“We’re being screwed here,” Charles Thériault says from the big pink chair in his straw bale house at Kedgwick River, northeastern New Brunswick.
“We’re letting it happen, our governments are letting it happen,” he adds. “We have no control over our natural resources.”
Thériault is talking about provincial Crown forests and his three-and-a-half year campaign to convince New Brunswickers that we’re giving those public forests away.
Thériault is using his website, Is Our Forest Really Ours?, to document the investigation he’s been conducting since 2012.
He says his work began when he discovered that the big forestry company, J.D. Irving Ltd., was diverting some of the Crown wood it had been allocated away from its Kedgwick sawmill.
“The mill was only working about eight months a year, rather than 12 and only one shift,” he says, adding that over a three-year period, the local economy had lost more than $2 million in work and wages.
Media not interested
But when Thériault tried to interest the New Brunswick news media in the story, he was ignored by journalists and editors except for those at the French-language daily, L’Acadie Nouvelle.
“CBC, CTV/ATV, I contacted all of them, newspapers, of course the Irving papers, and none of them reacted, even when I called them back, they wouldn’t talk to me.”
So, Thériault approached the federation of private woodlot owners who also feel victimized by the big forestry companies.
“For five months, I got a salary, they bought the camera and I just started producing,” he says.
Now, his website has 28 episodes consisting of filmed interviews with a wide range of experts on all aspects of forestry including the Crown forests that are managed by the private companies that lease them.
(Last year, the auditor-general reported that the province paid more in management and silviculture fees to the forestry companies than it received in royalty revenues from the trees the companies cut on Crown land.)
In his first episode, Thériault interviews William Parenteau, a University of New Brunswick professor who describes New Brunswick as “a client state,” a place where dominant industries have more power than the provincial government.
It’s an idea that Thériault speaks about passionately as we talk by his wood stove in Kedgwick River.
“The first thing if a corporation wants to control a country, take control of their natural resources,” he says, “and then take control of [the] legislature, then control the information, control the media.”
Thériault uses the term “corporate capture” rather than “client state,” but for the him, the results are the same for New Brunswick.
“We’re kept blind and we’re kept stupid, misinformed and we don’t have access to the revenues from our resources,” he says — all themes he pursues in Episode 21 of his website series.
Creating jobs, not just profits
Thériault says his work shows that big forestry companies are more concerned about making profits than about creating as many jobs as possible.
“We’re turning our natural forests into a fibre farm,” he says, planting “cheap trees” such as black spruce that replace valuable hardwoods native to the Acadian forest.
“We’re chopping it all down and planting these cheap spruce trees to furnish a market that is based on volume and not on quality.”
Thériault points, for example, to the localGroupe Savoie hardwood mill that employs 600 people producing a variety of products including pallets, cabinet doors and wood chips. He says the mill uses about 300-thousand cubic metres of hardwood while the local Irving mill uses the same volume of softwoods each year, but employs only 60 people to produce construction lumber such as two by fours for the U.S. market.
“Their object is not to create work,” Thériault says of the Irving mill, “their object is to make profit.”
In Episode 20 of his website series, Thériault visits Boisaco, a company in Quebec’s Saguenay region that employs more than 700 people to make a wide-variety of wood products from both softwoods and hardwoods.
“This mill in Quebec is worker-owned,” he says, “so the dollars stay in the community…and they’re the same size as far as the amount of wood cut in a year. But here we’ve got 50 some odd jobs and there we’ve got 700 jobs.”
Taxes and subsidies
Thériault’s current series ends with an episode that looks at how Irving companies use tax havens and complicated corporate transactions to avoid paying taxes.
The episode features an interview with Dennis Howlett of Canadians for Tax Fairness who explains how such tax avoidance schemes deprive New Brunswick of revenues needed to reduce poverty, maintain roads and finance education and health care while at the same time, both the federal and provincial governments are giving the Irvings and other corporate owners grants, loans and tax breaks for their various enterprises.
Thériault shakes his head as he recalls starting out on his website project in 2012.
“I thought I could probably do it in six months,” he says. “It’s been three-and-a-half years and there’s still so much to talk about, still so much to discover.” He adds that the more he keeps digging into the way New Brunswick gives away its natural resources, the more he finds out.
“I’d like to go to other countries and see how they’re dealing with their resources,” he says, hoping that would convince New Brunswickers that things don’t have to be the way they are here.
As we end our talk, Thériault returns to his main theme.
“We’re being screwed,” he says, “and basically we’re being screwed by a company that doesn’t pay any taxes and, we’re letting it happen.”
This story originally appeared in The Wark Times.