Social license is a term that we are hearing more and more in the forestry sector. The term is a bit abstract and there can be many different reactions from members of the industry – ranging from deep concern to intentional dismissal.
CFI sat down with Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC) President and CEO, Derek Nighbor, to discuss what it means nationally to have or not have a permit social, why it matters and what we as an industry should be doing about it.
CFI: What does it mean for an industry to have a social licence?
Neighbour : I think, for me, it comes down to understanding, accepting, and coming to terms with what is happening in our forests for the people who live there and around them. Starting with the BC context, I visit different parts of the country and I actually don’t see the same level of cynicism and tension that I see in BC and I think that’s interesting to point out.
We are seeing record investment in the industry in Saskatchewan, we are seeing significant investment in opportunities in Alberta, and recently Ontario launched the biomass strategy and made a significant investment in a new OSB mill in Wow.
I don’t want to overlook the importance of the ongoing conversation, the difficult conversations and the debates, but I also think it’s important to distinguish that some of the challenges we face in British Columbia are very different from what see us back east in the rest of the country.
CFI: How would you characterize the public’s perception of the forest industry? Conversely, what do you think is the public’s perception of the industry?
Neighbour : We are surrounded by a lot of bad stories and debate and discussion in our industry is the lifeblood of what our business is. I tell my friends who live in more urban centers that this is no different from residential rezoning. There will be a lot of different opinions about what’s going on with this new building – how tall will it be, how many parking spaces, what will it do to sightlines? It comes down to community values, perspectives, and ideas about what will work and what won’t.
We just had a poll that was released by our partners at Abacus Data. This clearly shows that Canadians are with the forestry sector. If you look at the group that perceives the sector as very positive to positive, the numbers show that 46% of Canadians fall into that category. The negative and the very negative is at 16%. Another big block is 39 percent who still don’t have an opinion. For us as an industry, we’re not going to ignore people who have negative opinions – I think those conversations remain important – but there will be an element of this group that will be unwavering. We deal daily with some of these groups who have no interest in finding balanced and thoughtful solutions for economic, social and environmental outcomes. They just don’t want forestry, period.
But we have a significant number of Canadians who are mobile and who are open and who want to know more and I think that’s the big opportunity for our sector.
CFI: Let’s talk about this survey. What are the other big lessons from this data and what conclusions can we draw?
Neighbour : If we look at the poll we did two years ago, we saw that this group of undecided people who are at 39% today were at 58% two years ago – so there has been a significant movement there and more of them broke us than not. . The numbers are pretty consistent from region to region, part of the country to another, with a significant movement in favor of the sector, but still a significant gap between lovers and haters, if you will.
We also draw on the basis of voting intentions – Liberals, New Democrats and Conservatives – the positive to negative for Liberal and Conservative voters was almost the same. Urban Liberal government voters who are less likely to live in rural and northern areas had very similar feelings about forestry as their Conservative counterparts.
It feels like as we become more urbanized and more and more new Canadians come to Canada, they may not have much of an opinion of us or they may be inclined not to love because they don’t know enough about us, but we found people who immigrated to Canada had a slightly more positive view of the industry than Canadians who were born here. We didn’t dig deep to see why, but that was another pretty interesting bit.
CFI: What do you see as working orders for the industry after seeing this data? What should be done to move the needle in the right direction.
Neighbour : We need to continue talking to our people in communities like Prince George and Whitecourt, Thunder Bay and Lac-Saint-Jean who know us well, but we also need to start talking to families in the suburbs, millennials living in downtown Toronto and Vancouver, about our industry. That’s been a big part of our outreach goal – to reach people who aren’t part of our more traditional audience.
The other thing is to find those opportunities to continue to align with Canadian values. Canadians proved in the last federal election that they still want action on climate change, that they still want more support for Indigenous peoples, that they still want to protect communities from worsening fires and pests. The more we can talk about conservation values and how forestry can be a solution there, the better.
CFI: In your opinion, what are the issues if the industry loses or continues to lose its social licence? What would that look like?
Neighbour : Well, I think it’s a challenge to have investor confidence. I think it’s a cloud over the industry. I am in my third and final year as President of the International Council of Forest and Paper Associations, and it is an absolute privilege to be around the table with my counterparts in places like Brazil and South Africa. South, Japan, Sweden and Finland. We can see what is happening in other parts of the world and it is amazing to tell them how much they revere and admire Canadian forestry. Our brand on the world stage is still very strong.
The majority of these global counterparts deal with plantation forests and a lot of private forest lands, and in Canada we have managed forests with multiple and sometimes competing values. I really sense a global trend in this direction of planting, and I think it is absolutely essential to defend and preserve the concept of active forest that we have in Canada. But I also think threats and attacks on logging operations are a significant threat to the future of logging in Canada.
Listen, we’re an industry that needs to keep changing. We need to look at different ways of dealing with fire and carbon and the industry has proven to be open to these changes.
CFI: Based on the survey data, based on your conversations with Canadians and your work with government, what is the good news here?
Neighbour : The good news is how we can spur growth and economic opportunity for families and communities in need while taking action for the climate.
We are one of the few sectors that can actually help other sectors to decarbonize. The shift to bioplastics, the shift to using biomass in cement, the ability to decarbonize asphalt by adding wood fiber – we have all of these full value chain opportunities in our industry. If you add to that the public land base, public engagement and local science, there is a lot of work ahead of us in forestry.
But there’s no doubt: wood fiber products still present that low-carbon opportunity and, given the abundance of forest in Canada, that positions us as a global leader. and with a huge opportunity to do more.
CFI: What will it take as individuals, companies and sectoral initiatives to obtain a social licence? What steps would you like to see?
Neighbour : I want us as an industry to be proud and tell our story more. Our foresters and biologists and the technicians I meet when I travel across the country inspire me a lot, but they are not always the best communicators. They tend to be the type that likes to be outside, keep their heads down, and get the job done. My wish is that more will stand up and tell their story and be proud, because we have a great story to tell and we must continue to tell it. And we have to find different ways to say it and we have to find different audiences to say it to.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.