The pulp mill in northern Nova Scotia. Photo by Dr. Gerry Farrell
By Joan Baxter
December 12, 2017 (updated November 29, 2022)
When I held the first copy of “The Mill – Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest” in my hands five years ago, in November 2017, all I thought is: “I told the story. That is done. On to other subjects and issues now.”
Ha. Little did I know. The Northern Pulp / Paper Excellence saga had just begun … for me. Others already knew what kind of corporation this was. I had no idea. Not then.
Right to left: Acclaimed ward-winning songwriter and musician Dave Gunning who inspired the book, the incredible person, activist and actor Elliott Page, myself, and Lil MacPherson, climate activist and co-owner of the Wooden Monkey restaurants, who passed “The Mill” on to her friend, Elliot Page, to read.
The book and its birth – a short history
So, a breath here, because I need to go back to the beginning.
In early June 2016 I had just returned home to Nova Scotia after several years of working in Nairobi, Kenya, as a science writer and communications specialist for international agricultural research organizations. My aim once home was to get back into journalism, or to try my hand again at book-writing – I’d already authored a book of short fiction and four books of non-fiction.
But then one morning the stench of the 49-year-old Northern Pulp mill in Pictou wended its way overland 40 kilometres to my house in northern Nova Scotia, giving me a blinding headache and a nosebleed. That led to a few hours of googling, which led to two phone calls. One was with the environmental expert at Northern Pulp, who told me that if I was smelling the mill that day, it merely meant the wind was blowing my way. The second was with Dave Gunning, award-winning songwriter and musician, and also a “factivist” who was part of a group called “Clean the Pictou County Pulp Mill,” asking that the mill be forced to clean up its act, stop suffocating Pictou County in toxic emissions.
By the end of the day, I had decided there was a book to be written about this pulp mill that had opened in the 1960s.
I started from scratch to look into the history of the mill, and scratching turned into digging. Deep digging. My original plan to do a historical account of the mill’s birth and lifetime in Nova Scotia was foiled by the refusal of the mill owner – Paper Excellence – to grant me an interview or a tour of the facility.
Eight months into the research, and after repeated requests, in January 2017, then-communications director for Paper Excellence, Kathy Cloutier, wrote to inform me that, “Upon discussion within Paper Excellence, Northern Pulp executive team and board members the decision has been made that Northern Pulp will not participate in this project.”
I’d been working for months on the project, and I had no intention of stopping. The material I uncovered was fascinating, and sometimes shocking.
Still, 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. Continue reading Paper Excellence shuts down a book signing for the book, “The Mill – Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest”
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