On July 28, 2019, I wrote the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. I asked them to come clean with the people of Fort Frances about what terms and conditions the previous government had put on a 2017 waiver of Resolute Forest Product’s requirement to repay $23 million in public funding. Those funds were meant to build an electricity-producing turbine at the Fort Frances mill, to support its long-term operation. I did not receive a response to my request until December 5, 2019, when the province refused to release this information.
Dougall Media now reports that it has been successful obtaining the same materials through a freedom of information request. It is unclear why the province did not come forward with this information sooner. As feared, it is now too late to use what we have confirmed to protect the significant public investments which were made in this key economic asset for the Rainy River District.
Worse, today’s news report confirms what we suspected all along: no meaningful conditions were put on the waiver of Resolute’s requirement to repay the people of Ontario. Instead, the provincial Liberals contented themselves with lip service from Resolute about its efforts to market the closed mill to potential buyers, even though the Town of Fort Frances had been clear since 2014 that Resolute was refusing to cede provincial wood supply to a new operator. This made any restart impossible, and dashed hopes of a productive future for the property without provincial intervention.
Two interested buyers for the Fort Frances mill came forward publicly: Expera, in 2014, and most recently, Repap Resources. When the current Fort Frances town council set out these concerns in a resolution in early 2019, we were threatened with a libel lawsuit by Resolute. It is increasingly difficult to see how any of the statements made in that resolution lacked factual basis.
The 2017 waiver came at the cost of our community. It reflects willfully blind backroom dealing. It was clear for years prior that Resolute was unwilling to sell the mill to an operator that would fetter its monopoly over local Crown forests. Resolute was essentially allowed to pocket taxpayer funds it received to support the operation of the very mill it then closed just a few years later. There is no clear indication that the Liberal government took any steps or put in place obvious conditions which would have protected Fort Frances, upheld the terms of the then-forest license, or respected the public investments in this mill.
If there was ever any doubt about Resolute’s motives, those were washed away by the restrictive covenants put on the transfer of the mill properties to Riversedge Developments last August. Those covenants prevent any use or disposition of the properties which would have enabled them to produce products for which they are suited, and banned any sale to an owner that would seek access to a local wood supply. These covenants exposed the sale as a scrap deal.
As I have previously written, our small community has been victim of an aggressive campaign to exert corporate dominance over public resources and to use private transactions and underhanded legal tools to subvert the aims of public interest forest policy. This has stripped our district of significant economic potential. It compromises our financial security. It has been allowed to unfold with impunity.
The Town of Fort Frances now faces an uncertain future, even aside from the pressures of the global pandemic. It is currently anticipated that the productive assets of the mill will be demolished. Resolute and Riversedge have also challenged the assessment value of the mill properties. The outcome of that process could result in lower property tax revenue, which any small municipality would struggle to recapture.
Douglas W. Judson