By Joan Baxter
December 12, 2017 (updated November 22, 2019)
When I held the first copy of “The Mill – Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest” in my hands two years ago, in November 2017, I would never have believed that the book would ever make any headlines, let alone national ones, or make any bestseller lists, or receive any special mentions from the incredible actress and activist from Nova Scotia, Ellen Page.
But it did. And what’s more astounding is that the book went from almost total obscurity when it came out, to the front pages of national media because of the actions of the very people who tried to suppress its promotion, ensure it remained obscure. Just desserts?
The book and its birth – a short history
But I need to take a breath here, and go back to the beginning. It’s been an overwhelming two years and I’m still trying to make some sense of it all and how it transpired.
Even before the book came out, there were times – late at night – that I lay awake questioning the wisdom of spending more than a year researching and writing a book about a pulp mill in a small town in a small province in eastern Canada. It was an intense (and income-less) time.
Not that it wasn’t a fascinating and fulfilling journey of learning. It was that and more.
It was a great pleasure and privilege to meet and listen to so many interesting, informed and passionate people who had been involved in one way or another with the mill over the years. Some had family members working there or had worked for the mill themselves at one point. Their views on the mill were nuanced. On one hand, it provided jobs and supported a lot of service industries in the area and forestry contractors around the province. If it smelled, so be it – that was just the smell of money.
But others felt the county had paid too high a price for the big smelly mill. Over the five decades that it had been in operation, one group of citizens after another had come together to create waves of protest, to try to get one government after another to do its job and protect them from the harmful effects of a large industry.
Pulp fomented protest
The citizen groups were concerned about many things.
Some worried about the way the pulp industry shaped forest policies in Nova Scotia, and protested the regime of clear-cutting and spraying of herbicides to promote monoculture pulp plantations rather than healthy and diverse Acadian forests, from which small woodlot owners could prosper.
Others worried about the high rates of cancer and respiratory problems in Pictou County, and asked the government (again and again and again) to undertake studies to see if these were linked to heavy industries like the pulp mill.
Many, among them Pictou Landing First Nation, whose sacred water body had been destroyed by and filled with the mill’s toxic effluent, as well as small business owners, doctors, fishers, tourism operators, artists – people from all walks of life – worried about the way it was allowed to pollute air, water, and yes, apparently even local and provincial politics.
Many people had devoted enormous amounts of their time, energy, and expertise to try to convince their elected officials to stand up to the large foreign corporations that owned the mill, and put regulations and monitoring in place to ensure no harm was being done to human and environmental health. Many felt they had been betrayed by their own governments.
When the management and Board of Northern Pulp declined to “participate” in the “project” – meaning they refused to grant me any interviews for the book – I was disappointed and surprised, as it would have served their interest to present their points of view. I was also dismayed when a former premier, Dr. John Hamm, now chair of the board of Northern Pulp, and current Nova Scotia premier, Stephen McNeil, failed to respond to my requests for interviews.
But I had plenty of material from archives, media reports, studies, books and interviews, and boxes of files and scrapbooks that the various campaigners had put together over five decades. So I wrote and I rewrote. And edited and re-edited, working with Pottersfield Press to prepare it for publication. Then, finally, it was done.
A quiet birth
On November 1, 2017, the first batch of books landed on my doorstep. I immediately began the difficult (and to me, uncomfortable) process of book promotion, sending out press releases and writing all about the book on this website.
The effervescent environmental champion, Lil MacPherson, co-owner of the Wooden Monkey in Dartmouth, leapt on board with her trademark enthusiasm and offered to donate space for the book’s first launch in the restaurant. Award-winning jazz and blues icon Bill Stevenson was there with his keyboard, the marvelous Betty Belmore played guitar and sang “Dust,” her powerful lament for the destruction of the natural world. The multi-talented musician Danny Martin offered up some fantastic tunes on his trombone.
A week later, the Nova Scotia Museum of Industry in Stellarton, a few kilometres up the road from the pulp mill, hosted a north shore launch for the book. Internationally acclaimed folk artist and songwriter Dave Gunning launched the event with two songs inspired by his work with the Clean The Mill group, “They don’t do that no more” and “Sing it louder” (which has become like an anthem for me).
If there were critics of the book in the audience, they didn’t speak up. All questions and discussion were supportive. Chief Andrea Paul of the Pictou Landing First Nation spoke eloquently and emotionally about what it meant to the Mi’kmaq people to know that in 2020, pulp effluent would stop flowing into Boat Harbour, a body of water once so important to her community it was known as A’Se’k, meaning “the other room.”
The book “promotion” was going as planned, and all of it was low key. Weeks earlier, Chapters / Coles Books had set up three book signing events for “The Mill” – one at Chapters in Dartmouth, and then two for the first Saturday in December, the first at Coles bookstore in Truro and the second at Coles in New Glasgow.
CBC Mainstreet in Halifax did an interview about the book, The Advocate in Pictou ran a small story, East Coast Radio in New Glasgow interviewed me and The News in New Glasgow published an article about the Stellarton launch. There was an interview with CTV’s Kelly Linehan on “Live At Five.”
And that was it. Media interest seemed to have dried up. There was no budget for any big promotional tour that might reverse the trend. As with my previous books, I figured that this one would have limited appeal – come into this world, live a short and innocuous life, and then die a quiet death, with me the lone mourner.
Northern Pulp to the rescue
Then came the phone call. I was told that the book signing in New Glasgow on December 2 was being cancelled. There was the possibility of “an ugly incident.” There had been complaints. The safety of the bookstore staff and the author might be jeopardized. Maybe a signing could be rescheduled after the holiday season or at a “potential later date.”
I was upset. I said had worked for many years as a journalist in non-democracies in Africa, covered wars and coups for BBC and undergone “hostile environment training.” What on earth was there to be afraid of at a book signing in a mall in a small town in Nova Scotia? I argued that this was an ominous precedent. Surely if the threats were serious enough to warrant cancelling the signing, they should have been sent to the police? And I should also be told about them, so I would know whether to take any precautions? But the decision had been made.
After that, there were email exchanges with Chapters in which I repeated those arguments and my requests for details on what, if any, threats had been made. Details were not forthcoming.
Finally, it seemed best to speak directly with the people at the bookstore in question, so I called and spoke with the manager. As I had to go to New Glasgow for another errand on Saturday, I offered to come by and quietly sign some books out of public view so she would have signed copies in stock. She welcomed the idea.
The signing in the store in the Truro mall went ahead as planned. I sat for an hour and a half watching shoppers passing by. It was uneventful and quiet. I bought and spent most of the time reading “The Effective Citizen: How to make Politicians Work for You,” the fascinating new book by Nova Scotia’s former finance minister, Graham Steele. Only three people stopped in to buy “The Mill” and get it signed, and one of them was someone I knew (thank you, Neil!)
It didn’t look as if the book was going to make much of a splash.
From Truro, I drove to New Glasgow, met with the manager of the Coles bookstore. We went into a back room, she closed the door, and we had a lovely conversation while I signed copies of the book for the store. She told me only a very a little about the harassment she and the staff had undergone because of the book. But she said she was most certainly going to keep selling the book, and that they would be going onto the main table in the front in the middle of the week, when a time-sensitive display would be moved. I was impressed by her courage. She said “The Mill” was selling well.
She thanked me for coming and I thanked her for selling the book. It was about a half hour later when I was on my way home that my phone began to beep and ring and make all the noises that herald the start of a social media shit-storm over something or other.
The story leaps from social to mainstream media
The “something” turned out to be the cancellation of the book signing. One of the women I’d interviewed for the book, Mary Gorman, a long-time advocate of protecting the waters of the Northumberland Strait and Gulf of Saint Lawrence, had gone to the bookstore to get books signed and learned about the cancellation. She wasn’t happy and she took to Facebook.
The story had broken itself and was catching on fire. Eventually, the flames leapt from the Facebook page Clean Up The Pictou County Pulp Mill and social media, to the mainstream media. I started getting calls and doing interviews with the media.
Then, a letter was forwarded to me. It was a form letter that had been sent around to former and actual employees of the mill, with an email from Northern Pulp’s communication director, Kathy Cloutier. It went like this:
“You may have heard in recent media regarding a new book released titled “The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest” written by Joan Baxter which includes a negative forward by MP Elizabeth May. In my opinion this book is a non-factual rhetoric filled account of the mill and its history and quite frankly, something that is offensive to anyone who has an association with the mill.
“The local Coles bookstore at Highland Square Mall in New Glasgow is hosting the author in a book signing promotional event on Saturday December 2 during 3:00 – 4:30 pm. Many of our employees have signed the attached letter and forwarded it off to the Highland Square book store as well as Coles / Chapters headquarters in Toronto.
“I share this update and attach the letter should you wish to be among those who sign and mail out to both addresses noted on the letter…”
The form letter that was attached had the addresses for both Chapters Indigo head office in Toronto and the book store in the mall in New Glasgow. It went like this:
“I write this letter regarding your decision to promote the book “The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest” written by Joan Baxter at your Coles Store, Highland Square Mall, in New Glasgow. I understand a book signing event is to be held on December 2 during the period of 3:00 – 4:30 pm.
“I consider this book to be an attack on the ongoing operations of a local business which has been in operation since 1967 and has been a significant economic contributor of this county and province.
“This book is a direct insult to the nearly one thousand combined employees and retirees, many of whom continue to live in this region. This is one person profiting off negativity towards Northern Pulp and its past and present workforce that have raised families, put children through university and continues as a generational employer.
“Should management (local or headquarters) follow through with this book signing promotion, I will NO longer be a patron of Coles in New Glasgow or any other Coles / Chapters locations.”
Those who had got hold of the letter and email sent it to the press.
If the media had started showing a little interest in the book and the cancelled signing before that, it was nothing compared with their interest once word of the orchestrated letter-writing campaign and threatened boycott reached them.
My phone began to ring. I long ago lost count of the interviews and articles. Coverage of the cancelled book signing appeared in The News (New Glasgow), on the front page of The Chronicle Herald, the Truro Daily News, on CBC Nova Scotia and CBC radio news, on CKEC Radio in New Glasgow, on the Sheldon MacLeod Show and Rick Howe Show on News 95.7 in Halifax, on CBC As It Happens, December 5, 2017, Part 2. And the interview requests just kept on coming, resulting in still more media attention – from 989XFM radio in Antigonish to national coverage in the Globe and Mail out of Toronto. A Q&A done by Erica Butler was published in Atlantic Books Today.
Progressive Conservative MLA for Pictou East, Karla MacFarlane, was quoted in a widely distributed Canadian Press article as saying the cancellation of the book signing verged on an infringement on freedom of speech. Former premier John Hamm, chair of the board of Northern Pulp, who had not responded to my request for an interview, also decided – finally – to speak up. He told the the Canadian Press that although he “absolutely” believes in free speech, a debate over the mill must be “evidence-based.” “We must not let misinformation cloud our judgment on this issue,” he said. He didn’t specify what he meant by “misinformation.”
Another wave of protest
Meanwhile, Northern Pulp was holding “information sessions” for businesses and the public, to present plans in the works for a new effluent treatment and disposal system that had to be developed to replace the existing one in Boat Harbour, which legislation stipulated had to be closed in 2020. The plans – which involved disposing of the effluent near the mouth of Pictou Harbour into the Northumberland Strait – were not going down well with the fishermen’s association or local businesses. This led to still more unflattering coverage of Northern Pulp. The fishermen and a group called Friends of the Northumberland Strait were campaigning against plans to pump the mill’s treated effluent into the Strait, incensed that the provincial government was not undertaking a Class 2 Environmental Assessment. The county filled up with signs saying “NO pulp waste in our water.”
Then the story broke about Northern Pulp cancelling a booking at the Pictou Lodge Beach Resort for its Christmas party simply because the owner of the lovely resort had complained at a tourism association conference about the mill’s smell and effluent disposal plans.
Popular Nova Scotian columnist, Gail Lethbridge, turned her attention to the pulp mill in a scathing piece about how the provincial Department of Environment had, over fifty years, failed to protect the environment and people of Pictou County.
The community rallies
The debate about the book and the mill raged on in letters to the editor in The Chronicle Herald. There were many invitations for signings and talks and readings, and those got still more media coverage. Bookstores were running out of books. Pottersfield Press ordered another printing of the book, hoping it would be delivered before stocks ran out.
More articles appeared, as the book and how its sales were rising because of the publicity that Northern Pulp had generated for it became the story. Columnists such as John DeMont and Dan Leger wrote about the book and the larger problems in Nova Scotia it addresses. The story of the book was even featured on December 12 in a political cartoon by Michael de Adder. Distinguished author and journalist (and once-upon-a-time my journalism prof at the University of King’s College), Stephen Kimber, wrote a masterful piece for The Halifax Examiner about the way Northern Pulp had reacted to the book and what it had brought upon itself. It featured in the podcast, “Off Script” of the Springtide Collective, founded by Mark Coffin.
Dorene Bernard of the Peace and Friendship Alliance NS, a group of Mi’kmaq and Allies, extended an invitation for me to come to the Eagles Nest in Sipekne’kati, near Shubenacadie, to share stories from the book about Boat Harbour and Pictou, and to sign books.
Nathan Coleman of The Weather Network picked up the story, came to the north shore and produced a piece for national broadcast. Graeme Hamilton of The National Post wrote a feature about the mill and the way it divides the community.
What to make of it all? On one hand, it is shocking that in 2017 a large corporation would orchestrate a campaign trying to suppress a book by threatening to boycott booksellers who promoted the book by hosting a signing event. People were being asked to protest against a book they had probably not even seen, let alone read.
On the other hand, it was fascinating to watch a communications strategy that had been conceived to try to prevent a book signing and promotion of a simple book, unravel so fast and backfire so badly. By trying to prevent a book signing that might have meant the sale and signing of a dozen or two books for an hour and a half in one store in New Glasgow, Northern Pulp had inadvertently turned the book into the talk of the town (and lots of other towns), spurred sales, attracted not just a lot of provincial but also national media attention.
Where it will all end is anyone’s guess. I hope the best for Pictou County, for healing of the divisions that the mill has wrought for half a century, and for the long-overdue clean-up of Boat Harbour.
But for now, I remain immensely grateful to those who inspired me to write the book, those who contributed to it, those who are reading it and sending me feedback …. and to Northern Pulp for doing the heavy-lifting with the promotion.
A few updates (Monday, December 18, 2017)
A book signing hosted on Saturday December 16 by Carrie Stewart at The Art of Divination Gift Store on Foord Street in downtown Stellarton, Nova Scotia, drew a wonderful crowd and even a very prominent former politician.
And then a party. Following the cancellation of the Northern Pulp Christmas party at the beautiful Pictou Lodge Beach Resort, after manager Wes Surrett refused to apologize for making comments about the mill’s pollution, the Fishermen’s Association leapt to fill the gap, organizing their Christmas party for the evening Sunday, December 17.
It was an evening of book signings and fantastic music performed by Dave Gunning and Allie Bennet. Two MLAs – Lenore Zann and Karla MacFarlane – who have shown support for the fishermen in their struggle to prevent mill effluent being piped intro the Northumberland Strait, were also there to join the festivities.
What people were saying
Graham Steele, author of “The Engaged Citizen: How To Make Politicians Work For You,” a former NDP MLA and finance minister of Nova Scotia, December 17, 2017, from his Facebook page:
“I just finished reading “The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest” by Joan Baxter. This is the book that became an unexpected bestseller after a book-signing was cancelled in New Glasgow, apparently under pressure from the mill. The book is thought-provoking, in the best way. My mind is now swirling with thoughts, mostly about the politics of the mill and the actions of the many, many politicians who have been connected with it. I may write more about that later. For now, I just wanted to say: Yes, The Mill is definitely worth reading. Well-written, well-researched, thought-provoking. Well done, Joan.”
Reporter Robert Devet, in a book review in the Nova Scotia Advocate, which he runs.
“Looking like that bad guy is something that comes naturally to Northern Pulp and its predecessors. Baxter’s meticulously researched book covers a period of 50 years, and it’s all about pollution, environmental racism, and irresponsible clearcutting practices inflicted upon the community and the province by the mill’s owners. Add to that the mill’s habit of pressuring the province for money and more permissive oversight, and at its core that is what Baxter’s book carefully documents.”
“Depressing, even heart wrenching at times. But often depressing books are the most important ones. Joan Baxter’s The Mill is one of those.”
Two years on and two months until Boat Harbour is to close (if the legislation is not amended)
Since 2017, the sorry story of the mill still has continued to unfold. The Boat Harbour Act stipulates that Northern Pulp stop pumping its toxic effluent into Boat Harbour on January 31, 2020,. Northern Pulp has said it needs an extension, because its new effluent treatment facility has still not received government approval, let alone begun construction. Without an extension to that date, Northern Pulp says it will be forced to close.
But now, the world is watching. The pulp mill has been attracting national and international attention.
Inspired by Ingrid Waldron’s award-winning book “There’s Something in the Water” on environmental racism in Nova Scotia, Ellen Page and Ian Daniel created a feature film that included a powerful interview about Boat Harbour with Michelle Francis-Denny of Pictou Landing First Nation, and their film had a spectacular debut at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.
The Halifax Examiner, for which I report, has carried many articles about the mill, including Linda Pannozzo’s investigative series, and several I wrote:
the start of the one-year countdown by PLFN to the closure of Boat Harbour
Northern Pulp’s PR campaign to try to get support for the mill and an extension to the Boat Harbour Act
the flawed environmental assessment documents that Northern Pulp submitted to the Nova Scotia government
the former Canso Chemicals chlor-alkali plant and mercury contamination beside the pulp mill on Abercrombie Point
Northern Pulp’s missing environmental data that are needed to prove it is indeed meeting federal regulations
Pictou Landing First Nation’s message to Premier Stephen McNeil: Honour the Boat Harbour Act
Northern Pulp’s failure to provide Nova Scotia Environment with the information it required in the “focus report” on the new effluent treatment facility and the “political game” the company is playing
So, two years after “The Mill – fifty years of pulp and protest” was published, which at the time I naively thought was the last I would ever write about that stinking bleached kraft pulp mill on Abercrombie Point in Pictou County, the saga continues. And I continue to write about it.
The situation is fraught as ever.
And at this point, on November 22, 2019, I can say that how it all will end – and when it will end – is anyone’s guess.