TIMBER!!! Governments bring down the Logging Industry

Written by Jamie MacMaster

I had called Renfrew logger and Landowner Stan Peckowski to help me in my search for a used log skidder. In addition to providing me with a few good leads, Stan told me that the Smurfit-Stone pulp and paper mill "up the Pontiac" was locking its gates at the end of October, so used skidders wouldn't be in any short supply. "Well there's over 200 out of a job, and that's just counting the ones at the mill. It may be five times that when you look at the guys in the bush on both sides of the river who needed that mill."

Now, just thinking about that, this wasn't the first time in recent memory that we had heard about pulp and paper mill closures: Abitibi closed its Thunder Bay operations in February 2007 and Domtar closed its Gatineau Mill at the same time, and its Cornwall plant a year earlier. And I'm sure that if someone had the time and inclination to Google "mill closure". They could probably come up with a few dozen more.

And the sawmill picture is just as bleak. When I took a drive up to Namur, Quebec, to look at a few skidders with fellow Landowner "Jom" Picken, we passed a sorry succession of mills on both sides of the Ottawa: Dalkeith, Hawkesbury, Montabello and Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix (the last two on the Quebec side)…closed, closed, closed. And a westward drive a few weeks later on Highway 60 to Huntsville and Kearney, through parts of Renfrew and Nippissing counties, was déjà vu. There was one big mill on the outskirts of Barry's Bay that seemed to be busy, but we passed half-a-dozen with padlocks on the gates.

Now the government and the media relations types wring their hands and decry the state of affairs, invariably blaming it on everything from NAFTA to Corporate Greed to global warming - but every now and then a new scoundrel shows up among the usual suspects.

In an unusual bout of fairness, in a January 2007 release, CBC Newsworld noted:

The industry (forestry) is being pummelled from three directions: by international economic trends, provincial policies and changing technology. Any one of the factors would have been disruptive; coming together, they are remaking a key Canadian industry – forest products (pulp, paper and timber) represent three per cent of the economy – and the resource communities that rely on mill jobs."

Only Canada's National broadcaster could use ‘remaking' as a synonym for ‘devastating' – but let's give them a bit of credit for singling out McGuinty's crowd, by deed if not by name.

To be fair (an admittedly hard thing to do) credit for the extirpation of Ontario's logging industry cannot be given to The Great Fibber alone. It is safe to say that over the last three decades every federal and provincial government has contributed to the ‘For Sale' signs on sawmills, skidders and trucks – and governments that failed to reverse crippling regulations are just as complicit as those that drafted the laws in the first place.

And it's not just the mill yards and forests that are silent and still – Ontario used to be a world leader in the manufacture of forestry equipment. As a matter of fact, one of the first signs that the Unholy Trinity of big unions, big business and big government was starting to chip away at things in the forestry sector was the 1975 closure of Canada Car and Foundry's Thunder Bay assembly lines for the Treefarmer log skidders. The production lines for this hugely successful Canadian marque were shipped south to Talladega, Alabama. And thirty years later the circle was completed when the last Canadian skidder rolled off the assembly line in Woodstock, Ontario when John Deere decided to close Timberjack Inc. (another Canadian success story) that it had purchased in 2000. A lone security guard walks the floor in a facility that used to put the meat and potatoes on 300 family tables.

So, what is going on here? What shut down the sawmills? Why have Treefarmer and Timberjack deserted us? How come pulp and paper mills are closing here and rebuilding in Siberia?

There is no doubt that things like the softwood lumber tariff, the purchasing power of the Yankee dollar and cheaper labour south of the Mason-Dixon and across the Pacific helped mill owners and machinery manufacturers in their decisions…given a bit of time I could probably come up with half-a-dozen other things as well. But in far too many cases the proverbial last straw is some final bit of government crap heaped on top of a bureaucratic load that is already too much to bear. As Magna Corporation founder/owner Frank Stronach said many years ago, the difference between doing business here or in the U.S. was that south of the border, they rolled out the red carpet, here they rolled out the red tape.

The Chinese must rub their hands with glee every time Queen's Park rolls out yet another regulation. No need for economic espionage as long as Ontario has the likes of McGuinty or Bob Rae at the helm. Employment equity, WHMIS training, workplace standards, health and safety training and compliance, freedom of information compliance, harassment in the workplace policies, environmental impact studies, transportation regulations, union-friendly labour legislation, zoning prohibitions, compliance with land-use policies, timber management plans…I-yi-yi-yi-yi, get me out of here. And that little list likely represents only about one percent of the red tape that strangles productivity, eliminates profit and kills any dreams of expansion.

Now I've never been to China, Siberia, or Brazil (and they're not very high on my list of places I simply must see before I hit The Happy Hunting Grounds) but I'm pretty confident that McGuinty's Ontario would top them all on a scale of bureaucratic stupidity. I would be very surprised if I found out that the Ministry of Environment bureaucrats in Vladivostok were forcing sawmill owners to conduct environmental impact studies to prove that sawdust piles are not a source of groundwater contamination. As a matter of fact, with the only possible competition coming from the administrations in La Belle Province and perhaps Belgium, Fibber McG's fiefdom has to be considered a virtual shoe-in for the Economic Wasteland-in-the-Woods Award.

And don't be expecting any turn-around. With Ontario's economy spiraling earthwards at the speed of sound, The Fibber recently took the stage to announce that he was quite prepared to enter the deficit zone by borrowing – something that will quite likely accelerate the dive to mach 2. No government downsizing, no spending cuts, no stopping of the presses that churn out crippling regulations that justify the maintenance of our bureaucratic battalions. To hell with Ontario's children and grandchildren…McGuinty will just put it on their credit card.

Thirty years ago Gordon Lightfoot strummed his six-string to these lyrics:

'They sailed upon her waterways and they walked the forests tall
And they built the mines the mills and the factories for the good of us all'

It was a heartfelt, fitting tribute to our parents, grandparents and their ancestors. But in a way that our poet/singer/songwriter surely never intended, it is another line from his famous Canadian Railroad Trilogy that must surely strike a melancholy chord in the hearts and minds of cat-skinners, skidder-jockeys, mill-workers, fellers and truckers:

'When the green dark forest was too silent to be real.'

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