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Northwest First Nations build a future in forestry

Joint venture deal provides Agoke group jobs, economic benefits to three communities

A walk through the Nakina sawmill in early August got Mark Bell excited.

A decade after the operation had been shuttered, Buchanan Sawmills had reopened the mill in January and was back in business as staff painstakingly worked out the mechanical bugs at the northwestern Ontario sawmill and planer facility.

Of the 60 workers on shift, most were Aboriginal workers drawn from the nearby Aroland First Nation.

“It was great to see our community members are working and doing a good job,” said Bell, president of the Agoke Development Corporation. “We have members at the mill who are doing greasing and they have aspirations to become electricians and millwrights.”

Having a meaningful role within the forestry sector with burgeoning career opportunities was not always available to them.

That’s why the signing of a joint venture agreement with Buchanan in late June with Agoke Lumber Limited Partnership (an arm of the development corporation) to supply the mill with fibre from the Ogoki Forest was regarded as “groundbreaking.”

Bringing a relatively dormant Crown forest back into production creates the potential for 300 jobs in mill and woodland operations as the two parties set a target of developing a homegrown workforce that’s 75 per cent Aboriginal.

Agoke Development Limited Partnership is comprised of the First Nation communities of Aroland, Eabametoong and Marten Falls.

The three communities teamed up in 2015 with a goal of obtaining a long-term forest licence for the Ogoki Forest, 400 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, which sits within their traditional territories.

For many years, it’s been an aspiration of the communities to obtain a sustainable forest licence (SFL) for the 10,900-square-kilometre forest, to be directly involved in its management and planning, and put its people to work in harvesting, doing the log hauling, and supplying area mills with spruce, pine and fir.

In March, Agoke signed an historic two-year interim agreement with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNR), ending an impasse with the Crown and giving the First Nations the control to get the wood flowing. 

It paves the way to start negotiations on a longer term 20-year agreement that will begin in 2020.

“We’re glad that we have a foot into being the stewards of the land and the landlord of the Ogoki Forest,” said Jason Rasevych, a business advisor to Agoke.

“A few years ago we were told Nakina sawmill will never reopen again. The bureaucrats were saying that, people were saying that it’s a stranded SFL.

“We’ve been working like a David versus Goliath for four years to get through the bureaucracy and work with an industry partner that’s willing to work with us.  When you have industry and First Nations walking together, how can the government object to siding with that? Win-win for all involved.”

The Nakina mill was shuttered in 2008 by Buchanan following the crash of the U.S. housing market.

The province took over management of the Ogoki and introduced a new forest tenure plan across Ontario designed to keep slumping forestry companies from hoarding Crown harvesting blocks that they had no immediate plans for, and give access to new forestry players.

The Enhanced Shareholder Sustainable Forest Licence (ESFL) was one of the new tenure models floated by the province, given to groups of harvesters or mills that form a new company to manage Crown forests.

There were merits to the ESFL but the Agoke communities clashed with the MNR’s cookie-cutter approach. The communities wanted to be in the driver’s seat and they further resisted ministry efforts to amalgamate the Ogoki with the Kenogami Forest. Negotiations came to a standstill.

“We had to try to fit into that box and there were challenges because as First Nations, we have our own process,” said Rasevych.

A revolving door of Natural Resources ministers didn’t help the communities to politically advance their cause.

“A lot of the southern Ontario MNR ministers don’t know where the Ogoki Forest is, or what it’s about,” he said.

So they began cultivating a three-year relationship, on the business side, with Buchanan.

Since 2015, the Agoke group had been harvesting a small amount of fibre to supply the company’s Long Lac mill. In turn, Buchanan helped them navigate the provincial government bureaucracy, said Rasevych.

“We have a common vision and a common goal. There are further opportunities for revenue sharing and (mill) ownership that are built into the joint venture.”

With tenure secured, the Agoke group will closely follow the requirements of the Crown Forest Sustainable Act, but they’ll have greater input in how the land is managed with an approach that incorporates the United Nations principles of free, prior and informed consent.

Bell said giving the three communities a voice in decision-making ensures traditional land-use values are respected.

“We bring our ideas into the fold and resolve issues that were overlooked in the past because communities didn’t have any direct involvement.”

Bell said members constantly remind him that logging isn’t the only use of the forest, that there must be room for trappers and traditional gatherers.

“We’re talking about how we can live within that forest so everyone benefits.”

Despite the 20 per cent U.S. duties on Canadian lumber, Bell and Rasevych admit it’s both a cautious and a good time to be in the forestry business, especially with North American lumber prices at record highs.

British Columbia, producers of 50 per cent of Canada’s output, has been hit by a combination of mountain pine beetle infestation, forest fires, transportation problems, and a myriad of other issues, thus leaving an opportunity for Ontario to increase its capacity. 

Yet U.S. market demand for lumber remains strong, particular in the American South where housing starts are back to pre-recession numbers.

With things looking good for the Nakina operation, there are plans to expand to two shifts, both in the sawmill and planer facilities, later this year. That means the mill will need 700,080 cubic metres of fibre. The last forest management plan done on the Ogoki in 2008 indicated the allowable cut was 500,000 metres.

Rasevych said the Agoke group is in the midst of a 10-year forest management plan to verify that the fibre supply is going to be in that wood basket for 2020 and beyond. 

“We want to make sure there’s enough wood there to support at least one shift’s operation, if not two.”

Adding another shift means more job opportunities, especially for people in the remote communities of Eabametoong and Marten Falls, where’s there’s 80 to 90 per cent unemployment.

Rasevych said people are willing to relocate to the Nakina-Greenstone area to pursue a forestry career but Agoke must devise a housing strategy to accommodate those folks.

There’s available skilled labour as some community members have previous sawmilling experience while others have untapped but transferrable skills gained through government-funded Ring of Fire training programs.

At the Nakina site, other members are being trained to work as lumber graders, log loaders and operators. Other training programs are in the works for apprenticeship opportunities and for those entering the workforce for the first time.

Rasevych said things have changed from a time when First Nation people occupied only a handful of mill jobs.

They’ve now taken the lead in forest planning, silviculture, harvesting, road construction, wood delivery, and developing the annual work schedule to identify road networks and sensitive areas, allocate the harvest blocks, award contracts and benefit from the mill’s output.

“That hasn’t been done in the past. We’re in the boardroom now. We’re there making decisions with the partners and it’s a different time.”