Is protecting northern Ontario’s caribou habitat over forestry jobs 'eco-terrorism'?

By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jun 24, 2015
The woodland caribou is listed as a “threatened” species by the province

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If a tree gets chopped down in northern Ontario, does someone in Toronto have a right to care?

That is more or less one of the issues at the heart of a recent fight over efforts to protect the province’s caribou herds, which has some northern Ontario mayors calling Greenpeace and other environmental organizations “extremists” and even “eco-terrorists.”

The mayors of Hearst, Cochrane, and other northern towns say the proposal to protect the caribou will devastate the province’s forestry industry – which hasn’t recovered from shedding nearly half its jobs from 2000 to 2010. The mayors put the blame squarely on an environmental movement based hundreds of kilometres away in the province’s south.

“While policy seems to be influenced by this type of eco-terrorism, who is protecting us, the people who suffer the outcomes of policy?” asked Mayor Peter Politis of Cochrane last month.

Politis defended his choice of words in an interview with TVO.org.

“Whether the term "ecoterrorism" is strong or not, I find that debatable. We’re just playing on the field created by someone else. The issue, really, is about a people and a way of life,” Politis says.

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Mayor Roger Sigouin of Hearst agrees with Politis that strong words are in order when it comes to fighting environmental conservation plans that clash with the priorities of many northerners.

“Communities are going to disappear, no more hunting, no fishing, no mining, no forestry,” he says. “It’s just going to be a park where people live.”

The proposal that has the mayors exercised at the moment would designate a huge fraction of northern Ontario as caribou habitat, which would impose new regulations on the forestry sector or, the mayors fear, make it impossible to operate at all.

The woodland caribou is listed as a “threatened” species by the province. That designation means the species isn’t currently endangered, but the government is looking at steps to ensure economic activity in the north doesn’t push caribou over the edge.

The mayors say an overly expansive definition of caribou habitat is being pushed on the north due to political pressure from groups such as Greenpeace.

The caribou controversy is part of a larger battle: arguments over the balance between jobs and the environment have frequently led to charges the Ontario government is making policy in the interest of urban environmentalists instead of people who actually live in the north. The same is true for arguments over mining and hunting policy.

That ongoing battle has flared up of late. In addition to the northern mayors’ provocative rhetoric, Resolute FP, the largest Canadian forestry company, has sued Greenpeace for defamation and “intentional interference” over the environmental group’s campaign. Greenpeace has pressured Resolute's large customers to drop the company over what they say are its unsustainable practices.

Most notably, Best Buy shifted some of its paper purchasing away from Resolute last year in response to the Greenpeace campaign. When Resolute closed its mill in Iroquois Falls in 2014, the company explicitly linked the closure to Greenpeace’s pressure.

Resolute FP's vice-president of communications Seth Kursman makes no apologies for playing hardball with Greenpeace.

“Greenpeace, for quite some time, has said they spoke for workers, communities, First Nations, and others. Now we’re seeing members of those communities challenge that,” Kursman says. “It has become very clear Greenpeace doesn’t speak for them.”

Richard Brooks of Greenpeace takes issue with the idea that only citizens of northern towns have a stake in the future of Ontario’s north.

“People across the province own the forests of Ontario,” he says. “First Nations people have had their traditional territories on these lands well before there were urban communities here. I have as much an interest in the future of the forest of northern Ontario as anyone else would,” says Brooks.

He also thinks the northern mayors misunderstand the intentions of Greenpeace and other environmental groups.

“We’re certainly not against northern communities,” says Richard Brooks. “We want to see a vibrant, sustainable forestry industry. To do that means the forestry industry needs to align with where the marketplace is.” That, as Brooks sees it, means a forestry industry that respects the principles of sustainability on what is, after all, publicly-owned land.

Mayors Politis and Sigouin say they aren’t trying to stoke the fires of provincial division. Just as Brooks say the north misunderstands Greenpeace, they argue northern Ontario towns and businesses have to do a better job of telling the rest of the province their story, including how existing regulations already protect forests and natural habitat.

“I think the biggest problem is us. We haven’t learned to really lobby on our behalf,” says Politis, though he argues the provincial government should do a better job of defending the forestry industry.  (Politis ran as a Progressive Conservative in the 2014 election, but says he’d tell a Tory premier the same.)

“Promoting Ontario’s strong track record on sustainable forest management is a priority for our Ministry,” says Todd Lane, press secretary for Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry, Bill Mauro, in response to criticism by Politis and others. Lane adds that Ontario participates in the Forest in Mind program which promotes Canada’s forestry industry, and says ministerial staff has met with some of Resolute's customers, though not the Minister or Deputy Minister.

While Ontario’s forestry sector had a terrible decade in the 2000s, it’s not obvious that environmentalists are to blame: a Senate inquiry into the national forestry sector found the then-high Canadian dollar and limited access to credit were primarily responsible for the industry’s woes. Greenpeace, for its part, argues Resolute has no one to blame but itself for its financial difficulties. It points to other forestry companies that have been hiring workers at the same time that Resolute's workforce has been shrinking.

Politis says his concern isn’t just the jobs that Ontario has already lost, but the ones it may not see in the future.

“We’re on the cusp of an upswing in forestry,” Politis says. “If we don’t get our policies lined up, those jobs are just going to go to Quebec.”

Image credit: Darryl Darwent/flickr

For more on how economic and environmental concerns are clashing in Canada’s northern communities, check out the landmark television series and online experience The Polar Sea

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