by Conor Mihell

Following a devastating series of layoffs in northern Ontario’s forest industry triggered by downturns in the U.S. market, the prospect of opening a wood-processing mill in Chapleau that would provide 40 local jobs received widespread and enthusiastic support in the town of 1,700, located northwest of Sudbury. But a nearby First Nation community is questioning the environmental implications of feeding the new mill with eastern white cedar, a species that is slow to regenerate and plays an important role in hydrological dynamics.

In 2006, a Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) request for proposals made 128,000 cubic metres of cedar available for annual harvest in the Crown land of its vast Northeastern Ontario Region, which stretches along the north shores of Lake Huron and Lake Superior from Parry Sound to Marathon, and north to Kirkland Lake and Hearst. MNR awarded 60,000 cubic metres – the equivalent of nearly 1,400 truckloads of logs – to Chapleau’s Niska North, along with a grant of $320,000 to produce value-added building products. According to Niska North owner Wade Cachagee, the mill is set to open this fall.

But MNR has not studied the environmental impacts of commercially harvesting so-called underutilized species such as cedar and eastern hemlock. Due to this lack of knowledge and the spiritual values of cedar, Chapleau Cree First Nation chief Keith Corston is calling for a moratorium on harvesting.

“The problem with cedar is that there’s no known way to regenerate it,” says Corston, whose position all 48 of the other chiefs in northern Ontario’s Nishnawbe Aski Nation support. “And since it grows in wetland areas, any aerial spraying will impact groundwater.”

Jen Baker, Ontario Nature’s boreal outreach coordinator, says Chapleau Cree First Nation is raising all the right concerns. “It is critically important that we have a full understanding of the landscape impacts of logging eastern white cedar before harvesting is permitted,” says Baker. “The province must demonstrate that this is an environmentally and economically sustainable option.”