The Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement (CBFA), one of the most ignominious deals in Canadian business history, is being quietly euthanized. Last week, its Ottawa-based secretariat was closed, without fanfare or eulogy. However, most of the agreement’s signatories seem as reluctant to admit its demise as they have been to acknowledge its true nature.
According to Derek Nighbor of the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC), which led the industry into the deal in 2010, the agreement isn’t really dead; it is “transitioning to a new model.” Nighbor, a veteran of retail and packaged-goods industry associations, who has been head of FPAC for less than a year, claims that the CBFA has had its successes, and that forest companies are keen to “leverage the good learnings” from six years of “investment in bilateral decision-making.”
Lorne Johnson, a green consultant who was not merely a facilitator of the CBFA but its secretariat’s first co-executive director, agrees that “death” isn’t really the right word. It’s more a “recalibration of the delivery model.”
So what exactly is the CBFA, why was it a bad deal, and why is everybody so keen to claim that it is still nailed to its perch?
The modus operandi of radical environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOS), particularly those concentrating on the forest industry, since the theatrical protests at Clayoquot Sound a quarter-century ago has increasingly been to bring businesses to heel by harassing their customers. Then, in return for calling off the dogs, the ENGOs offer “partnership.” One problem is that the dogs usually don’t get called off. Meanwhile corporations rarely dare to ask where these self-appointed guardians of Gaia gain their own “social licence.” We certainly know where they get a lot of their funding: from giant U.S. foundations and charities bearing names such as Pew, Hewlett, Packard and Rockefeller, all of which have been meddling in Canadian environmental and energy policy for years.
In Canada, the Ivey Foundation, headed by Bruce Lourie — co-author of the classic junk-science book Slow Death by Rubber Duck — was particularly prominent in funding ENGO activism and bringing about the CBFA. Ivey funded Lorne Johnson’s role as the agreement’s facilitator, and Johnson is still a “senior program advisor” for Ivey. Intriguingly, so is Avrim Lazar, who, as then head of the forest product association, was meant to be on the industry side of the agreement.
As a federal bureaucrat, Lazar had helped negotiate Canada’s suicidal climate commitments under Kyoto. He seemed typical of the tendency of industry more generally to hire representatives who think more like their opponents than them. Before the agreement was signed, Lazar could be seen, sounding like Al Gore, on FPAC’s website, delivering primitive neo-Malthusian sentiments such as “We all know that if we are going to keep the planet for our children, we are going to have to consume a little less.”
Since leaving FPAC, Lazar has become a radical environmental advocate, calling for the movement to rise up in an “Environmental Spring.” He was also instrumental in trying to persuade the oil industry to “collaborate” with ENGOs, the poisoned fruit of which was the 2015 agreement to cap oilsands emissions, an agreement that split the industry.
Did Lazar lead FPAC into the boreal agreement after negotiating the best deal he could, or was he a Judas goat? Whose side was he on? Whatever the answer to that question, there is no doubt that Canada’s most prominent forestry companies had been browbeaten by the do-not-buy “market campaigns” of a pack of rabid ENGOs, led by Greenpeace and ForestEthics (now Stand.earth), and “encouraged” by the Philadelphia-based Pew Charities’ Steve Kallick (who leads Pew’s boreal involvements and has also called for a halt to oilsands expansion), and Ivey’s Lourie and Johnson, to sign a plan ostensibly to “protect” the Canadian boreal forest.
The boreal covers an area 13 times the size of California and is one of the best-managed in the world. It is under zero threat of deforestation, so the deal was somewhat like an agreement to protect the sands of the Sahara. Most bizarrely, it excluded aboriginal groups, local communities and even governments. It was nothing less than an attempt by unelected, mainly U.S.-funded groups to seize control of Canadian environmental policy, and maybe a whole lot more.
According to Lazar at the time, however, “The importance of this agreement cannot be overstated…. Together we have identified a more intelligent, productive way to manage economic and environmental challenges in the boreal that will reassure global buyers of our products’ sustainability.” The deal would allegedly give corporate signatories a “competitive edge” in much same way, say, as not having your legs broken by the mafia might give you a competitive edge in a foot race.
Equally disgraceful, a number of forest industry customers — including media giants such as The Globe and Mail — agreed to join something called the “Boreal Business Forum,” which would hold the forest companies’ feet to the fire if those feet failed to dance to the ENGOs’ tune. The Globe wrote editorials praising the CBFA to the skies, despite the fact that an unpublished internal analysis by KPMG of the agreement’s first operating period revealed comprehensive internal discord and few, if any, achievements.
This discord erupted into the open towards the end of the agreement’s original three-year term when ENGO signatory Greenpeace — an organization that was “post-truth” decades before the term was invented — broke away to attack leading corporate signatory, Resolute Forest Products, with a lumber truckload of misinformation. Another ENGO signatory, Canopy, departed claiming that “The disappointing reality is that not one hectare of forest has been protected and species and ecosystems are still at risk.” Apart from revealing hysterical absolutism, this statement in fact contradicted the stance of the other environmental groups, who declared that great progress was being made; the only problem was Resolute. All the ENGO signatories conspicuously suspended dealings with the company, gathering in a pack for what they hoped would be the kill. The forest products association was nowhere to be seen, although, to be fair, that reflected the fact that its other members were terrified that the customer harassment would escalate again.
However, throwing out the playbook of corporate appeasement, Montreal-based Resolute, led by intrepid CEO Richard Garneau, decided to fight back. It sued Greenpeace for “defamation, malicious falsehood and intentional interference with economic relations.” Early last year, Resolute upped the ante by bringing a racketeering case against Greenpeace in the U.S. Meanwhile forest communities and aboriginal groups were also beginning to kick back against the investment and job costs of the spreading Green Blob.
Most of those officially involved averted their gaze from Resolute’s unseemly display of backbone, pretending that everything was proceeding swimmingly. Typical was a panel session on the boreal at the biannual Globe conference in Vancouver last year. Aran O’Carroll (who lost his job last week as executive director of the CBFA’s secretariat) acknowledged that the agreement had been preceded by some “adversity,” but said that corporations’ “good behaviour” had led to “recognition in the marketplace.” He made no mention of the ENGOs’ outrageously bad behaviour in the marketplace, but then O’Carroll had previously been employed by CPAWS, one of the ENGO signatories.
Paul Lansbergen, then acting head of FPAC, described the agreement as a “journey of collaboration,” a bit like a marriage, where you had to learn to live with your “new life partner.” But if marriage was an appropriate analogy, it was of the forced and/or abusive variety. Ivey’s Lourie boasted that Avrim Lazar, when he was still representing the forest companies, had discovered Lourie’s key role in funding the CBFA by “following the money.”
Nobody on the panel mentioned Resolute or Greenpeace, or why another of the original signatories, the David Suzuki Foundation, had quietly exited the year before (the Suzuki Foundation didn’t respond to an inquiry about why it left).
Behind the scenes, meanwhile, the great collaboration had ground to a standoff. It was decided — although when and by whom is unclear — to let the CBFA fade away. Undoubtedly Garneau’s resolve had stiffened some spines. When somebody reportedly suggested to the CEO of another company that what was needed was “CBFA 2.0,” the CEO responded that what was actually needed was “CBFA 0.0.”
FPAC’s new head, Nighbor, claims, as noted, that the CBFA is not really dead, per se. Meanwhile don’t forget those “successes.” For example, there are “methodological frameworks” that Nighbor admits are beyond him, but which apparently couldn’t have been hatched without ENGO guns to corporate heads.
After that boreal session in Vancouver last year, I introduced myself to someone who worked for one of the corporate signatories of the CBFA. “I love your stuff,” the executive said. “You write what we can’t say.” After we parted, the individual came after me and said “You won’t quote me on that, will you?”
None of this is to say that all environmental organizations are wicked, or that there are no environmental issues, or that responsible ENGOs have no role to play. It seems that corporations will now return to dealing with environmental groups individually and on an issue-by-issue basis, but hopefully only those who act, as Nighbor suggested, “in good faith.”
Any free and democratic society should fiercely resist forced arrangements about which people are scared to speak the truth. The sooner the CBFA is buried the better, but it would be foolish to bury its lessons, or fail to register the dangers that irresponsible and destructive radical ENGO power — supported, ironically, by U.S. and Canadian foundations built on capitalist fortunes — continues to pose for Canada.