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Species at Risk policy fires up Northern leaders

Municipalities, industry, First Nations fear habitat protection rules could devastate forestry
Caribou 2
Woodland caribou

Queen’s Park can expect fierce resistance from Northerners if the province attempts to finalize controversial Species at Risk policy without proper consultation, said Kenora’s mayor.

“If they want to rush it through, they’re going to have a backlash like they’ve never seen before,” said Dave Canfield, past president of the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association (NOMA).

“There’s going to be a lot of us standing shoulder-to-shoulder.”

At issue are the new Species at Risk rules, designed to protect 28 species in Northern Ontario, which will be woven into the fabric of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The ESA has raised the hackles of Northern leaders since it was passed in 2007.

Their take is that the act focuses on protecting animal and plant habitat at the expense of forestry jobs and industry-dependent communities.

It’s viewed in the North as just adding more duplication and cost to forest management practices.

The biggest fear is that it may cut into the supply of Crown fibre, the obvious lifeblood of industry.

“We’re already over-regulated to the point where it’s impossible for forestry companies to do business,” said Canfield, “and that filters down to the municipalities.”

NOMA is part of a growing forestry coalition of community, industry, business, labour and First Nations who have rallied against the province’s Species at Risk policy.

“I’ve been in municipal politics since 1991 and I’ve never seen so many people coming together to stop…the stupidity of what’s going on,” said Canfield.

Industry and Northern municipal groups have long argued that adequate species and habitat protection already exists under the Crown Forest Sustainability Act.

Forest management companies have operated under it for more than 20 years.

“We have the highest standards in the world in forest management practices in Ontario, way above any other country or jurisdiction,” said Canfield.

“Why are we fighting this fight?”

The province granted a five-year exemption to forestry and other industries to provide more time to blend the two acts, but that exemption expires next July.

But the general feeling among industry and Northern stakeholders is that the ESA will usurp the Crown Forest Sustainability Act, which could be ruinous to the forestry sector.

Canfield regards the ESA as legislation that’s catering to southern Ontario urban voters and the current government’s traditional base of support through environmental groups who are waging a campaign against the forest industry.

The protection of the woodland caribou is their strategy centrepiece, he said.

“Let’s face it, it’s about votes. You’re never going to educate four million people in the Greater Toronto Area that cutting trees is a good thing.”

The decisions on which plants and animals are at risk are decided by the Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO), an independent – and highly influential – group of academic advisors.

Their recommendations to the ministry are supposed to combine science with traditional Indigenous knowledge.

Since 2007, Canfield contends there’s been no provincial consultation with Northern municipalities or those with knowledge of the land – like First Nations – who live and work in the forest, and bear witness to changes in animal population, the impacts of predation and climate change, and other environmental variables.

To Canfield, it smacks of “Big Brother telling us what we should be doing in our own backyard.”

“That’s why you’re seeing this big push now because it’s opened a lot of people’s eyes.” He believes the Premier’s Office is ignoring the science-based field work of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) and is allowing environmental ideologues within Queen’s Park to craft policy.

“Who has the ear of the premier on a daily basis? Policy advisors, not us.”

In his interactions with MNRF technical staff, Canfield said many are reluctant to speak out against the government’s direction.

And he disputes claims by environmental groups that caribou won’t return to clear-cut areas as “absolutely wrong,” citing ministry collar tracking data that’s been compiled.

“We have the science to prove it wrong, and so does the MNR.”

Mayors were further angered last summer when the ministry announced it was going to post a draft version of the Species at Risk guide on the Environmental Registry.

The registry is a forum for the public to comment on government proposals and decisions.

But community and industry leaders say based on their past experiences on other natural resource-related matters, government policy doesn’t seem to change much once it’s posted.

Ian Dunn, policy director for the Ontario Forest Industries Association, said often the input from the professional foresters in their membership is “largely ignored,” particularly on comments regarding caribou.

“This time around we have to make sure we get the policy right.”

Some, like Canfield, view it as the government avoiding face-to-face consultation in order to push through with policy changes.

Natural Resources Minister Kathryn McGarry promised in August to delay the posting, citing the need to get a better appreciation of the overall impact of activity and climate change on the land, and the socio-economic impacts on communities before finalizing Species at Risk policy.

Despite the delay, Northern leaders vow to keep up the pressure.

They suspect upcoming provincial election politics are at work and backroom deals with environmentalists might be in play.

“I know the fear by a lot of municipalities and First Nations is: are we being snowed here again?” said Canfield, who voiced his concerns to McGarry last February.

“I hope not. I like Minister McGarry. I think she’s sincere but I there’s some skepticism.”

“We’ve heard this story before. Is this real or are they just trying to buy some time?”

NOMA president Wendy Landry wants to take McGarry at her word but wonders if the final policy decision will be taken out of her hands and other Northern cabinet ministers.

“At the end of the day the premier makes the call, and we believe the premier is influenced by a lot of environmental people that are not subject matter experts of our region and could potentially trump (McGarry).”

“They might pause it for a moment but the bureaucrats and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are working behind the scenes and are keeping (Premier Kathleen Wynne’s) ear constantly,” said Landry, who serves as the mayor of Shuniah, a township outside Thunder Bay.

NOMA wants the government to create a consultation panel of Northerners, with representation from municipalities, First Nations, forestry management companies, and industry.

“We are the subject matter experts of our municipalities, our communities and our region,” she said.

“So why not consult with us? Canfield expected to hear an answer on the panel by late September but Landry hasn’t heard a word despite their letters to the province.

Landry said Ontario needs to practice what it preaches to industry when it comes to consultation.

“I work for Union Gas (as an Aboriginal liaison) and none of our projects can be done without full participation in consultation. But yet the government needs not consult with municipalities and First Nations when they make their policies.”

With many First Nations invested in forestry, Landry said having them aboard adds to the coalition’s strength.

“I, being First Nation myself, know the direct impacts on our communities when there’s a lack of work or the inability to participate in some of these (industry) opportunities.

“And we know that the government is listening more to the First Nations than they ever have in the past.”

True consultation, Landry said, means talking to Indigenous people who know the land and can give first-hand knowledge of what species are endangered. “Why wouldn’t we be turning to them?”

Canfield has also turned to science to make the case for sustainable forest management.

He’s collaborated with FP Innovations, the federal forestry research arm, to deliver presentations across the North that responsible and sustainable harvesting is actually good for the boreal forest and actually fights climate change.

Canfield claims he doesn’t want to see a repeat in Ontario of what happened in the U.S. Pacific Northwest in the late 1980s when efforts to preserve spotted owl habitat devastated many forestry-reliant communities there.

Similarly, he said, the Ontario government imported osprey habitat protection guidelines from California in the 1980s that were only dramatically altered in 2005 after field research was performed by Lakehead University’s forestry department.

“When people who have an idealistic point of view of what they see in the world have more credibility than the people who walk the walk every day, then we’ve got a serious problem in this province.”