighbouring First Nations communities hunt, gather and conduct sacred rituals within it.
And with its rich store of spruce, pine, fir and poplar, the Ogoki’s potential to act as an economic engine for the north land is huge. While it was once a bustling place for logging, the 2008 economic crisis shut down the local mill, and forestry was all but stagnant for 10 years.
Today, industry in the forest is re-awakening thanks to the Agoke Development Corporation (ADC), and a first-of-its-kind co-operative agreement between three First Nations communities.
Some say it’s about time.
“Our peoples have been living on the land since time immemorial. We know our traditional territory better than anyone else and as stewards of the land, we take sustainable forest management very seriously,” said Mark Bell, president of ADC and an Aroland First Nation Band Member.
In 2015, Aroland, Eabametoong (also known as Fort Hope) and Marten Falls First Nations communities formally came together to collaborate on forest management and business development in the Ogoki Forest. The group has been harvesting fibre, moving it to the Longlac Lumber Inc. sawmill and the more recently re-opened Nakina sawmill.
In March 2018, ADC signed a forestry agreement with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) that gave them an interim licence to manage the Ogoki Forest while a formal 10-year forest management plan is being prepared for 2020-2030.
The licence includes the right to harvest wood and the responsibility for silviculture and road programs. Fewer than five of the approximately 31 forest management units in Ontario are governed by Indigenous companies.
Proving that they’re on the road to industry, ADC entered into another historic joint venture agreement in July 2018 with Nakina Lumber, a local sawmill that has re-opened thanks to the work of ADC. “We’ve started to unlock forest resources available in the Ogoki to supply the Nakina Lumber Mill,” said Jason Rasevych, business advisor to the ADC.
Historically, in order to manage a forest unit in the Ogoki Forest, a company would need a Sustainable Forest Licence (SFL), awarded by the Crown. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the Longlac Sawmill held the licence for much of the Ogoki Forest.
First Nations communities had no say or participation in the forestry activity, aside from “a mention way back in the appendices that said that the sawmill must make efforts to provide employment to local First Nations people. But there was no enforcement or any indicators for how many or what kind of business opportunities would be available,” said Rasevych.
When the markets crashed and the sawmill closed in 2008, the licence for the Ogoki Forest went back to the Crown.
Around that time, a judicial review in neighbouring Kenogami Forest ruled that the Ontario government was now required to consult and accommodate First Nations communities when making a decision that affects those communities, including forest management. Similar challenges were being brought before the Supreme Court in British Columbia.
“This influenced the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) to rethink how they involved First Nations in managing forest units,” said Rasevych.
In 2012, the Ontario government initiated forest tenure modernization, stipulating that no single entity, such as a sawmill, would be granted a Sustainable Forest Licence to manage a forest unit. An applicant would require an Enhanced Sustainable Forest (ESFL) licence, which must include co-operation with at least one First Nations community.
By 2013, Aroland, Eabametoong and Marten Falls First Nations had created a working group to explore forest management possibilities in the Ogoki for themselves. “In 2015, the working group, with the Chiefs’ support, recommended the partnership to create the Agoke Development Corporation,” said Rasevych.
Today, ADC is working on the required 10-year plan for 2020-2030 (the 2008-2018 plan has been extended by two years) that could revolutionize the economic structure of forest management in northwestern Ontario and include First Nations like never before.
The 10-year plan considers the usual forest management specifications such as road building and harvesting schedules, but it also includes consultation with First Nations communities and training for operators in the forest to ensure sacred cultural or burial sites and berry or medicine picking areas are protected.
“We’ll come to the First Nations communities each year to ask where the sensitive areas are so they can be put in the maps and we can create buffer zones,” said Rasevych.
ADC’s forest management planning process also includes discussions with sawmills to identify their demand as well as how First Nations could benefit from harvesting, hauling or delivery of those species of wood.
The annual allowable cut for SPF is 500,000 cubic metres and 93,000 cubic metres of poplar.
Under the interim logging licence, ADC has been sending spruce, pine and fir from the forest to the nearby Nakina Lumber sawmill and poplar to Columbia Forest Products.
It was a gradual start, with only about 25,000 cubic metres of spruce, pine and fir heading to the Longlac mill in 2017. “We’re gradually building capacity as we learn about the bureaucratic and administrative process of how to administer a forest resource licence and get paperwork in place to move wood off the forest,” said Rasevych.
However, since the Nakina Lumber Mill opened in July 2018, ADC projected 200,000 to 300,000 cubic metres will be moved off the Ogoki Forest between April 1, 2018 to March 31, 2019.
One of the most important aspects of ADC taking control of the Ogoki is empowering First Nations people to find employment in all aspects of forest management.
Currently, the most opportunities are in the Nakina Sawmill; of the 85 employees, 75 per cent are First Nations. “That was part of one of our clauses in our joint venture with Nakina Lumber,” said Rasevych.
“There are definitely plans for the mill to expand, including a second shift, which could create an additional 40 jobs.”
The impact on the three First Nations communities cannot be overstated. Rasevych estimates chronic unemployment rates as high as 80 to 90 per cent. “The mill is huge for livelihood and the potential to raise the quality of life.”
With the sawmill in good operational shape, ADC is also working on capacity building on the logging side of things. There is a camp set up about 100 kilometres north of the sawmill where contractors base their harvesting equipment and some of their camp logistics. It’s ADC’s goal to train more First Nations people to run harvesting equipment such as feller bunchers, skidders and processors to harvest the fibre.
They’ve partnered with Confederation College in Thunder Bay, Ontario to train people on logging machinery out in the bush, so students can avoid some of the social issues First Nations people have had to face in the city.
Other professional training includes four weeks of life skills for all employees before they’re hired at the mill. They learn things like personal goal setting, budgeting, relationship management, parenting and health and safety to ensure job-readiness.
“Most of our First Nations workers have never had a job before or at least haven’t worked in a mill,” said Rasevych. “It’s like awakening a sleeping giant to come out and participate in this labour force.”
He hopes the training and employment opportunities close by will entice First Nations youth to see a future for themselves. Their efforts are paying off. In the Aroland First Nation community alone, the number of people on social assistance has dropped to 71 from 121. “It’s a game changer. It’s an awakening for the millennial generation that hasn’t had opportunities in this area before.”
The success of ADC has not gone unnoticed. In October 2018, they won the business partnership of the year award at the NADF business awards, which celebrates Aboriginal businesses in northern Ontario. The NADF, a not-for-profit Aboriginal financial institution, lauded ADC for their collective vision and determination to succeed.
Rasevych says the award was more than a pat on the back. “This forest management partnership with MNR has been a long process and it wasn’t easy. It’s been political and there have been a lot of roadblocks in our way. A lot of people told us we’ll never manage the forest on our own and that the Nakina sawmill would never open again.
“All of it has been worth the strides we’ve made.”
He credits strong partnerships among the First Nations communities, with Nakina Lumber and other industry partners, for their success. “When you’ve got First Nations and industry walking together, it’s hard for government to not be a part of facilitating development.”
As they look to the future, Rasevych has high hopes for the 2020-2030 forest management plan and the enrichment ADC can bring to the surrounding communities.
“We’re providing hope and an opportunity for a new way of life for people. We’re determined to provide a co-ordinated approach to long-term, sustainable career pathways.”
On the Cover:
Tom Fisher Logging conducts selective harvesting in a forest that consists of several high-value wood species, which provides him with the opportunity to tap into a variety of markets for his wood products. Fisher very ably maintains good relations with inquisitive local cottage owners about the sound of logging equipment and resource road traffic as they enjoy their lake properties. (Cover shot of a Tigercat 822C feller buncher with a 22” hotsaw head by Tony Kryzanowski)
A win-win forest management plan
The First Nations-owned Agoke Development Corporation is working on a forest management plan that could revolutionize the economic structure of forest management in northwestern Ontario—and deliver benefits to First Nations communities and the forest industry.
Managing all the moving parts
Veteran Ontario logger Tom Fisher has plenty of experience at managing the many moving parts—including keeping local cottage owners in the know—that are involved in harvesting high value hardwood forests.
Bright future for fiberboard operation
With a steady source of residual wood supply from mill operations in the region, the MDF plant in Pembroke, Ontario is looking forward to a positive future under its new ownership, Roseburg Forest Products.
Taking their logging to a whole new level
Ontario’s Henry Petkau had modest goals when he started Henry’s Trucking—but with his son, Bob, joining the operation, they have now expanded, and added new Southstar processing equipment that has taken timber production to a whole new level.
Getting higher OSB production at High Prairie
With a $50 million capital investment, forest company Tolko Industries has re-opened and boosted the production capacity at its re-commissioned High Prairie oriented strand board plant in Alberta by 40 per cent.
Sorting it all out—log-wise
The Shoal Island logging sort in B.C. truly lives up to its name, doing upwards of up to 180 log sorts, but doing it all with the environment in mind.
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from Alberta Innovates, Canadian Wood Fibre Centre (CWFC) and FPInnovations.
The Last Word
Tony Kryzanowski says the Forest Machinery Connectivity project is a good investment in “What If” science.