OP/ED: Community owned companies don't necessarily mean community benefits
The communities of the West Boundary have taken a leap of faith. In an economy where the lines between government ownership of resources and private sector businesses don’t often merge, Boundary Wood Products Inc. has been born.
While there are few mainstream examples of community-owned forest operations, some of the best examples of the type of business that the West Boundary communities are forming lie in the First Nations communities. First Nations communities have gained control over woodlands that have accessible, valuable fibre resources. They have used those to their benefit, partnering with forest operations to provide woodlands services and / or milling but usually with agreements for the employment of their people. Bigstone Forestry, a corporation of the Bigstone Cree Nation in Alberta, could serve as a template. Bigstone Forestry is a stump to roadside contractor, with an annual allowable cut of 220,000 cubic metres that requires delivery of cut-to-length (CTL) aspen to Al-Pac and tree length hardwood to Weyerhaeuser. While Bigstone Forestry’s ownership is a limited partnership structure—representing all the communities that comprise the Bigstone Cree nation— overall management policy is set by a board consisting of three band members, two members from Al-Pac, one member from Weyerhaeuser and a neutral chairperson. All earnings are paid in the form of dividends to the aboriginal limited partners of the company through two government-registered trusts, the Evergreen Society and the Elder’s Society. The latter society directs where dividends should be allocated for the social economic benefit of the entire nation. Imagine the opportunities for the potentially community-owned Boundary Wood Products. Their royalties will not only provide for the upkeep of the property they manage, but they could turn around and invest at least a portion of their profits back into their community and be good corporate citizens. Local ownership and control does provide more stability for the area. Currently, if locals do not invest in the company, the ownership will be an individual investor based in Ontario. Then the property will be out of the community’s control. Either way, the mill is going to open. So for the Boundary the question remains – is it worthwhile to put together a community-driven infrastructure investment? Should they invest because there is more to having the local control than just the financial gains at the end of the year? Like community forests, are there community benefits that make the investment that much better? There most definitely are – if you run the company like a community-driven organization and keep the communities’ needs first and foremost in the principles of the company. Otherwise, all you have is another forestry company reaping the benefits of the hard work of the employees and paying out their shareholders. Don’t get me wrong – dividends are not a bad thing. But to be community owned in shareholdings versus a true commitment to community is different. Just look at our local credit unions. Not only do dividends get distributed to their shareholders, but there is a significant commitment to grants for community organizations. Community control and community benefits are more than just talk. It would be nice to see the new company’s board commit to principles and actions that truly benefit everyone.