Nova Scotia’s NDP are planning to raise the issue of Paper Excellence and the findings of a recent media investigation into the company at an upcoming meeting of the provincial Natural Resources and Economic Development Committee.
This follows a successful motion by the federal NDP natural resources critic, MP Charlie Angus, to invite Paper Excellence owner Jackson Wijaya appear before the Standing Committee on Natural Resources to “discuss the ownership structure and business relations of the Paper Excellence Corporation” and report the findings back to parliament. Angus expects the parliamentary investigation to begin in May.
In an interview with the Halifax Examiner, Nova Scotia NDP leader Claudia Chender said she had been following the media coverage of Paper Excellence that emerged from an investigation undertaken jointly by the Examiner, CBC, Glacier Media, Le Monde and Radio France, which was part of the global Deforestation Inc. project led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).
“The investigation is obviously very concerning,” Chender said. While she’s been in the legislature since 2017 and the Northern Pulp story is not new to her, Chender said the provincial NDP had not been aware of the “complexity of the ownership of Paper Excellence, or its reach in Canada.”
The investigation showed that following its earlier buying spree of individual pulp mills in Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, and British Columbia, as well as in France between 2007 and 2015, in recent years Paper Excellence has been rapidly swallowing up large pulp and paper companies in Canada and dramatically expanding its foothold in North America.
In 2019, Paper Excellence acquired Catalyst Paper with three mills in British Columbia. In 2022 it took over the North American pulp and paper giant Domtar, and just a year later in March 2023, Paper Excellence absorbed Resolute Forest Products through its new subsidiary, Domtar.
Paper Excellence is a private company owned by Jackson Wijaya, son of Teguh Ganda Wijaya (sometimes spelled Widjaja) who owns Asia Pulp & Paper and the massive Sinar Mas Group.
Today Paper Excellence is by far the largest pulp and paper player in Canada, controlling 21% of the market and 22 million hectares of forestland in the country, an area four times the size of Nova Scotia.
As part of the Deforestation Inc. investigation, the Examiner reported that Northern Pulp still has a licence to harvest 100,000 green metric tonnes of wood on 308,000 hectares of public land in Nova Scotia.
The Northern Pulp mill has been closed since January 2020, and Paper Excellence has filed a lawsuit against the province for $450 million, which is being discussed in closed-door “mediation” that Northern Pulp requested, and British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Shelley Fitzpatrick then forced on Nova Scotia.
Chender said Northern Pulp’s continued lease on Crown land in the absence of an operating mill is one of the issues about Paper Excellence that the NDP are hoping to have discussed by the province’s Natural Resources Committee.
“We know that the lease comes up again [for renewal] in July,” Chender said. “This is one of the reasons we’d like to have this in committee, to see what the strategy is around that lease and what the details are. It’s very difficult to find the details around that lease. Hopefully we could get answers to those questions in the committee setting.”
Chender noted as the third party in the legislature, the NDP can get only one topic onto the agenda, so it may be “at least a few months” before they are able to get Paper Excellence discussed by the Natural Resources Committee.
The complexity of the Northern Pulp case
Chender said that she’s been following the media investigation into Paper Excellence with interest, and that even before that, she was closely tracking the Boat Harbour Act, and what happened subsequently.
The Boat Harbour Act, passed in 2015 under the former Liberal government of Stephen McNeil, stipulated that Northern Pulp, owned since 2011 by Paper Excellence, stop using Boat Harbour for its pulp effluent by January 2020.
Northern Pulp failed to get environmental approval for its proposed replacement effluent treatment facility and plan to pipe the treated effluent into the Northumberland Strait by that time, and thus the mill went into hibernation.
Since then, Paper Excellence has submitted a new proposal for modernizing the pulp mill that is undergoing a Class II environmental assessment with Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change.
Chender noted that the issues around the pulp mill, its creditor protection, and lawsuit against the province create “a lot of complexity.” She said another piece of the complexity is “the employment situation in rural Nova Scotia, which has always been a big piece of the Northern Pulp story, from the very beginning,” and something she believes is a “rare point of alignment” between the NDP, Liberals, and the Progressive Conservatives.
Chender added that the NDP “were glad to see the Boat Harbour Act passed,” and also enforced, although they had pushed for stronger environmental regulations. “Northern Pulp’s assertion that somehow they’re being unfairly subjected to rigorous standards doesn’t sit well with us,” she said. “We’re kind of waiting to see what happens.”
An NDP riding association in British Columbia has passed a motion calling on the NDP in that province to investigate Paper Excellence following the Deforestation Inc. investigation. But Chender noted that the NDP are in power in British Columbia, meaning they could launch a provincial government investigation.
Chender added that the ongoing litigation against Nova Scotia by Paper Excellence makes it difficult to comment on the company “in the political sphere.”
Premier unable to comment, Liberals waiting for the feds
This is certainly the case with Premier Tim Houston. In response to questions about the media findings on Paper Excellence, the premier’s press secretary Catherine Klimek sent this reply:
The Province continues to be involved in court-ordered mediation related to the CCAA [Companies’ Creditor Arrangement Act] proceeding [in the British Columbia Supreme Court]. This prevents us from commenting on matters related to Northern Pulp at this time. I can assure you that our team is representing Nova Scotians’ best interests and monitoring all information very closely.
The Liberals were not much more forthcoming. In response to the same set of questions, leader of the opposition and Liberal leader Zach Churchill sent this short statement:
The situation in Boat Harbour has been an issue in our province for decades, which is why our former Liberal government closed it until environmental standards could be met. Forestry is a vital sector in our province’s economy, which is why our party is supportive of any company that wants to operate in Nova Scotia, provided it meets the necessary environmental standards. We are monitoring the investigation, but look to the federal government to respond on matters of corporate governance.
Neither Houston or Churchill agreed to an interview.
In contrast, Nova Scotia Green Party leader Anthony Edmonds did speak with the Examiner. He said the issues around Northern Pulp have been “prominent in discussions” among party members for many years. As for the findings by the Deforestation Inc. investigation, Edmonds said:
These more recent revelations have been starting to trickle through and become topics of discussion for us. I think it would be fair to say we’re shocked, we’re disgusted, but I would say not entirely surprised. Obviously the investigation has laid bare all sorts of things. There’s a pattern of behaviour. They’re flouting regulations. They’re coming into conflict with governments and regulators and authorities, making particularly questionable business decisions and practices. And of course, all against the backdrop of making terribly unsustainable ecological decisions and really causing environmental damage.
Edmonds, whose party doesn’t have a seat in the provincial legislature, said he would like to see “people of all political stripes” take up the issues about Paper Excellence exposed by the media.
“I can’t see why everyone can’t get behind an investigation to really dig into this,” he said. “It affects anybody who cares about the welfare of private woodlot owners, about foreign ownership of resources, about sustainable forests generally, or for that matter, about the health of our free market.”
Edmonds noted that there are direct implications for all Nova Scotians, given the ongoing litigation by Paper Excellence and the outstanding debts exceeding $86 million that Paper Excellence has with the province.
The Examiner has asked Paper Excellence for its reaction to the provincial NDP decision to ask the province’s Natural Resources Committee to look into the media findings about the company. When we receive a reply, we’ll update this article.