Sudbury

Thessalon mill workers face layoffs while First Nation and province negotiate land claim

About a dozen sawmill workers in the north are facing layoffs, because the province has closed off some of the forests in the Thessalon area, while it negotiates a land claim with the nearby First Nation.

Thessalon First Nation claims its reserve lands should be four times larger

The province has declared a moratorium on cutting in certain forests near Thessalon First Nation while land claim negotiations are underway. (Erik White/CBC )

The union leader for sawmill workers in Thessalon blames the provincial government for 20 of his members facing layoffs next month.

But Scott Dunlop fears that some will blame their neighbours in Thessalon First Nation, whose land claim has led to a moratorium on logging in area forests.

"Our communities are intertwined in so many different ways. I fear that the MNR is playing a bit of a dangerous game here sometimes," says the president of United Steelworkers Local 9260, which represents 64 workers at Midway Lumber.

"When people start losing jobs and start losing cars and start losing houses, they blame the wrong people at the wrong time. I would hate to see something like that happen here."

About 20 of the 64 workers at Midway Lumber in Thessalon are set to be laid off in May. (Erik White/CBC )

Dunlop would like to see an interim deal put in place, where Midway Lumber would still have access to trees in the area while the land claim negotiations are ongoing.

"Obviously these things take time and we understand that," he says. 

"And that way everybody's still working, everybody's still making money and we're not sitting here waiting on one party to decide whether or not they're going to come to the table."

Dunlop says he's tried for weeks to get an answer from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, with little luck.

Although, this week he did speak personally on the phone with Premier Doug Ford, natural resources minister John Yakabuski and Indigenous Affairs minister Greg Rickford.

'Open for business and open for jobs' 

CBC News was refused an interview with anyone from the government and was instead provided with the following statement:

"Our government is committed to making Ontario open for business and open for jobs.

We're working on developing a forestry strategy to create the conditions for the industry to innovate, attract investment and create jobs for the people of Ontario.

The Ministry of Indigenous Affairs is leading the land claim negotiations with Thessalon First Nation.

Harvest blocks within Thessalon First Nation's asserted claim area are considered critical wood supply for the Midway Lumber sawmill located in the town of Thessalon

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry is providing information and working closely with Midway to look at all alternatives that could provide support in this challenging time for the mill."

Survey of reserve didn't match the treaty

The land claim is related to the reserve lands allotted to Thessalon First Nation in the Robinson-Huron Treaty of 1850.

The community's lead negotiator Paul Williams says there was a miscalculation when the reserve was surveyed, giving the first nation 95 square km instead of the 372 square km it was promised.

A land claim was filed in 1997, but negotiations with the provincial government to transfer crown land in the area only began in 2016.

Williams says Thessalon First Nation requested that all cutting in the forest was halted until talks are concluded.

We think removing the resources from the land while we're talking about it is not a consistent approach.-Paul Williams,  negotiator with Thessalon First Nation 

"We think removing the resources from the land while we're talking about it is not a consistent approach," he says. 

"Forestry workers respect private land and they buy trees from private land owners, why should Thessalon's land be treated any differently?"

Williams says Thessalon First Nation prides itself on having good relations with its non-Indigenous neighbours and hopes that a solution can be found to avoid layoffs at the mill and avoid the possible fanning of racial tensions.

"We are aware of what happened, we're working hard to maintain relations with the neighbours and avoid that," he says.

About the Author

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca