The Métis and Dene of Fort Resolution put aside their differences to establish a new forestry management agreement (FMA) with the territorial government last week that will breathe new life into what was once a flourishing timber industry in the community.
Leaders from the GNWT, Fort Resolution Métis Council and Deninu Kue First Nation met last Friday under the wooden beams of the Antoine Beaulieu Memorial Hall in Fort Resolution to witness the completion of the FMA, the first of its kind in the territory.
Kara King, president of the Métis, said the steering committee behind the agreement is what allowed negotiations to be successful.
“It wasn’t political, it was about the betterment of the community itself, because there’s a lot of hostility between the Métis and the Akaitcho,” King said. “It’s a huge step for us because, in a way, we kind of put that aside and focused only on the community.”
She said there is a “strong possibility” the two governments may be able to come to terms on other issues in the community now.
“We think it’s a right step in the future of our community. The fact that we’re working together is a huge benefit in itself. The economics aside, that is a huge benefit because we haven’t worked together for years. This is a good thing.”
Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) Minister Michael Miltenberger signed the agreement along with Raymond King and Leonard Beaulieu, board members for Timberworks, a joint venture between the Métis and First Nation.
As FMA holder, Timberworks will have rights to harvest from Crown lands in prescribed areas for sustainable business development for the next 25 years.
The deal promises government support for the community-led, renewable resource development in an area of the NWT burdened by a stagnant economy and lack of jobs, offering the financial and political backing to ensure the joint venture between the two Aboriginal governments gets off the ground successfully.
“We all have an interest to create that initial capacity, to get them set up, to help sort out their business plan and harvesting plan,” Miltenberger said, adding there would be money for training and equipment. “Plus we want to make sure we manage the forests.”
He said the federal government is “watching closely” and that the GNWT is “in it for the long haul” as a partner on the project.
Job creation at the core
The most important part of the deal is the jobs it will create, echoed all sides of the agreement. While it’s early to estimate job numbers, Premier Bob McLeod said the entire production chain, from harvesters to transporters, pellet producers and tree planters, would likely create around 600 jobs for the South Slave region.
McLeod said forming FMAs with Aboriginal governments has been a priority since the devolution of forestry 20 years ago, since timber is such a readily accessible and renewable resource.
“If you do it right, it’s sustainable and could continue into perpetuity,” he told The Journal. “I think when you really look at this project, the beauty of it is it brings employment to people in the communities in a number of different areas…I believe it will also result in reduced cost of living, at some point.”
He said it’s critical to develop an industry outside of the mining sector.
“In the Northwest Territories, we’re always hostage to a boom and bust economy and the best way to deal with that is to diversify our economy,” McLeod said.
Before the community’s sawmill shut down, it had 35 people employed, not counting offshoots. Tu Nedhe MLA Tom Beaulieu said even 10 additional jobs in Fort Resolution would have a big impact on households.
“Any time you get jobs in a small community, it’s important. It’s significant. Most people know that as we look at the distribution of employment in the Northwest Territories, it’s very concentrated in Yellowknife and we have small communities like Fort Resolution with employment rates in the 30s…So this is definitely positive.”
Not just for pellets
While the future logging project already has a significant first customer at its door, with the promise of a major wood pellet plant operation going forward in Hay River, Timberworks intends to ensure its demand base is as diversified as possible.
George Kurszewski, who negotiated the deal, said Fort Resolution’s experience with the forestry sector coupled with the high quality of spruce in the area means timber felled and processed in the community could be used for log homes, commercial buildings or sold to building supply outfits, along with the biomass industry, all over the world.
“The community is really dependent on the success of this operation because it’s about their resources,” he said. “We see from other business experience that diversification is really good because you have different customers, and the more customers the better. So to make it successful means establishing a broad customer base. There’s been a lot of focus on the pellets, but that’s just one aspect.”
Brad Mapes, the man behind the proposed pellet mill project, was at the signing to show his support as a member of the private sector. He said the FMA, along with another one that is soon to be signed with Fort Providence, will supply his plant with the resources needed to get going.
“It’s key to our project because we need to have a guaranteed source of supply,” Mapes told The Journal. “It’s a big stepping stone for us…Without the forest management agreements, we couldn’t really go beyond that. What’s key about our project is that it really wouldn’t be going if we didn’t have the commitment from the First Nations and the Métis groups from our communities.”
The GNWT already plans to purchase many of the pellets produced by Mapes for its own biomass facilities across the NWT.
“We converted a lot of our buildings to wood pellets, so we buy a lot,” the premier said.