Behind the closed doors of the Boreal Forest Alliance, mayors and prefects of Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean and Côte-Nord are pulling their weight to prevent the loss of “forest opportunities”. Or the volume of wood granted to industry in public forests.
To achieve this, they multiply media outlets, organize demonstrations, hire lobbyists and even charter a plane; all at the expense of taxpayers, since the organization, private, is entirely financed by public funds.
“Our mission is really accessibility to woody material”, explained in an interview with La Presse the president of the Boreal Forest Alliance and prefect of the regional county municipality (MRC) of Domaine-du-Roy. , Yanick Baillargeon.
The organization defends the “consensus” that exists within the “forest communities” of these two regions where the forest industry is very important, says Mr. Baillargeon. But his positions are criticized, many deeming them too aligned with those of certain players in the forest industry.
“I have a little difficulty with the attitude that seems to me to be a lobbyist for the Boreal Forest Alliance,” said Claude Riverin, mayor of Sainte-Rose-du-Nord, in Saguenay.
“When I speak to people in the region, it is not unanimous, the position of the Boreal Forest Alliance, he adds. I am deeply convinced that there are people for whom logging is important, but not in the way that the Boreal Forest Alliance conceives it. »
“These are elected officials who are opposed to protected areas,” notes Jimmy Bouchard, city councilor and president of the Sustainable Development and Sustainable Environment Commission of the City of Saguenay.
The “pretty obvious bias” of elected officials on the Boreal Forest Alliance towards the forest industry is problematic, said Isabel Brochu, a consultant in territorial development and a graduate in ethics.
“When they’re so close to the industry, it’s questionable, and I very much doubt their ability to see the bigger picture,” she says, arguing that elected officials are right to stand up for their communities, but that they must do so in an inclusive way.
It was also the prefects of the MRCs in the region who had put pressure on Quebec to dismiss the ideators of the project from the committee responsible for making the protected area of the Péribonka River a reality, La Presse had revealed in October1.
“They fought with their eyes turned towards the exploitation of the forest, while we had our eyes turned towards the conservation of biodiversity,” recalls Michel Bergeron, mayor of the municipality of Lamarche, Porte d’ entrance to the future protected area.
“It’s not the Alliance that did that, it’s the Regional Conference of Prefects”, defends Yanick Baillargeon.
However, the two organizations share the same premises and the same staff, and they both include the prefects of Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean in their ranks.
It is “normal” for the Boreal Forest Alliance to hold a discourse close to that of certain players in the forest industry, pleads its president Yanick Baillargeon.
“We have factories on our territory with whom we have discussions, because if we want to understand the problems, see where we can help our forest communities to revitalize, because we are often in devitalized regions and municipalities, well you have to have the information of these industrialists,” he explains.
“If you put only the companies, people wouldn’t take them seriously […], that’s why the companies agreed to leave as much initiative as possible to the MRCs, to the prefects,” he said. explained to La Presse.
Companies could offer a “sporadic” financial contribution to the Boreal Forest Alliance, argues Gilles Potvin.
For his part, the former prefect of the MRC de Maria-Chapdelaine and “founding father” of the Boreal Forest Alliance, Jean-Pierre Boivin, affirms that the organization has never received money from the private sector.
Although it is exclusively composed of elected officials and its funding comes entirely from public funds, the Boreal Forest Alliance is a private non-profit organization, which is not required by law to publicly disclose its financial statements.
And she didn’t, until today.
A report on the activities of the organization is made at meetings of the council of mayors of the MRCs, assure the prefects consulted by La Presse. But these meetings are held behind closed doors, they said.
“It’s not public,” conceded the prefect of the MRC of Manicouagan, Marcel Furlong.
“There is no written report, it’s oral,” said the current prefect of the MRC de Maria-Chapdelaine, Luc Simard.
“The Alliance, when it holds its annual general meeting, everyone can have access to information,” said the prefect of the MRC de la Haute-Côte-Nord, Micheline Anctil; however, only members of the organization have access to this assembly.
The Boreal Forest Alliance refused for more than a year to provide La Presse with its financial statements. The organization changed its tune as the publication of this report approached and transmitted those of the years 2020 and 2021.
We learn that its main source of income is a grant of $ 202,500 received from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing as part of the Regional Outreach Support Fund, spread over the years 2020, 2021 and 2022.
A department of the Quebec government thus finds itself financing the activities of an organization that puts pressure on another department of the same government.
La Presse had previously submitted access to information requests to the hundred or so municipalities and RCMs of Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean and Côte-Nord to find out the amounts they pay to the Boreal Forest Alliance. .
The results of these requests show that two MRCs on the North Shore virtually complete the funding for the organization on their own.
The Boreal Forest Alliance pays the Regional Conference of Prefects an annual sum to pay the salary of the Director General which the two organizations share, part of the rent and certain office costs, equipment and materials – this amount was 49 $474 in 2020 and $14,100 in 2021.
The Boreal Forest Alliance should be more transparent, said Danielle Pilette, professor of municipal management at the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM).
“We respect the letter of the law, but it is a diversion from the spirit of the law, which is to make the contributions of municipalities transparent and accountable to the population for what we do with their money” , she says.
“There is something unhealthy, local democracy should be transparent”, also believes Marc-Urbain Proulx, professor of regional economy at the University of Quebec in Chicoutimi (UQAC), who points out that civil society organizations like environmental groups disclose their funding sources.
The Boreal Forest Alliance was founded in 2014, when Resolute Forest Products was the target of a campaign led by Greenpeace, among others, which ended up costing the company its certification of sound forest management. of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). “Elected municipal officials and forest communities, we were nowhere [in the debate], that’s where the Boreal Forest Alliance was born,” says Jean-Pierre Boivin, who was then president. The creation of the organization followed a “widespread campaign” called Forum boréal, which Resolute set up to retaliate against Greenpeace, recalls Karl Blackburn, former MP for Roberval and Liberal organizer, now president and CEO of the council. of Quebec employers, who at the time was senior director of public affairs and government relations for Canada at Resolute. Greenpeace’s assertions were later called into question in a report by Radio-Canada’s Enquête program.
La Presse submitted the financial statements sent by the Boreal Forest Alliance to Raphaël Duguay, assistant professor of accounting at Yale University, in the United States, and associate researcher at the Center interuniversitaire de recherche en analyze des organizations (CIRANO). “Everything appears to be in good standing,” the expert said. The Alliance had its financial statements reviewed by the accounting firm Mallette, which conducted a “review engagement”, a verification less thorough than an audit, but “appropriate for the size of the organization”, believes Mr. Duguay. The Mallette report notes important links between the Boreal Forest Alliance and an “organization under common control”, the Regional Conference of Prefects. “It’s the only thing that jumps out at you,” observes Raphaël Duguay. How much of a detachment from the other organization is there? »
The Boreal Forest Alliance uses different means to influence governments and public opinion in favor of the forest industry, shows the La Presse investigation.
The Boreal Forest Alliance chartered a plane to bring mayors from northern Ontario to Lac-Saint-Jean to participate in a demonstration organized in Saint-Félicien “to support the forest industry” on the 1st of May 2016, show documents obtained by La Presse under the Act respecting access to documents held by public bodies and the protection of personal information and confirms the regional county municipality (MRC) of Maria-Chapdelaine. The plane from the Ontario company Skyservice made the Hearst-Roberval round trip, a transport paid for $ 17,722 by the Boreal Forest Alliance, which then invoiced everything to the MRC de Maria-Chapdelaine.
The Boreal Forest Alliance has retained the services of an Ottawa lobbying firm to try to “change Quebec’s forest regime,” says the provincial lobbyist registry. The value of the two-year contract, which will end on December 31, 2023, is between $10,000 and $50,000. The same firm has also been commissioned to lobby the Canadian government on “the woodland caribou protection strategy,” says the federal lobbyists registry, which does not specify the value of the contract, but states that a meeting was held with Director of Policy in the Office of the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault. “It is difficult to cross the park [des Laurentides] with our stakes, so it took a vehicle to do it”, justified the president of the organization, Yanick Baillargeon.
Former Warden of the MRC de Maria-Chapdelaine and “founding father” of the Boreal Forest Alliance, Jean-Pierre Boivin, visited Ottawa in 2015 with the President and CEO of Resolute Forest Products Richard Garneau at the time, to meet with Conservative Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq and members of her cabinet. “They were threatening to impose a plan [to protect] the woodland caribou, like Minister [Steven] Guilbeault today”, told La Presse Mr. Boivin, who defends this closeness between an elected official and the senior leader of a company. “Whether it was Rémabec, Resolute or others, they had knowledge of the environment and then the repercussions it had on the environment,” he said.
Media releases, briefs, turnkey resolutions for municipalities; To defend the timber industry, the Boreal Forest Alliance multiplies the documents that scientists consider untrue.
“It is wrong to say that the woodland caribou is an endangered species,” said an open letter published in the Quotidien de Saguenay in November 2021.
The text, which contradicts the scientific consensus as well as federal and provincial laws recognizing the precariousness of the woodland caribou, was signed by Luc Simard, prefect of the MRC de Maria-Chapdelaine and then interim president of the Boreal Forest Alliance.
He also claimed that “it is wrong to say that Quebec does not adequately protect the woodland caribou”, because a recovery plan exists, and that other research would provide answers to the questions that remain on the animal.
Titled “Setting the Facts About Caribou,” the text drew a scathing response from large deer researchers titled “Setting the Facts About Caribou…Honestly!” “.
“Having a plan” does not mean that it is implemented effectively and pays off, they countered, adding that “waiting for all studies to be completed would always be putting off decision-making” and that there is “enough knowledge to take action now”.
With the approach of the Independent Commission on Woodland and Mountain Caribou, which concluded in 2022 that it was “urgent to act” to protect these deer1, the Boreal Forest Alliance had sent municipalities a resolution of support to adopted by their respective councils, which many of them have done.
“Everything horrifies me in this document”, which is riddled with “factual errors”, launches the biologist Martin-Hugues St-Laurent, professor at the University of Quebec in Rimouski and expert of the caribou.
“It’s not true that woodland caribou migrate north,” as the Alliance claims, corrects the researcher; “the woodland caribou is dying out in its southern fringe and the surviving populations that we find are further and further north”, he nuances, accusing the organization of making “intellectual shortcuts” and “denialism “.
A dozen municipalities and regional county municipalities (MRC) of Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean had also submitted briefs fully transcribing erroneous passages from that of the Boreal Forest Alliance, reported La Presse2.
Martin-Hugues St-Laurent recognizes the legitimacy of elected officials to defend the workers of their communities, but deplores their strategy which, according to him, consists in “instilling doubt”, which has worked with several successive governments, he observes.
Former Prime Minister Phillipe Couillard had declared during the 2014 election campaign, when he was leader of the Liberal Party of Quebec, that he would not “sacrifice a single job in the forest for the caribou”, a a claim he repeated ahead of the 2018 elections.
Reached by La Presse as part of this report, Philippe Couillard said he supported the Boreal Forest Alliance: “Even today, I support them; it’s important what they do. »
The organization’s influence is not limited to elected officials, according to its former president Jean-Pierre Boivin: des Parcs], we were asked for our opinion […], we were more and more respected,” he recalls.
Quebec Science magazine also devoted a report3 to the strategy of casting doubt on scientific knowledge, which would be used by various industries, citing the case of the Boreal Forest Alliance.
Boreal Forest Alliance president Yanick Baillargeon says the organization doesn’t deny caribou decline; “We questioned the numbers,” he says.
Critics of the Boreal Forest Alliance show that “there is a crying lack of neutral information in Quebec on the state of the forests,” said Yves Bergeron, professor of ecology and forest management at the University of Quebec in Abitibi-Témiscamingue (UQAT) and University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM).
The Quebec government “is not credible in the way it assesses forests,” he said, lamenting that it is judge and jury.
“The chief forester [who determines the volume of wood that the state can allocate to the industry] is a deputy minister of the Ministry of Forests,” Mr. Bergeron wonders.
Biologist Pierre Drapeau, professor at UQAM and co-holder of the UQAT-UQAM Chair in Sustainable Forest Management, agrees.
“I never see studies with evidence of job losses, job longevity,” he says.
“It is a serious democratic deficit, deplores Mr. Drapeau. There should be a public forest observatory, an independent, scientifically neutral body. »