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Moving Forward 

Forest companies in Northern Ontario are continuing to move forward with First Nations involvement, although they have hit a few bumps along the way. 

By Dave Lammers 

Unlike some other areas of Canada-such as British Columbia-relatively few rumblings are resounding in the woods of Northern Ontario these days, where forest companies and First Nations groups continue to work out co-operative agreements. In fact, several new deals have emerged between the two sides since the province first insisted seven years ago that companies include First Nations people in forestry. "Why should they be excluded?" asks Mike Auld, Buchanan Forest Products vice-president of woodlands, based in Thunder Bay. "We're not just being good guys. They live right here and they've lived here for a long time. We just have to have the patience to work with one another." The patience of both sides has been praised by the Ontario government which acts as the referee in negotiations between forest companies and First Nations. 

Forest companies operating in Northern Ontario-including Domtar, Buchanan Forest Products and Abitibi-Consolidated-are now involved in a number of co-operative agreements with First Nations groups. The province's Ministry of Natural Resources has the responsibility of conducting negotiations between the industry and First Nations groups.

Beginning this year, half a dozen members of the Eabametoong (Fort Hope) First Nation, north of Thunder Bay, are undergoing training under a deal reached with Buchanan. The community has purchased chain saws, trailers and other camp equipment, a heavy duty pick-up and a 12-passenger van to transport workers to the job site. "A couple of years from now, we should be in full swing with feller bunchers and grapple skidders and maybe even a slasher," says Chief Corny Nate. "By the time we're in full force, by the time we're trained and capable of providing logs to (Buchanan's) Nakina mill, we will be doing one quarter of the annual cut on the Ogoki Forest." Another quarter of the overlapping licence agreement involves Marten Falls and Aroland First Nations, located southeast of Fort Hope, under the same deal with Buchanan. 

The intent is to introduce First Nations people to logging with the hope it will catch on, says Nate. Progress has been admittedly slow for the development corporation overseeing the project since a deal was signed two years ago, says Nate. Revenue in the next couple of years is expected to be in the $2 million to $3 million bracket, he says. "By the time we get trained, building roads and know how to plant trees we're going to be employing a lot more people-not just in harvesting but in spin-off businesses." "We knew we needed to employ people in the area and they wanted economic benefits from our sawmill activities," says Buchanan's Auld. "So it was a logical union. Our obligation is to provide economic opportunities for the communities and the residents. That's our commitment to the First Nations in a nutshell. 

It's an agreement between ourselves and the three First Nations." Buchanan, a northwestern Ontario forestry giant, employs about 180 aboriginals at a sawmill on the north shore of Lake Superior, Long Lake Forest Products, located at Longlac. In fact, Buchanan claims the company provides jobs to more First Nations people in northwestern Ontario than any other employer-an estimated 400 including existing woodlands agreements with the Pic Heron Bay First Nation, near Marathon, and Lac Seul First Nation, north of Sioux Lookout. The greatest strides in creating those jobs have come in the last couple years with the building of the new "state of the art" Nakina mill, Auld notes. 

However, few aboriginals have been hired at that mill since it opened 18 months ago, according to Nate. He adds it took two years to reach the current woodlands deal with Buchanan; natives blocked a highway near Aroland in March, 1999 calling for greater aboriginal involvement in logging. Nate blames mostly government for the impasse, however. "It's the Ontario government that was being reluctant and actually being absent from our negotiations until we did the blockade. And then they came and woke up and they had to do something. And it took a few months to negotiate sitting down with them. "Government is the one that has to listen because the company is a business," adds Nate. "They'll do whatever they need to do to make money. 

Ontario forest companies are required to consult First Nations groups as part of the forest management planning process. "We work with them to see the merit of getting First Nations working in the forests," says a Ministry of Natural Resources official.

If government would be part of it and try to help both sides-the companies and the First Nations-it would solve a lot of problems." Logging is the "inherent right" of aboriginal people based on their original claim to the land, says the chief. "We don't want to take it all. But we want to share resources and we want to co-manage the resources. Our communities don't have any jobs from outside so if we're going to pull people off welfare, we're going to have to put them to work and the best place to work is harvesting or in a sawmill." Just how successful the province has been in its efforts to enhance forestry opportunities for First Nations won't be known for another two years when a full review is to be held of Environmental Term and Condition 77, established in 1994. 

Already the district manager for the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) in Sault Ste Marie says the results have been mixed. Serge Tenaglia also confirms that prior to April 1994 no formal mechanism existed in the province that required forest companies to engage in negotiations with First Nations. "It's worked on a number of different fronts, particularly where you have First Nations that are interested and want to participate," says Tenaglia. "In certain areas where the First Nations either don't have the capacity or aren't interested, we haven't made a lot of progress." He adds Condition 77 makes it the responsibility of MNR district managers to conduct negotiations between forest companies and First Nations "for the benefit of the local aboriginal people." 

Forest companies are also required to consult First Nations in the forest management planning process. "We work with them to see the merit of getting First Nations working in the forest," says Tenaglia. "They know there has to be a relationship with all the communities that are in Northern Ontario." He points to the success of the Robinson Huron Forestry Company in which several First Nation communities on the north shore of Lake Superior have bought into. Further up the north shore, Pic River First Nation employs four major logging contractors approximately 400 kilometres east of Thunder Bay. "There's a lot of success stories out there where the First Nations are doing great work." Long-standing agreements are also in place west of Thunder Bay in Weyerhaeuser country involving Eagle Lake and Wabigoon First Nations, located near Dryden. 

In both cases, the communities operate as contractors on an overlapping licence, as well as harvesting wood from the Dryden Forest, also purchased by Weyerhaeuser. Noopimiiing Anokeewin Inc, run out of Wabigoon, has grown in the last 20 years from a small cut and pile operation to a fully mechanized year-round logging operation, according to Weyerhaeuser's Murray Ferguson, of the company's woodlands division. The operation at Eagle Lake has been "more static," although there has been some mechanization as well as increased volume made available by Weyerhaeuser to increase opportunities, Ferguson notes. In addition, Wabigoon Anishnaabe Gitigewin Corporation provides one-third of the company's annual seedling requirements for the Dryden operation.

Dominating much of north eastern Ontario is Tembec Inc, which has agreements with First Nations to provide lumber for most of its mills, including in Huntsville, Kirkland Lake, Timmins, Cochrane, Kapuskasing and Hearst. The company also offers scholarships to young aboriginals wishing to become forest technicians and foresters. "The company has taken a very proactive position to look for opportunities for native companies to become entrepreneurs in the forest business," says Jim Lopez, vice-president of forest resource management, based in Temiscaming, Quebec. 

Lopez declined to talk about specific agreements which have been established mostly in the last five years. The company is committed to "building a strong relationship directly with community members," as well as helping communities obtain funding to get started in logging, says Lopez. Domtar, another major player in the region, also has cooperative agreements with First Nations in Northern Ontario. Officials with Abitibi-Consolidated declined comment on a lawsuit that has been filed by the Sierra Legal Defence Fund, on behalf of trappers from Grassy Narrows First Nation, north of Kenora. 

According to a lawyer representing the trappers, the Ontario government was never made a signatory by the Canadian government and so can't grant licences in an area of roughly 40,000 square kilometres-described as roughly the size of mainland Nova Scotia- north of the English River in north western Ontario. "The position is that to the extent that the forestry practices infringe on their treaty rights, it's illegal," says Elizabeth Christie. "The essence of the case is that the logging permitted by the province of Ontario infringes on their ability to hunt and trap." The MNR, along with Abitibi, declined comment on the case. Abitibi says it has entered into positive agreements with First Nations including those in Northern Ontario. 

A recent deal involves 16 aboriginals working north of Timmins under a new 20-year comprehensive third party licencing agreement with Newpost First Nation and Wahgoshig First Nation. "The agreement deals with assisting the bands to meet their aspirations," says Don Hopkins, Abitibi's general manager of woodlands for Ontario and Newfoundland, based in Montreal. "It does not deal with land or territories or anything like that. It's really a relationship agreement between our company and that particular First Nations group." 

More than one third of woodlands work is contracted out to First Nations at Fort Frances, as well as Kenora, he adds. The company also buys seedlings from a greenhouse at Grassy Narrows First Nation. Abitibi's Fort William division in Thunder Bay has contracted out logging to Gull Bay First Nation for more than 20 years. Despite such agreements, companies still need to loosen their grip on the forest resource, according to economic development officer Byron LeClair at Pic River First Nation. "They want us in the industry but they want us on their own terms," says LeClair. "That's what sets the struggle between First Nation communities and company initiatives. They see us as an attack on their tenure to the wood." 

The companies as well as the province fail to recognize the claim of First Nations to the resource, as well as the fact that the harvesting requirements of First Nations won't cut into the profits of larger companies, says LeClair. The MNR's view of the situation is more positive. "The industry is in the business of making money," says Tenaglia. "But I've seen some pretty creative and pretty good cooperation between the forest companies and First Nations where they go beyond just offering some logging opportunities -where it's increasing the capacity of a community to get into the business of logging," says Tenaglia. "We're moving the yardsticks."

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