Thunder Bay

Fort Frances holds special public meeting to rally for clarity around wood supply rights

Town council in Fort Frances, Ont., is holding a special public meeting Tuesday night to debate a resolution asserting the right of the town to use nearby forest resources to boost the local economy.

Town's mill was closed in 2013, non-disclosure agreement bars potential buyers from talking fibre allocations

Resolute closed its Fort Frances mill in 2013. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

Town council in Fort Frances, Ont., is holding a special public meeting Tuesday night to debate a resolution asserting the right of the town to use nearby forest resources to boost the local economy.

At issue is the fate of the community's mill, which was closed in 2013 by owner Resolute Forest Products (RFP).

In December 2018, the town announced that a deal with Repap to reopen the facility was nearly complete.

But since then, the council has learned of requests by Resolute that any company wanting to purchase the idled mill sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), effectively prohibiting potential buyers from talking to the town council and the provincial government about access to the nearby Crossroute Forest.

"You can not buy a paper mill with an intention of operating it ... if you can not gain access to a local supply of wood," said Douglas Judson, a Fort Frances councillor.

"Resolute holds the license for the local wood supply and it would appear that they would prefer to hang onto that license without having obligations towards Fort Frances mill," he said.

"That's concerning because it puts at a disadvantage anyone who wants to reopen the facility and operate it to create jobs."

The MPP for the community's riding, Kenora - Rainy River, said he is "perplexed" by the NDA.

Greg Rickford, who is also the minister of energy, northern development and mines and Indigenous affairs, said he understands the need for privacy and confidentiality during negotiations around a sale. But he doesn't believe a NDA is "fair" or "responsible."

Douglas Judson, Fort Frances councillor. (Douglas Judson/Twitter)

"These kinds of assets are necessarily tied to various levels of government, most notably the location of the asset in the heart of downtown Fort Frances. It would be impossible in my mind for any perspective bidder to not want to enter into discussions with political officials."

The resolution, which also calls on the premier and cabinet ministers to ensure the mill is "open for business" was set to be tabled on Monday February 11, said Judson.

But a statement from the town, issued February 13, said: "While Monday's Council meeting was in progress, Resolute's lawyers issued a letter to Council threatening legal action. Resolute alleged that the resolution contained 'false, misleading and defamatory statements concerning Resolute.' Resolute's letter did not identify the alleged defamatory statements in our resolution."

'Classic SLAPP tactic'

The statement continued to say that "We remain of the view that the proposed resolution is well within the acceptable bounds of municipal government expression. The proposed resolution also reflects our duty to stand up for our citizens. This is the job of Council. Resolute's legal threat is a classic SLAPP tactic (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) intended to intimidate our community into silence about Resolute's private transaction that could drastically affect the wellbeing of our community, its forest resources, and our economic capacity."

Judson said the February 19 meeting, which will also include deputations from labour, community and Indigenous stakeholders, will hopefully send a message to Resolute and the government.

"This is essentially about ensuring our rights and our role in the management of resources which surround our communities are used responsibly and primarily for local economic development and benefit, that is a principle that's well-entrenched within the licensing regime for the forest," he said.

Minister of Northern Development and Mines and Minister of Indigenous Affairs Greg Rickford. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

CBC News requested an interview with John Yakabuski, the minister of natural resources and forestry (MNRF).

In a written reply, a spokesperson for MNRF stated "Any negotiations regarding the future of the mill are between Resolute, Repap, and the community of Fort Frances."

However, Rickford said in an interview with CBC News, the government is continuing to monitor the situation around the sale of the Fort Frances mill.

"This is all about doing the right thing with, and for Fort Frances, so we'll continue to do that," he said.

Tuesday night's meeting begins at 7 p.m. at the Fort Frances Civic Centre.