The Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC) has a big mandate.
Tasked with being the domestic and international voice of Canada's wood, pulp and paper producers would keep any organization busy, but FPAC is equally striving to capitalize on the multifaceted windows of opportunity that are blowing wide open. CEO Derek Nighbor carved some time out of a demanding schedule to discuss with Paper Advance the top items on the Association's to-do list.
"It's a busy sector and a busy time," Nighbor said plainly, taking a moment to settle with the taxi driver whose cab he's just hopped into. "The Federal government is doing so much work on innovation and climate change, and our sector has so much opportunity, and so much to offer in these areas." The qualification is not understated. The recent federal budget pledged lofty investments in innovation and skills development, research and collaborative science, building off of the previous year's 2017 Innovation and Skills Plan – an ambitious blueprint to position Canada a the 'go-to' choice for innovative investment. "We are excited about these opportunities but one of the main challenges we're facing is keeping pace with all of the regulatory and policy changes coming at us. The government has been very active in consultations on carbon and other issues, but at the same time as we're trying to be a solutions provider, we also need to devote significant time, energy and resources to participate in these consultations. We face resource constraints, just like everyone else," Nighbor acknowledges.
While FPAC might be short on time, the Association certainly makes fastidious use of the resources at its disposal, tackling big-stakes issues such as sustainable forest management. ''Innovation isn't the only story at play," Nighbor notes, rattling off a list of the areas the organization is seized with on any given day. And then of course there are the communication challenges, and the perpetual need to balance what can often appear as conflicting stakeholder interests. "There can be multiple values at play," Nighbor notes. "The 150 year cycles we have to plan in must account for species management, fires, pests, wetland protection, watershed health – and the list goes on. We are constantly working to remind people about the rigor that goes into forest management, extensive consultations with local communities including Indigenous Peoples, the commitment to ethical and responsible sourcing. There are some activist groups out there who like to attack forest management on principle, who don't think forests should be harvested at all, and it's our job to explain in a meaningful way the benefits of a working forest - that without forest management, more forests would burn, or rot, losing the climate change fighting benefits of active forest management. We would also not be renewing habitat for wildlife and would be less able to support a number of important species to Canadians such as moose and deer who thrive on young forests."
In a time that is heavily focused on reconciliation with First Nations, FPAC is helping lead the charge, but as Nighbor notes, working closely with Indigenous populations isn't just a line item for the Association, it's a way of operating that has been at play for years. "Because so many of our members' operations are in close proximity to First Nations communities, we have been working with them for a long time. This manifests in joint projects, joint ventures, revenue sharing – you name it. We have a lot of experience in working with First Nations and a big part of our role is to share best practices. Certainly consultation and engagement have been the name of the game for us for a long time, but there is always an opportunity to do more." Nighbor noted the particular emphasis the Association places on its ability to calibrate itself to the capacity various First Nations have to engage or undertake consultations. "Certainly some First Nations communities have fewer resources to engage than others do, and it's important for us to understand those challenges and respond to them. Nationally, FPAC recently met with the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Perry Bellegarde, to discuss issues of carbon policy, species-at-risk, and the social and environmental impacts of forestry operations on First Nations communities. We are also working to respond to the recommendations coming out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission by sharing information and providing training and insights on how best to work with First Nations communities. In fact, we have launched a program of awareness training that addresses how we are hiring, because we discovered that our job postings can create barriers for First Nations Peoples and prevent them from applying – which denies us access to a pool of qualified talent. As example, some of our job postings might require an applicant to hold a drivers' license, which may create particular roadblocks for certain populations. We need to create opportunities so that First Nations Peoples can participate."
The uncertainty on how NAFTA will play out has served the Association with another call to action, albeit of a different sort. "Recent developments have shown that our trade environment is unpredictable," says Nighbor, giving a nod to the recent protectionist measures shown by the U.S. and China, and crediting them in part with a meaningful push on behalf of industry to diversify its markets, and insulate itself against the tides of change in trade. "Partnering with the Government of Canada is a big priority for us," Nighbor notes. "We are heavily reliant on the U.S. and always will be, but the more we can shift our export markets to other areas, be it 2, 5 or 10% - it's important. And there is nothing like a few good trade disputes, like the recent ones we've seen on newsprint, supercalendered paper, and softwood lumber, to get people thinking about diversification." Nighbor speaks like a proud parent watching his child tackle a challenging task when he references the strides companies such as Resolute, Canfor, West Fraser and Kruger have made in moving to other product areas by retooling their mills with a keen eye to diversification. He cautions, however, that such efforts aren't necessarily a bulletproof solution, given the cost often associated with producing boutique commodities. "One of the challenges we're facing is global market development for some of these products. I think we are doing a truly excellent job in investing in new ideas, technology and innovation. But in some cases there just isn't the market quite yet to let us scale these up. Two issues are at play there – the cost of commercializing innovation (it's not cheap to build a biorefinery or a tissue plant, after all) and the ability to really get out there and make your case to companies that you have a viable new product and getting them on board. If you think of innovation as a continuum, we are doing a really good job on the bottom and middle rungs of the ladder – the ideas and the investment are there – but we need to focus keenly on commercialization and customer development – turning good ideas to widely-accepted and widely selling products." And therein lays another priority for FPAC, using its role as an Association to working with partners such as FPInnovations, governments, academia, along with a number of non-traditional partners – to help pave the way for member companies to swoop in and make their pitch. While working in this capacity is not new for FPAC, the types of partners the Association is connecting with are untraditional. "The business is changing," Nighbor notes. "We need to be working with people we've never worked with before. When you think of all the new packaging opportunities that opens up new doors in working with our friends in agriculture, just as one example – this is an area we need to be plugged into."
At the same time, FPAC remains acutely aware of the persistent need to protect and nurture its most important resource: people. And so, the Association is making great strides in meeting people, and potential employees, precisely where they're at, by responding to their concerns not only about what types of jobs are available, but by acknowledging and communicating what working in forestry jobs will mean on a more granular level. "A lot of these jobs are in rural areas," Nighbor notes. "And so someone living in Kenora but considering a job in Prince George wants to know what the travel times are like, what housing prices are like, what schools are in the vicinity for their children. To respond to this, we have launched the Greenest Workforce at www.greenestworkforce.ca. This is a sector-specific partnership with Employment and Social Development Canada – the first of its kind in the country - that promotes the new and exciting direction of Canada's forest products industry, while recognizing the 'green' credentials of those who work in the sector. It's also an on-line tool that highlights the work-life balance benefits of the sector and outlines all the various solid careers available in the industry." Nighbor somewhat discounted the perception that blue collar jobs are a thing of the past, noting that the industry will always need labour to work in the bush, and in mills, though that work may look considerably different than it did as few as ten years ago. "Certainly the business is changing, and while some people will point to mill closures the truth is this year alone we have over 8,000 jobs that need to be filled. With advancements like drone technology in forests, just as one example – jobs are changing, but they are there. Right now we are seeing shortages in registered professional foresters, of truckers – and the list goes on."
So too does the list of FPAC's priorities, which the Association assiduously tackles one by one, day by day. If Nighbor's energy and enthusiasm are emblematic of the bright future in store for the industry, the sector is on the right path.