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Nova Scotia’s Dirty Secret

The Tale of a Toxic Mill and The Book Its Owners Don't Want You to Read

Lighthouse Beach, a white sand crescent on the north coast of Nova Scotia, was once considered the jewel of the region. People would flock there from New Glasgow and Pictou on summer weekends, visiting the lobster bar and swimming in the clear waters of the Northumberland Strait.

There had been plans for a twice-daily train that would carry visitors between the seaside, a hotel and a local yacht club. Dreams began of a destination national park. But all of these plans were choked off by the introduction of a giant pulp and paper mill in 1967 that literally transformed a large part of Pictou Landing into a toxic dump.

You can smell it usually before you can see it: clouds of sulphur belching from the Abercrombie Point Pulp and Paper Mill smokestacks. For decades, the plant pumped contaminated water into the strait, using Boat Harbour, once an idyllic tidal lagoon used for fishing and clam digging, as a settling pond for highly toxic effluent.

It was also once my family’s home.

My family settled over 200 years ago in this piece of Mi’kmaq First Nation territory, eventually transferring their own property into government care for — as they were told — protection for future generations.

Waves now roll in on Lighthouse Beach dark brown and foamy, the colour of Guinness, where I — like so many other kids in the area — learned to swim and sail.

Photo credit: Dr. Gerry Farrell

The story of Pictou Landing is one of desperation, of corruption and incompetence. So perhaps it’s no surprise that when Canadian journalist and anthropologist Joan Baxter tried to tell it, old forces of power moved in to silence her. The mill’s owners tried to banish Baxter and her book The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest from local bookstores.

Of course, that backfired in spectacular fashion: The Mill sold out two printings and became the best-selling book in Nova Scotia Chapters and Coles book stores the month it was released.

I reached Baxter at her home in Nova Scotia to talk about The Mill, the stories that were told to hide industry’s impacts from locals and the fight against years of environmental racism and degradation still plaguing the region to this day.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about the environmental situation around the mill and Boat Harbour.

Back in the mid ’60s when the provincial government of Nova Scotia was desperate to try to find some industry in Pictou County, which was really hurting, they were wooing big industries.

In 1964, just before Christmas, [Premier Robert] Stanfield announced that Scott Paper was going to move into Pictou County. Of course, the pulp mill was moving in but nobody really talked about where the effluent was going to go.

The province, in its desperation to lure this big foreign corporation, did something that’s never, to my knowledge, been done before.

The province agreed to take care of the effluent from that mill. So we would own the effluent. We would give them really cheap fresh water, we even built a dam to give them over 90 million litres of water a day from the river, then we would take care of the effluent that came out, which was almost the same amount of really toxic effluent.

But they needed a place to put it. It’s probably criminal, I’m guessing: they lied to the local population, and certainly lied to the Pictou Landing First Nation, and said that they wouldn’t be able to fish anymore in this estuary called Boat Harbour — or, A’se’k, by the Mi’kmaq, which means “the other room.” But basically they’d still be able to boat and use it for recreation and there wouldn’t be a problem with the water.

Two people from the water authority, whose job it was to get the First Nation to sign off on this body of water, Boat Harbour, they took the chief up to New Brunswick. They showed them a non-functioning treatment centre that wasn’t even working and said, “This is what your water will look like; it’ll be perfectly clear.” So they tricked everybody.

Families, like your own, had an inkling that this wasn’t going to be the case. Even before the mill opened, in 1967, there were already people protesting what would happen to Boat Harbour because they knew when they closed it off and turned it into a receptacle for the vast amounts of toxic waste that was coming out of the mill that it would completely destroy the environment — which it did.

It turned it into one of Canada’s most egregious environmental disasters, right at the backdoor of the Pictou Landing First Nation. It completely destroyed what was an extremely important body of water for them. And it destroyed all of the beaches, Lighthouse Beach, and certainly your family and the people who had cottages and homes in Moodie Cove, all of that was destroyed. Lighthouse Beach was destroyed; it became a no-go area once the effluent began to flow.

Then there was a massive pipeline break. The effluent from the mill goes under Pictou Harbour then comes back up onto land, then it goes overland a little ways before it goes out into Boat Harbour. Forty-seven million litres… were spilled onto sacred Mi’kmaq land, at a site called Indian Point.

At that point the Pictou Landing First Nation said, enough is enough, and got the government to pass legislation, which they did in 2015: that Boat Harbour has to close in 2020, be remediated, and the effluent treatment has to be done differently, and be done somewhere else.

Already the bill for that, which of course the public purse in Nova Scotia will be covering, is $133 million and may go much higher.

The problem is the alternative plan is to … ship it directly out in a one-meter diameter pipe into the Northumberland Strait, just at the mouth of Pictou Harbour, into one of the most lucrative lobster fishing areas possibly in the province. That has the fishermen absolutely up in arms.

It’s been a travesty since day one. What the government gave away to that corporation in the 1960s, every successive government has just dug the hole deeper and made us responsible for more and more of the problems. The indemnity agreement that was signed in 1995 means that the people of Nova Scotia are also responsible for any new treatment plant that they make.

Photo credit: Dr. Gerry Farrell

The announcement of the mill was reported as being “hailed jubilantly from all parts of the county,” when in reality there was already significant opposition. What role did the media play in allowing this to happen and flourish? How has that role changed?

The Chronicle Herald did a series of four articles last week in which they said they were going to bring some facts in black and white about the mill, and how it worked, and what a benefit it was, but also talk to people who have concerns about the mill. Of those four articles, which was upwards of 4,000 words, I counted 56 or 57 that even alluded to the fact that there are fishermen and people concerned about the new plans for the effluent.

The University of King’s College, the report they did in 2009 about Boat Harbour I think is one of the landmark pieces of journalism in this province, ever. It took the lid off a really, really dirty secret that most people in Nova Scotia had no idea about. It’s a really remarkable piece of journalism.

Each generation comes and goes, and those stories get buried. You realize that history’s been repeating itself for 50 years. The people, the citizens, they rise up, they complain, they protest, they write letters, they get organized, they expend enormous amounts of time and energy and emotion — and get foiled by one government after another.

And then you hear the same promises coming out of the mill…Then you realize they’ve said that over and over again. It’s only when you put those years of media coverage together that you realize that the situation just keeps perpetuating itself.

Activism has been very hard on the citizens over the years, but they have made baby steps, and if they had not done all that research and passed it on to me, it would have taken me years to write this book.

Why did you decide to focus on the environmental activism around the mill?

Because that’s the biggest story about the mill. That is the story. What happened when I started to do research was I started to uncover all these previous waves of activism, going back to the very beginning.

There have been some fairly muted criticisms…that I didn’t bring the voices of the workers. The head of the union simply didn’t answer my calls. I went to his boss, I went to the UNIFOR communications person, they simply didn’t answer my correspondence.

I have had private messages since the book came out from people telling me there is a climate of fear within the mill. That the workers are either being told a pack of lies or that they’re being told to keep their mouths shut.

When this book was published, the mill tried to suppress it. What did that look like, and what effect did it have?

I was on my way to Halifax to do an interview on CTV about the book, when I got a call from Chapters telling me they had cancelled the book signing in New Glasgow.

I was never told exactly what the problem was, except that somebody had said they would destroy the book in front of me. They were worried about a disruption, the bookstore staff were feeling really insecure. They didn’t want anything ugly happening.

Because it had already been promoted and advertised on social media a lot of people went to the store looking for me to sign books, and of course I wasn’t there, and they were told it was cancelled, and social media took over.

It wasn’t until Tuesday that somebody managed to get a copy of the form letter that had been going out from Kathy Cloutier at the mill to former employees and employees, which they were to sign, threatening to boycott Coles and Indigo stores across the country if they allowed me to sign my book in New Glasgow.

That made it a bigger story, because people could see that it had been orchestrated, it had come from the mill.

We had had a very small first printing, because it was a small publisher with very little money. That printing sold out really quickly, and then a second one, and now we’re on the third one. It was the best-selling book in Coles and Chapters in Nova Scotia in December.

It’s just journalism. But the fact that it seems to have made such a splash makes me think that there’s a lot more room in Nova Scotia and in Canada for long-form journalism about some of the industries that we subsidize.

How do corporations have so much influence on Nova Scotia’s environmental policies?

Nova Scotia has some of the weakest environmental legislation of any place I’ve ever lived. We don’t have a clean air act.

Each one of the big industries in Nova Scotia negotiates its own industrial approval with its own specific emissions targets and so on. There’s no overall act that really looks after us.

It’s those jobs. Pictou County is hurting. They don’t have any of the former industries that they had. They’re really terrified. Nobody’s willing to pull the plug.

Each government just kicks it down the road to its successor. Nobody wants to be the one who is responsible for it.

It would take a government with vision and with courage to do what’s right and really play hardball — and say, ‘If you can’t clean this up and change the way you operate, then you have to close down.’

You call the mill’s owners “absentee corporate landlords” — why does it make a difference where the owners are based?

The Sinar Mas Group is so huge, it’s everywhere. They’re in China, they’re elsewhere in Asia. It’s a massive, massive corporate group. This is just a tiny little minnow in the ocean of their companies.

Honestly, do they care about it? Maybe they do, because they’re never going to get a better deal somewhere else.

Where are they going to get that much water that cheaply? Where are they going to be able to operate where they’ll be able to fail their emissions test and be fined less than $700? Where are they going to get access to Crown land at the low stumpage rates they get in Nova Scotia? I don’t know.

They’re bullies. And I think they’ve bullied their way for 50 years to get what they want. Anybody who tries to stop a book signing, then cancels a Christmas party at Pictou Lodge because the manager had the audacity to suggest it might hurt tourism having their effluent dumped right in front of his establishment — that’s bullying.

I think it’s a worldwide phenomenon, but I think it’s particularly bad in Nova Scotia. Our politicians get stars in their eyes when these great big guys come to our province because they take it as a sign that we’re a really good place to invest. No, we’re a place where you can take advantage of us.

Jimmy Thomson is a Yellowknife-based freelance journalist. He has worked as a CBC videojournalist and has bylines in the Globe…

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