There’s something eerily familiar about the tale of Northern Pulp and the recent events surrounding its uncertain future.
Of course, that’s because we’ve lived so much of it, right here in the Strait of Canso.
Now, a disclaimer: I’ve never owned, run or worked at a paper mill. Nor have I done anything in my life that gives me expertise on the provincial government’s hard line regarding the late-January closure of the Boat Harbour effluent treatment facility, or parent company Paper Excellence’s threat to shutter the entire operation.
I just live in a mill town.
I’ve lived in Port Hawkesbury for just over 17 years. For most of that time, I worked in a field that gave me a front-row seat to the drama that unfolds when a major employer threatens to leave a community, changes owners, goes into an indefinite shutdown, grapples with proper environmental standards, and/or lays people off.
I’ve seen families and businesses leave town. I’ve seen people scared for their livelihoods and those of their neighbours. I’ve seen neighbour pitted against neighbour in the often-heated politics of paper mills.
In the early fall of 2012, during that harrowing 24-hour period between Stern Partners withdrawing and then completing its pitch to purchase the Point Tupper mill from NewPage, Cathy and I had that conversation no family wants to have: Do we leave Port Hawkesbury before things get even worse?
We didn’t. And things got better.
Just over seven years into the decade-long cost-sharing agreement Stern struck with the province on everything from business loans to power rates, Port Hawkesbury Paper (PHP) achieved a full order paper, launched a successful biomass co-generation plant with Nova Scotia Power Incorporated (NSPI), and diversified its product line.
Still, we know how quickly things can change. So when Paper Excellence officials pulled the plug on Northern Pulp five days before Christmas, throwing 2,700 people out of work, we all felt sympathy pains here in the Strait area.
It’s not simply because of the sad fate awaiting another Nova Scotia mill town. If Northern Pulp is closed for any great length of time, or permanently, the ripple effect will be felt across northeastern Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island. The impact will hit woodlot owners, sawmill operators, harvesters, truckers, and anybody involved in any way with the Nova Scotia forestry. It seems highly unlikely that we wouldn’t feel it here, too.
And yet, there’s something quite different about all of this, beginning with the series of events that brought us to the current crisis.
It’s quite possible that we wouldn’t be having the Northern Pulp conversation if a pipe hadn’t randomly broken at the Boat Harbour effluent treatment site in 2015. That focused attention on the environmental racism that had unfolded at nearby Pictou Landing First Nation for nearly half a century, under the watch of multiple mill owners.
And it forced the hand of all three party-leaders in the provincial legislature, who signed off on the legislation that insisted on a Boat Harbour shutdown deadline that will be enforced at the end of the month. (Friendly reminder: This enforcement is also at the insistence of all three party-leaders, including Pictou East MLA Tim Houston, now heading up the provincial Tories.)
Northern Pulp responded to all of this by pouring millions into PR campaigns extolling the company as a good corporate neighbour, while conveniently forgetting to conduct a proper Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for its proposal to pipe treated effluent into the Northumberland Strait, a plan that enraged lobster fishermen, First Nations officials and wide swaths of the general public.
And in a classic take-our-ball-and-go-home industry move, Paper Excellence didn’t even wait for the end of Premier Stephen McNeil’s December 20 press conference announcing the enforcement of the Boat Harbour closure legislation before announcing that it had no choice but to close Northern Pulp entirely. This announcement doesn’t explain, however, why the parent company announced last week that it’s launching a formal EIA for alternatives to both Boat Harbour and the pipe option.
Further muddying the waters: The province expelled Elmsdale sawmill owner Robin Wilber from a forestry transition team set up earlier this month, after Wilber suggested that Northern Pulp could consider going into hot-idle mode. We all remember that term around here, because it kept the Point Tupper mill in sale condition while the province sought a buyer. Why that type of scenario doesn’t apply to Northern Pulp is beyond me, especially with the company making EIA plans.
At some point, “pulp fiction” will give way to reality, just as it has in the Strait area. I just hope that reality is kind to Northern Pulp employees, especially since their fiction-loving employers have so far squandered their chances to ensure a better future for Pictou County and its people.