Only cats lose jobs


Regina Leader-Post - - NEWS - JAKE ED­MIS­TON in An­gus, Ont.

At a gov­ern­ment com­pound in ru­ral On­tario, there are stock­piles of tree seeds, bil­lions of them, all cat­a­logued and tested and wait­ing to be planted.

The in­her­ent threat for this fac­tory and its pine cones, acorns, fruit and seed is the ver­min. So the provin­cial gov­ern­ment has em­ployed two cats.

Pep­per and Sammy are paid by the tax­pay­ers of On­tario in room, board and vet­eri­nary care. These “mice con­trol tech­ni­cians,” as one bu­reau­crat called them, are the rea­son there is no ro­dent prob­lem at the On­tario Tree Seed Plant in An­gus, Ont., about 120 kilo­me­tres north of Toronto.

The cats are soon to be fired, how­ever. The gov­ern­ment will shut­ter the plant next Septem­ber.

Crit­ics are at­tack­ing the de­ci­sion not so much for the cats as for the vi­a­bil­ity of na­tive On­tario trees.

Since the 1920s, the Tree Seed Plant has taken in var­i­ous kinds of seed, each need­ing a spe­cial­ized ma­chine.

Certain types of pine cones are tum­bled in spin­ning kilns — like big clothes dry­ers — to shake out the seeds tucked in­side.

Cher­ries need to be mac­er­ated. The seed needs to be cleaned and tested to de­ter­mine its ger­mi­na­tion rate and stored cold, in dif­fer­ent fridges at dif­fer­ent tem­per­a­tures, de­pend­ing on the species. The plant pro­cesses the seeds and sells them. It pro­vides the same ser­vice to clients who bring in their own seeds.

The min­istry says the plant is los­ing about $1 mil­lion a year, with losses pro­jected to soon reach $2 mil­lion when ag­ing in­fra­struc­ture and equip­ment is con­sid­ered. Op­er­a­tions have ap­par­ently de­clined since the mid-1990s, which the min­istry traces to the Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment, un­der pre­mier Mike Har­ris, which pri­va­tized nurs­eries that pur­chased


seed. The pri­vate sec­tor has also started to en­croach on the seed-ex­trac­tion business.

“It no longer makes sense to op­er­ate such a large fa­cil­ity,” Nat­u­ral Re­sources Min­is­ter Kathryn McGarry said dur­ing ques­tion pe­riod at Queen’s Park in Oc­to­ber.

The gov­ern­ment plans to open a “Ge­netic Seed Ar­chive” in­stead. It will store seeds for na­tive species, each col­lected from dif­fer­ent parts of the prov­ince, but only 100,000 to 200,000 of each, not enough to pro­vide to the for­est in­dus­try for plant­ing.

Op­po­si­tion MPPs and con­ser­va­tion ex­perts have ac­cused the gov­ern­ment of short-sight­ed­ness, since per­haps the only On­tario plant with the ma­chin­ery and know-how to process seed for such an ar­chive is the plant they’re shut­ting down.

Barb Boy­sen, gen­eral man­ager of For­est Gene Con­ser­va­tion As­so­ci­a­tion, said a col­league has likened the gov­ern­ment plan to “clos­ing the postal ser­vice and re­plac­ing it with a stamp col­lec­tion.”

“I don’t think the MNR has a clue,” Boy­sen said. “The peo­ple who are mak­ing the de­ci­sion have no idea how the re­for­esta­tion sec­tor works.”

Boy­sen is part of a coali­tion push­ing the gov­ern­ment for more time — at least three to five years. The fear is that with­out a plant pro­duc­ing high-qual­ity tree seeds sourced from the same area they’ll be planted in, the ur­ban land­scap­ing in­dus­try will turn to seed from U.S. houses.

The 50 mil­lion tree pro­gram — an On­tario gov­ern­ment pro­gram bent on plant­ing 50 mil­lion trees in the prov­ince by 2025 — will have to look else­where for 40 to 50 per cent of its seed, ac­cord­ing to Forests On­tario, which runs the pro­gram.

Ken Durst, the re­gional man­ager who over­sees the An­gus seed plant, was far more con­fi­dent in the pri­vate sec­tor’s abil­ity to fill the gap. It al­ready han­dles 80 per cent of seed ex­trac­tion, he said.

“At this point, they’re do­ing a good job of it.”

With the gov­ern­ment no longer in the business of grow­ing seed to meet mar­ket de­mands, it will be freed up to cat­a­logue seed that will help gov­ern­ment sci­en­tists an­a­lyze the ef­fects of cli­mate change, he said.

But the plant was the only one of its kind in South­ern On­tario, which has far more tree va­ri­eties than the north. So the six (hu­man) staff at the plant are among very few with the ex­per­tise needed to process seed from those species, crit­ics said.

Durst said none of the staff will be out of jobs.

“At this point in time, there are no lay­offs.”

As for the cats, their pro­fes­sional mous­ing will soon be over. The min­istry will find new homes for Pep­per and Sammy, Durst said. It’s un­likely, though, that those new homes will be like their last: 10 hectares of old gov­ern­ment build­ings, trees, mice and what must be a deep, hum­bling sense of civic duty.


Sammy, a cat that hunts ro­dents at the On­tario Tree Seed plant in An­gus, Ont., will be out of work soon.

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