The public's role in Interfor-Doman discussions

Like a vulture circling carrion, Interfor has announced a plan to acquire much of debt-ridden Doman. If successful, this would make Interfor a coastal giant controlling almost 30% of the coastal wood supply.

In the coming days as the proposal is dissected ad nauseum by forestry pundits and company spokespeople, four important issues will likely be absent from the discussion:

  • Interfor, Doman and the Crown’s obligations to “consult and accommodate” First Nations;
  • The public’s role in decisions about who controls public resources;
  • The impact of the deal on workers and employment on the coast; and
  • The impact of the deal on competition on the coast.

All these issues would have been central if public hearings were still required before tenures are transferred. These issues should be central to a Ministerial decision about whether to approve the proposed deal.

However, because the Liberal government gutted the public participation requirements from the Forest Act, a public process is no longer required. And in a graphic example of abdicating the public trust, they changed the law to reduce the government’s role in tenure allocation issues. In other words, the government eliminated public control over who harvests and manages public forest lands.

Instead decisions about who controls our public forests are now considered a “business transaction,” and there is no process to ensure the public interest is protected.

Why did the Liberal government turn tenure decisions over to “market forces?” Because they are market ideologues? Yes, in part, but they had more calculating motives as well.

The Liberal government gutted the Minister’s role in tenure transfers, subdivisions and changes in control because recent BC court decisions imposed strong obligations on the Crown and third-party tenure holders to deal with First Nations.

BC courts have ruled that tenure related decisions made without adequate consultation and accommodation of affected First Nations can result in the underlying tenures being ruled “invalid”. These court rulings gave First Nations a significant role in decisions affecting the allocation of BC’s forests, a role the Liberal Party and its corporate donors didn’t like.

Instead of responding, honourably to the court direction, the government has attempted – through legislative changes – to undermine these victories and make it more difficult for First Nations to intervene and object to mergers like the ones Interfor, Canfor and Riverside have proposed.

Since tenure transfers and sales no longer involve a government decision, Ministerial approval is no longer required, and therefore First Nations can longer use the relatively simple, and cheap, Judicial Review approach to getting their issues before the court.

This won’t stop legal challenges, but it will make them more difficult. In the long run, this cynical attempt to avoid constitutional duties will backfire.

Dogwood Initiative is working with a number of First Nations to challenge both the tenure transfers and the constitutionality of the new legislation.

Workers and communities should also be concerned about the government’s cynical abdication of its role in allocation.

Back in 1999, when over 2,500 people participated in the public hearing around Weyerhaeuser’s takeover of MacMillan Bloedel, worker safety, competition and community stability were consistent themes raised by participants. The public’s concerns were the reason the previous BC government imposed conditions on the transfer. Because of the new legislation similar conditions to protect the public interest are no longer possible.

What impacts will a bigger more powerful Interfor have on workers? Interfor CEO Duncan Davies played a leadership role in the recent standoff with labour on the coast. On the other hand, Doman was the only major coastal company that tried to maintain existing contract terms. If Interfor successfully consumes Doman, one doesn’t need to be a fortune teller to predict further attempts to attack workers.

If Interfor gets control of 30% of the coastal cut, they will be in a powerful position to demand concessions like tax breaks from communities. We all know how this scenario goes: “Give us x, y & z or we will downsize or move our operations elsewhere.”

The future of coastal BC lies in diversifying the forest industry, not in concentrating control in the hands of fewer, larger companies.

It is unfortunate that our current government believes the shareholders of Interfor and Doman should have more of a say over our communities and our public forests then we do.

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