This is not a trick question. What is the job of the Ministry of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry (MNDMF)?
The name of the ministry seems to say that it is responsible for three things. The first one is northern development. You probably expect that at least one-third of the staff of the ministry would be working to promote development. You might expect the ministry to have quite a few experts in economic development on staff. You would be sure that when the ministry reforms the disastrous forest tenure system, it would consider economic development as a major goal for the reform.
In fact, you can count the ministry's experts on the fingers of your third hand.
And if you look at the Proposed Framework to Modernize Ontario’s Forest Tenure and Pricing System as released last month, you won't find any evidence that the ministry understands economic development.
You won't find much evidence that it even considered economic development. The main goal of the reforms is to reduce management costs for forestry companies. If there is a second goal, it is to guarantee a steady flow of revenue for the province.
Former provincial forestry minister Donna Cansfield started the review of the tenure system in 2009. She promised to find a solution to a forest tenure regime that has failed to generate sustainable economic development in Northern Ontario.
Northern Development, Mines and Forestry Minister Michael Gravelle is offering the same pro-industry refinements that the Ministry of Natural Resources was promoting more than five years ago – proposals that were rejected by communities.
The plan is to merge existing sustainable forest licences (SFL), creating large corporations called Local Forest Management Corporations (LFMCs) to manage the forests. These giant SFLs will give us a simpler system. It will make a more predictable system. The system will be more standardized and easier to regulate. It will inevitably be dominated by the owners of the existing SFLs.
It will have fewer untrained and untamed citizens getting in the way. It will make it easier to feed the supermills that the industry wants. It will not be more creative. It will not be more productive. It will not build management capacity across the North. It will do almost nothing to support small-scale local businesses based on wood. It will not help small communities.
As a way to promote development, it is like putting roller skates on dinosaurs: the dinosaurs might be able to go little faster, but they won't be any smarter. And the problem is to make the forest economy much smarter.
To get more development, we need to put more brains to work. The right solution is to make fairly small units with lots of people involved and let them work out how best to allocate the wood resources.
This is a very scary idea - it involves trusting people, and letting new ideas emerge. It involves risking failure. It takes faith in democracy. The usual name for this kind of organization is a Community Forest. It's fine if the minister wants to call it an LFMC as long as it is really controlled by the local community.
The minister can keep the LFMC name. He can keep the concept of market pricing. But he has to let go of the crazy idea that reducing the number of units will make a better system. Making larger management units with fewer people involved is moving in the wrong direction.
Economic development will not happen unless we get a lot more people involved. The minister's mistake is that he listened to the people who had been running the forests. They had very clear ideas what would make their jobs easier. They had no ideas about what would promote northern development.
A councillor of one northern town explains it this way: after 98 years of hard work by the Northern Development branch and its heirs, the North has been transformed from an expanding string of boom- towns with rapid immigration into a region with falling population, failing towns and youth emigration.
If the ministry was created to prevent northern development it has been the most successful ministry in the entire government.