Resolute Forest Products is blocking the sale of the shuttered Fort Frances mill to Expera Specialty Solutions of Wisconsin by refusing to come to an agreement on a fair and economically viable supply of Crown timber resources, said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
"If the mill gets purchased, it will create 1,000 jobs in that community," Horwath told the legislature. "If the mill doesn't get purchased, the current owner will stop winterizing it and the mill may be lost forever."
Communities in the northwest simply want to ensure that forests in the region are sustainably managed to create local jobs, and the timber supply should be controlled by the public, not a private company, added Horwath.
"With the stroke of a pen, the minister can convert the sustainable forestry licence to an enhanced sustainable forestry licence so that the community and companies manage that forest together," she said.
However, Natural Resources Minister Bill Mauro said it would take months or years to negotiate an agreement to change the forestry licence, and he doubted 1,000 jobs would be created if the mill is sold and resumes operations next spring.
"It wouldn't guarantee that a deal could be hatched with the company wishing to purchase the mill because, at the end of the day, Resolute is still the owner of that mill and they are fundamentally involved in determining whether a deal can be had," Mauro told reporters.
"We're not sure the numbers would have been close to 1,000. I'm told anywhere from 150 to 180 within the mill plus the number of jobs created in the woodland."
The Fort Frances mill received a $22.5 million grant three or four years ago, but there's no more provincial money on the table for the operation, added Mauro.
"It's not just about cash," he said. "It's ultimately a deal that has to be hashed between the potential purchaser and the owner of the mill."
About 30 local officials from northwestern Ontario travelled 1,800 kilometres to the legislature Tuesday to witness the questions on the future of the Fort Frances mill.
"They are literally fighting for the future of the Rainy River district," said NDP critic Sarah Campbell.
"Resolute's failure to reach a deal with Expera lies solely at the feet of the government of Ontario," said Fort Frances Mayor Roy Avis.
The New Democrats urged Mauro to take action now to ensure the sale proceeds.
"We have a mill. We have more than enough wood, and we have a potential buyer," said Campbell. "All we need to make this deal happen is for your government to re-allocate this wood and tell Expera, the potential buyer, that we want their business."
But Mauro said his staff had already been at the table with the two companies and wasn't at all sure an agreement could be worked out to sell the Fort Frances mill.
"The premise of the question is that if there was an enhanced sustainable forest licence in place, that a deal could have been consummated between the two parties," he said. "I personally don't believe that that would have guaranteed anything. It doesn't mean we're not trying to work in that regard."
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