This is the first of a series of articles resulting from a yearlong investigation into Paper Excellence, already Canada’s largest pulp and paper producer and now even bigger with today’s completion of the acquisition of North American logging giant, Resolute Forest Products. These articles are part of the much larger “Deforestation Inc.”collaboration of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) that involved 39 media outlets, and 140 journalists in 27 countries writing about forests and forest products, the forestry industry and major players in it, deforestation and greenwashing around the world. The Examiner partnered with journalists in France (Le Monde, Radio France), Canada (CBC, Glacier Media), and the United States (Inside Climate News) to produce this series.
In 2016, a plume of acrid air laden with emissions from Paper Excellence’s pulp mill in northern Nova Scotia wafted 40 kilometres from Pictou through the clear blue sky to my home and into my life, launching me on a quest to find out more about the source of the stench. That turned into a yearlong investigation of the history of the mill, and eventually a book.
Six years later a different kind of missive landed out of the blue, this one an email from China, which launched another yearlong research project, this time into the corporate ownership of the pulp mill and its very long reach around the world.
The person who sent the email – I’ll call him Jim – wrote that he’d come across an article I’d written for the Halifax Examiner about the acquisition of the North American pulp and paper giant Domtar by Paper Excellence, giving the latter — a private and foreign-owned company with an extremely complex corporate structure — a huge footprint in both Canada and the United States.
Paper Excellence is the owner of the Northern Pulp mill in Pictou County, Nova Scotia, but it is also a cog in the vast, immensely wealthy corporate empire of the multi-billionaire Sino-Indonesian Widjaja family, which includes Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) and the Sinar Mas Group. Forbes pegs the Widjaja family net worth at US$10.8 billion.
Jim wrote that he had worked as a manager with Asia Pulp & Paper in Shanghai for a couple of years. He said if we could communicate discreetly, he would be willing to tell me more about practices he saw during his tenure.
I always think twice — and do a lot of googling — before replying to emails from senders I don’t know. In this case I thought about it far more than just twice. It seemed a very, very long shot that someone in China would have read a Halifax Examiner article, and then gone to the trouble of tracking down the author to spill some beans about his time working within the business empire of the Widjaja family in Shanghai.
According to Graham Kissack, Paper Excellence vice president of corporate communications, Jackson Wijaya (Wijaya is a more modern spelling of Widjaja, and the one Kissack says he prefers) is the “ultimate owner” of Paper Excellence. Paper Excellence reiterates that in its response to ICIJ questions, saying the company is “solely owned” by Jackson Wijaya and it is “completely independent from Asia Pulp & Paper.”
Jackson Wijaya is the son of Teguh Ganda Widjaja (sometimes Oei Tjie Goan), the long-time chair of Asia Pulp & Paper and the Sinar Mas Group.
That makes Jackson Wijaya the grandson of the late Eka Tjipta Widjaja, who founded the massive — and massively complex and opaque — Sinar Mas private business empire, with its webs of offshore companies in places like the British Virgin Islands (ranked the world’s #1 tax haven), Bermuda (#3), the Netherlands (#4), Hong Kong (#7), Singapore (#9), Mauritius (#15). The Sinar Mas group has, according to the international network BankTrack,“remained a family business since his death.”
In recent years, Paper Excellence has been on a buying spree in North America. In 2019 it bought Catalyst Paper in British Columbia, and two years later swallowed up Domtar, making it the largest pulp and paper producer in Canada.
Today, Paper Excellence became much, much bigger. Through its subsidiary Domtar, it has now completed its acquisition of Resolute Forest Products.
Now that the merger is complete, and once Domtar has abided by conditions imposed by the Competition Bureau of Canada to sell off two of its mills in Ontario, Paper Excellence and its subsidiaries will have a 21% market share of Canada’s total pulp and paper sector based on 2021 data, according to the Forest Products Association of Canada.
It will also manage more than 22 million hectares of Canadian woodlands.
That’s an area four times the size of Nova Scotia.
The Nova Scotia connection
According to Statistics Canada’s inter-corporate ownership report, in 2021 there were more than 50 Paper Excellence companies resident in Canada, 47 of which are controlled from Indonesia.
Paper Excellence disputes that Paper Excellence is controlled from Indonesia, saying Statistics Canada is incorrect and tells ICIJ it is “working with Statistics Canada to rectify the error,” and we’ll revisit this issue and Statistics Canada’s response to that in a subsequent article.
Northern Pulp and its affiliates in Nova Scotia are among those Paper Excellence companies owned by Jackson Wijaya.
One of them, Northern Timber Nova Scotia, owns over 420,000 acres (170,000 hectares) in Nova Scotia, thanks to a $75 million loan in 2010 from the province to the mill’s previous owners, most of which has yet to be repaid.
That means Jackson Wijaya controls more than 3% of Nova Scotia’s land mass.
Wijaya, as the “ultimate owner” of Paper Excellence is also ultimately associated with the lawsuit “expected to exceed $450 million” that Northern Pulp and its affiliates, Paper Excellence and Hervey Investment BV (Netherlands), filed against the province of Nova Scotia in December 2021 for “indemnified losses” from the 2020 closing of the Northern Pulp mill.
But you won’t find Jackson Wijaya’s name — either the English version or the Chinese one that appears on financial documents in Hong Kong (黃傑勝 that translates as Huang Jiesheng) — on the Paper Excellence website. Paper Excellence was asked why Wijaya’s name does not appear on the corporation’s website, and asked to clarify his position and title. It did not reply to those questions.
Nor does Jackson Wijaya’s name appear on the filings of eight Northern Pulp affiliates in the Nova Scotia Registry of Joint Stocks. The current registrations for the Northern Pulp companies, which declared themselves “insolvent” in June 2020 in the British Columbia Supreme Court, name only one director — Choong Wei Tan (also known as Robin Tan) — and one “officer (General Manager)” – Bruce Chapman.
Bruce Chapman was running the Northern Pulp mill before it closed. Since June 2020, he has been describing himself as “general manager (Northern Pulp) of Paper Excellence Canada Holdings Corporation” in the affidavits he submits to the British Columbia Supreme Court where Northern Pulp has been enjoying creditor protection.
Wijaya, however, keeps a low profile.
There are precious few photos of Jackson Wijaya on the Internet, but one there is comes from a 2019 tweet from Eduardo Bolsonaro, son of Brazil’s former far-right president.
So who is this extraordinarily private member of the Widjaja family, who reportedly “doesn’t give interviews,” and how did Paper Excellence, a foreign-owned entity that Statistics Canada still says has links to the Sinar Mas Group, come to be Canada’s largest pulp and paper company, with access so much forest land?
That is a long and sometimes bewildering tale that we’ll explore in this series.
But first, a bit of the local back story.
Paper Excellence ‘friends’ in Nova Scotia
In recent years preceding this ICIJ collaboration, the Examiner has reported extensively on Northern Pulp, looking at the environmental mess the mill made of Boat Harbour, once a pristine and precious estuary so valuable to Pictou Landing First Nation that they called it “A’Se’K,” or “the other room.”
We’ve reported in depth on the mill’s pollution, and its plans for a new effluent treatment facility that would pipe treated effluent directly into rich fishing grounds in the Northumberland Strait, a proposal that failed to pass environmental muster as it was presented, leading to the closure of the mill in January 2020.
We have also reported on the company’s creditor protection case, its $450 million lawsuit against Nova Scotia, and the incredible generosity of successive provincial governments of all political stripes to five successive mill owners.
And we’ve looked closely at Paper Excellence’s “woo-and-sue” tactics in the province, how often Northern Pulp has gone to court to challenge provincial government decisions, and at Northern Pulp’s “friends” who are pushing to have the pulp mill in Pictou re-opened.
The Friends of a New Mill (originally they called themselves “Friends of a new Northern Pulp”) was founded by five men who are heavily invested in industrial forestry and milling in Nova Scotia. However, those five men who comprise the steering committee of the group, claim to speak for more people than just themselves, saying, “We are the 36,000 Nova Scotians who own small and large woodlots.”
This can’t be strictly true, because that would make me — and every other woodlot owner in the province — a “friend” of the new Northern Pulp mill.
I know several who are most definitely not “friends” of the mill, new or old.
The Halifax Examiner asked the Friends of a New Mill who finances their group, if they have funding from Northern Pulp, how many members they have, and whether they feel justified speaking for all Nova Scotia woodlot owners. So far, there has been no reply.
Paper Excellence orchestrates a bookstore boycott
“Friendly” is certainly not the word I’d use to describe Northern Pulp’s campaign against my 2017 book The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest.
After repeated polite requests for interviews with mill managers when I was doing research for the book, eventually Paper Excellence communications director Kathy Cloutier wrote to say, “Upon discussion within Paper Excellence, Northern Pulp executive team and board members the decision has been made that Northern Pulp will not participate in this project.”
A request for an interview with Northern Pulp board chair, former Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative Premier John Hamm, was sent by registered mail.
In 2002, then-Premier Hamm had passed an Order in Council extending the mill’s use of Boat Harbour until 2030, which is one of the grounds for which Paper Excellence is seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation for losses caused by its 2020 closure.
Hamm was also named as one who helped “conceptualize and execute” the $75 million provincial loan for Northern Pulp’s purchase of 475,000 acres of timberland in the province. So there was lots to ask the Northern Pulp board chair.
Unfortunately, that interview request met with silence.
But it didn’t take long for Northern Pulp to break its silence after the book was published.
About a week later, Cloutier wrote an email for current and retired employees saying that in her opinion, the book was “a non-factual rhetoric filled account of the mill and its history” and “offensive to anyone who has an association with the mill.”
She noted that a local Coles bookstore was hosting a book signing, and said many employees had signed a form letter attached to her email, and had forwarded the letter to the bookstore and to the national Coles / Chapters headquarters in Toronto. She was sharing the email in case others wanted to do the same.
That form letter said if the book signing went ahead, the sender would boycott the national book chain.
The Coles bookstore proprietor told me there had also been threats from mill employees that they would destroy every copy of the book if I were allowed to sign it at the store. She also said she had a tall stack of the signed form letters.
The book signing was cancelled.
So it would be nudging reality over a cliff for the “friends” of a new mill to claim that all of us who own woodlots in Nova Scotia are friends to Northern Pulp and its parent companies, or vice versa. I’ve received some not-at-all-friendly messages from mill supporters in recent years.
Reacting to the email from China
Hence my circumspection about the email from someone in China, and who might really be behind it, and for what purpose.
Related: The curious case of ‘Red Roof Events’: A ‘global leading speakers agency’ contacted a Nova Scotia lawyer with strange questions about his work for groups opposed to Northern Pulp’s proposed effluent treatment facility. Then the agency vanished.
But the email had piqued my curiosity and some online searching suggested the person was both real and reliable. There seemed no harm replying that I would be interested in at least hearing what he had to say.
So here we are, just over a year later, and it’s time to report on the deep dive done by ICIJ partners in Canada, France, and the United States into Paper Excellence and Asia Pulp & Paper, and Wijaya family businesses in Nova Scotia, across Canada, and on other continents.
An investigation that began — at least my small part of it — with an email from a whistleblower I’m calling Jim.
He says he was fired from APP, but that is not the reason he wants this story told.
Jim believes it crucial and urgent that people in North America — especially regulators and politicians — know more about Asia Pulp & Paper and Paper Excellence, the rapid expansion of the Wijaya family’s private business empire into the Americas, and its growing control of the pulp and paper industry and the forests that feed it.
“The pulp industry is an old-boys’ club,” Jim says. “And when we have a boys’ club you basically live with these implicit rules that there are no rules.”
Next: Pictou Landing First Nation Chief Andrea Paul recalls her own interactions with representatives of Paper Excellence, and the effect they had on her and her community.
 British Columbia Land Owner Transparency documents for Catalyst Paper Corporation Crofton Mill properties in BC show Jackson Wijaya as the “principal interest holder” and give his principal residence as Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong and his country of citizenship as Indonesia.
 In its April 26, 2010 quarterly newsletter, Atlas Holdings wrote about the land deal, saying “We are grateful for the assistance of the Provincial government, Nova Scotia community leaders and our partners in Northern Pulp, Dr. John Hamm and Blue Wolf Capital Management, who helped us conceptualize and execute this complex transaction. http://www.atlasholdingsllc.com/news/?id=16
 The book couldn’t have been quite as bad as Cloutier said it was: it was shortlisted for four Atlantic Book awards in 2018, and won the award for scholarly writing.