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Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch Duff Conacher called the New Brunswick government's forestry agreement with J.D. Irving Ltd. a misstep in a series of missteps. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The advocacy group Democracy Watch says it is not too late for the New Brunswick government to abandon an agreement with forestry giant J.D. Irving Ltd. and send it out for public hearings.

The agreement with J.D. Irving Ltd. offers increased access to wood from Crown land in exchange for future investment and jobs. It is part of the government's new Crown land policy that gives more softwood from public forests to Crown licence holders like J.D. Irving.

Duff Conacher, a co-founder of Democracy Watch, a group that pushes for government accountability and democratic reform, called the forestry agreement with J.D. Irving Ltd. a misstep in a series of missteps.

Conacher said it's not too late to halt the agreement and launch a public engagement process so citizens could ask questions about how the business deal affects their communities and Crown forests.

"Put it out for public consultation and the gold standard for that would be a representative sample of New Brunswickers would be selected in different regions and they would be given all the details about the contract and sit down with an independent facilitator over multiple sessions, where they would be able to ask any question and get any information they want and their opinion would be gathered at the end," he said.

Jim Irving

Jim Irving, the co-chief executive officer of J.D. Irving Ltd., has made a series of announcements at his company's mills since the forestry deal was unveiled. (Connell Smith/CBC)

Conacher said without public consultation, the New Brunswick government has chosen to ignore the most basic principles of democracy.

Conacher said once an agreement is signed, taxpayers are on the hook, whether they like it or not.

“This is a contract that's been signed, costly to now reverse it,” he said

“Another area where definitely public consultation has to happen is where there is a cost to reversing a decision. Sometimes putting in a law costs nothing to change the law afterwards but in these cases you definitely need public consultation because they've signed a deal that will cost the public money, not the ministers who signed it, but the public money, to cancel that deal."

Conacher said the Alward government's refusal to send the forestry deal out for public consultation reminds him of how the former Liberal government handled its failed attempt to sell NB Power in 2009 and 2010.

David Bell, a law professor who specializes in contract law, said last month any government looking to get out of the forestry deal will have few options. He said the deal is essentially done.

He said one of the only options would be for a future government to pass a law that cancelled the deal and eliminate J.D. Irving Ltd.’s ability to sue for damages.

Recently, 184 academics from around the province called on the government to halt the agreement.

Van Lantz, the acting dean of forestry and environmental management at the University of New Brunswick, said the academics are not saying the forestry plan is wrong, but they want citizens to have a greater say in how the plan affects New Brunswick's forests.

Natural Resources Minister Paul Robichaud said the agreement will help save the forestry sector.