This is the third in a series of four articles resulting from a months-long investigation into Paper Excellence, a B.C.-headquartered pulp and paper company that has quickly grown to control large tracts of Canadian forests and become the largest company of its kind in North America. The stories are part of Deforestation Inc., an investigation led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) involving 140 journalists from 27 countries.
On Jan. 20, 2023, a live-stream took over the B.C. government’s social media channels. Premier David Eby walked up to a lectern outside Paper Excellence’s Crofton mill and announced $18.5 million in provincial and federal government funding to put people back to work.
A few minutes later, Paper Excellence’s chief operating officer Stew Gibson took over the microphone.
“We can only be here today if we have confidence that we have an ongoing supply of fibre,” he told the cameras.
The help was coming at a hard time for forestry workers. Less than a week earlier, Canfor said it would shut one of its mills in Prince George and leave 300 people out of a job.
Overnight, Paper Excellence became the largest pulp manufacturer in the province. This month, the company closed a $3.6-billion deal to buy Resolute Forest Products, Paper Excellence’s latest acquisition that now makes it the largest forest products company in North America.
But even as it has made multi-billion-dollar acquisitions, the company has continued its long history of courting governments for further investment.
Paper Excellence received over $300M in government money
The money for the Crofton mill represents the latest installment of more than $300 million in government loans, subsidies and tax exemptions handed to Paper Excellence across Canada and France since 2010, Glacier Media and its partners at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) have calculated.
In the past, that money has included a $75-million provincial loan to purchase hundreds of hectares of forest in Nova Scotia. And in Powell River, B.C., the city has provided $12 million in tax exemptions to Paper Excellence (even though the mill is shut, the city remains locked in a contract).
“Our pulp and paper and sawmill industry has been left in the dirt,” former Powell River mayor David Formosa said.
An investigation by Glacier Media and its ICIJ partners at the CBC, Halifax Examiner, Le Monde and Radio France has analyzed Paper Excellence’s relationship with Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), the forestry arm of the Sinar Mas Group. The investigation is part of Deforestation Inc., a journalistic collaboration bringing together 40 media outlets in 27 countries to examine deforestation and greenwashing.
Evidence from multiple reports produced by a coalition of environmental groups known as “Eyes on the Forest” suggest APP has driven the destruction of primary rainforest, often critical habitat to elephants, orangutans and tigers. Investigations from those groups, which include WWF-Indonesia and Amnesty International, have implicated APP in a long list of alleged human rights abuses, including violent conflicts with Indigenous communities.
But according to APP, the company has set aside large tracks of land for conservation, significantly reduced conflicts with villagers and now monitors deforestation and wildfires using satellite technology.
Paper Excellence said it is independent of APP.
Previous stories in this series looked at the rise of Paper Excellence and analyzed evidence linking it to APP, including leaked communications, cross-posted employees, corporate filings, land titles and shipping records. As part of its investigation into Paper Excellence, Glacier Media and its media partners reviewed lobbyist registries and filed official records requests to understand how Paper Excellence has used its growing corporate footprint to influence government decision-making.
In B.C., people on Paper Excellence’s payroll have lobbied public office holders at least 218 times since May 2020, when a new law required lobbyists to report to a provincial register. That‘s an average of more than once every five days.
The money has often followed directly after lobbying, as seen in the flurry of visits to federal and provincial public office holders ahead of the $18.5-million announcement in Crofton.
“They're getting lobbying power dealing with the government because the government is the owner of the resource,” said Richard Schwindt, a former investigator for the Canada Competition Bureau with a long history examining corporate ownership in the forest industry.
“If the company can promise [full employment] for a certain amount of money, they're more likely to get it if they're the only game in town.”
Lobbyist changes affiliation to Sinar Mas
Some meetings with lobbyists were set up to secure government money to re-tool Paper Excellence’s aging mills. In others, Moe Sihota, a former NDP president turned Paper Excellence lobbyist, met with public officials to ensure the company’s access to tree fibre.
For nearly two and a half years, Sihota reported the Sinar Mas Group was an “affiliate” of Paper Excellence. But on Nov. 1, 2022, that changed. Only a week after a damning report linked Paper Excellence with the Sinar Mas Group, Sihota removed the affiliation in his self-reported filing, Glacier Media has confirmed.
Sihota told Glacier Media he mistakenly listed the Sinar Mas Group as an affiliate of his client, Paper Excellence. He said he removed the link after he “was approached.”
“I didn't understand the corporate structure at the time that I took on the file,” Sihota said.
“It was an error. I corrected it. OK?”
A spokesperson for the B.C. lobbyist registry said staff check for obvious errors or omissions but don’t have the capacity to “verify” or “approve” each of the hundreds of registrations. The spokesperson said it is the responsibility of the lobbyist to accurately report the information. Administrative sanctions up to a prohibition on lobbying can be imposed for failing to do so, even if the failure was inadvertent
B.C. forestry giant petitions to continue old-growth logging
No lobbyist records show Paper Excellence petitioning the B.C. government before May 2020. At the time, an entity’s lobbying activities were only registered if they exceeded a 100-hour threshold, a spokesperson for the registry confirmed.
But Glacier Media has obtained documents that show Paper Excellence was active. According to a cabinet briefing note dated Nov. 1, 2018, company head Jackson Wijaya met with then premier John Horgan to ensure a secure supply of wood fibre to their mills.
“Jackson will raise the importance of fibre supply to the company’s successful operation...” notes the ministerial briefing note, released through a Freedom of Information request.
Just over a year later, the company’s chief forester Quinton Hayward called on the government to maintain current levels of old-growth logging while increasing how much wood can be logged across B.C. every year, according to a letter sent to the B.C. Old Growth Review Committee.
At the federal level, several hired lobbyists have approached public office holders and aides, most recently to petition them over fibre supply and Paper Excellence’s acquisition of Resolute Forest Products, according to a federal registry.
Paper Excellence hired public relations firm to petition Statistics Canada
Outside of established political channels, Paper Excellence has also quietly petitioned managers of Statistics Canada’s Inter-Corporate Ownership database, an online resource that describes itself as “a reliable index of who owns and/or controls whom in Canada.”
As early as 2019, the database listed the Sinar Mas Group as ultimately controlling 50 companies in Canada, including Paper Excellence Canada Holdings Corporation and several of its affiliates and subsidiaries.
In July 2021 and again in October 2022, a public relations firm working on behalf of Paper Excellence contacted Statistics Canada asking it to sever the links it had drawn to the Sinar Mas Group, according to communications obtained through an access to information and privacy request by ICIJ partner the Halifax Examiner.
“Findings” drawn by Statistics Canada staff on two Paper Excellence mills and four holding companies — including Paper Excellence Canada Holdings Corporation and its immediate owner Paper Excellence B.V. — were redacted.
Statistics Canada researchers appeared to uphold their decision to link Paper Excellence with the Sino-Indonesian pulp and paper giant.
Without data to contradict their findings, “we have sufficient information to stand by the information that’s in the [Inter-Corporate Ownership database],” wrote a StatsCan analyst last October.
A spokesperson for Paper Excellence told Glacier Media the database was based on “inaccurate” media reports and the company was working “to rectify the error.”
As of March 1, 2023, the database still listed the Sinar Mas Group as the ultimate controller of Paper Excellence.
This is the third in a four-part investigation into Paper Excellence carried out in collaboration with the CBC, Halifax Examiner, Le Monde and Radio France. The stories are part of a wider journalistic collaboration led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) under the banner Deforestation Inc.
Read about the rise of Paper Excellence in part 1, the evidence linking Paper Excellence with Asia Pulp and Paper in part 2, and in part 4, how Paper Excellence's sustainability pledges match evidence on the ground.