-by John Gillis
The Oran reached Nova Scotia author Joan Baxter last week at her home in Colchester County, within “smelling distance” of the Pictou pulp and paper mill that she writes about in her recent book, The Mill, Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest.
A turning point in the decision to write the book was a conversation she had with Dave Gunning in preparation for writing an article. Gunning and his brother Matt have been
researching the mill as part of the Clean The Mill Group, and known for their Facebook site of the same name.
After that conversation more than a year ago, Baxter soon had more than 20 pages of notes and realized that there would have to be a book to tell the full story.
“It was a far reaching issue and the more research I did, I realized it affected more people throughout the province and that the pulp industry has certainly affected and shaped the forests of Nova Scotia for more than half a century,” said Baxter.
Baxter was quick to credit all the research groups over the years who were willing to hand over their files to her noting that she could never have done it all on her own.
Baxter’s book is meticulously researched with more than 800 references all sourced and documented over a 50 or so year period.
Interest in the book lit up after Northern Pulp’s communication manager encouraged a boycott of her book signing event along with letters from current and former employees of the mill threatening a boycott of the Coles bookstore in New Glasgow.
As it happens for many journalists doing investigative work, Baxter was accused of writing a one-sided book. While she obviously sympathizes with those who have been harmed due to pollution from the Pictou mill, Baxter and the citizens groups fighting for clean up are also respectful of the workers at the mill, many who have spent their entire working careers there.
Yet, an attempt to interview several prominent figures in the story (Northern Pulp
officials, former Nova Scotia Premier John Hamm, who chairs the board of Northern Pulp, and others such as Unifor union officials, and current Premier Stephen McNeil were all met with silence or refusals.
“I was really surprised that the mill decided not to be involved. There’s a long list of people who wouldn’t get back to me so I had to go to the public record. One of my biggest disappointments was not getting anyone from Unifor to speak – they just stopped answering me,” Baxter added.
Baxter said there’s a thread all the way through the book where people are blaming the government (and all political parties) for the lack of cleanup from the mill, including Boat Harbour, where the health and quality of life for the Pictou Landing First Nation has been impacted for decades.
“I actually tried to play down the tension because I had so much admiration for the way the people of Pictou County have handled this for over 50 years,” Baxter noted.
One of the most contentious points which is only touched upon in the book is the relatively unknown fact that the Province of Nova Scotia, under Premier John Savage in 1995, signed an indemnity agreement with the mill, accepting responsibility and costs for any future clean up of the mill and Boat Harbour.
Baxter says much of the information surrounding this agreement only came out in 2009 when the Kings College journalism students uncovered the issue through an investigative journalism workshop on the subject of Boat Harbour.
“That was a real landmark piece of journalism and it’s unfortunate that the website is down now,” Baxter added.
While The Mill addresses a local environmental problem, considered one of the worst in Canada, Baxter feels it is perhaps a great illustration of neo-liberalism worldwide.
“There’s a lot of legal leverage that comes with this indemnity agreement,” Baxter adds.
She says she had always assumed that Nova Scotia and Canada were very transparent places. Now, she’s certain we are not as transparent as we believe. She sees a complacency and she says she’s never had such difficulty accessing ministers and presidents in her work in Africa.
“I was really surprised here when I didn’t hear back from Premier Stephen McNeil, former Premier John Hamm, and the material I did receive about loans from Nova Scotia Business Inc. was all redacted. In a recent interview on CBC Information Morning in Halifax, officials from the forestry arm of DNR would not even reveal the stumpage rates from Crown lands in Guysborough – and these are our trees! I was shocked by that,” Baxter added.
Baxter traces the complicated corporate ownership structure of the Northern Pulp mill, which has changed hands numerous times over the past number of years. She traces the ownership of the local mill through Paper Excellence and beyond to the wealthy Widjaja family in Indonesia.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (Nicky Hager, New Zealand) has published that four of Indonesia’s very richest (families) are known for their role in clearing vast areas of tropical rainforest. Hager says Eka Tjipta Widjaja, who has ownership ties to Paper Excellence in Canada, “built a fortune after obtaining licenses to log and clear rainforest during the Suharto years.”
The Province of Nova Scotia has scrapped its Natural Resources Strategy following extensive public consultations to create the strategy just a few years ago.
Now, Nova Scotia is in the process of a review of our forestry practices by Kings College president, Bill Lahey.
Baxter thinks there is a strong public appetite to change forestry policy in Nova Scotia towards a more sustainable and diverse forest and value added practices.
The Mill, 351 pages, is published by Pottersfield Press and is available in local bookstores or online.
(Editor’s note: The Oran reached out to Northern Pulp for comment on the book, The Mill. They declined to comment on the book specifically but provided an overview of the current mill operations which will be included in an upcoming Oran article addressing the growing controversy between local fishers and organizations who oppose Northern Pulp’s plan to send an effluent pipe into the Northumberland Strait.)
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