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'This issue constantly divides the community': Nova Scotia pulp mill accused of 'bullyin

Industry strong-arm tactics are nothing new in Nova Scotia, but Northern Pulp is being accused of going too far in a battle that is pitting neighbour against neighbour

For years, Wes Surrett had to deal with guests’ complaints about the stench from a nearby pulp mill. The smell improved when the mill introduced new technology in 2015, but now the general manager of Pictou Lodge in Nova Scotia is bracing for the mill’s next plan — to pipe treated effluent into the Northumberland Strait, roughly two kilometres from the beach resort.

After a speaker at a recent tourism conference he attended in Halifax gave a talk on the impact of environmental mishaps, Surrett stood up to seek advice. “I told him that where I was from there was a pulp mill that has been … I used the words ‘raping the environment,’ for the past 50 years,” says Surrett. “The air, the poison they’re dumping in the water and the clear-cutting of the forest.” Surrett says he wanted to know how to counter the argument that pollution is the price to be paid for steady factory jobs.

News of Surrett’s comments traveled fast, and within an hour he had a message that the mill’s general manager urgently wanted to speak to him. He says the mill told him “they were not comfortable having their party with us at the lodge” unless he issued a written apology. He refused, and the party, just two weeks away, was cancelled.

Critics say this kind of strong-arming is nothing new in Nova Scotia, where jobs are scarce and employers tend to have strong support from the province. But Northern Pulp Nova Scotia Corporation is being accused of going too far in a battle that is pitting neighbour against neighbour.

They are desperate for jobs because they want young people to be able to stay in the province

The attempt to extract an apology from Surrett came as the company’s communication director mounted a campaign among mill workers and retirees to boycott the local Coles bookstore if it held a scheduled signing by the author of a new book critical of the mill. Citing concerns over customers’ “joyful and safe experience,” the store cancelled the Dec. 2 event.

Joan Baxter is the author of The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest, which provides a critical history of the company. But she says she sees the main culprits as successive governments that have failed to protect the environment and people’s health.

“They are desperate for jobs because they want young people to be able to stay in the province,” she says. “Every time (the government) sees a big multinational coming, they take it as proof that we’re a great place to work, instead of perhaps that we’re a great place to get what you want.”

Pictou County has a long history as a place where industry gets what it wants. It is home to a Michelin tire plant in Granton, which opened in the 1970s thanks to massive subsidies and later benefited from provincial legislation to block a union drive. Federal and provincial loan guarantees supported the opening of the Westray coal mine, where 26 men were killed in a 1992 explosion blamed on safety lapses. More recently, the Nova Scotia government invested millions in Daewoo’s ill-fated wind-turbine plant, just down the road from Northern Pulp’s mill. The plant provided few of the 500 jobs it promised to bring to the county before going into receivership last year.

In the case of Northern Pulp, the province agreed in 1995 to indemnify a previous owner for all liabilities associated with the current effluent lagoon, leaving taxpayers with a cleanup bill estimated at $130 million.

Manager of the Pictou Lodge, Wes Surrett. Handout

Musician Dave Gunning grew up outside the town of Pictou, and the mill’s sulphur smell was a fixture of his childhood. “They called it the smell of money,” he says. “We didn’t really know it was harmful.”

Now he and his brother are part of a Clean the Mill group, and he is disgusted that the mill targeted Baxter and Surrett.

“The Pictou Lodge is an institution. It’s been there since the ’20s. It’s symbolic of tourism in Pictou. To attack the lodge, the mill is basically showing its disrespect for the tourism industry,” Gunning says.

When Baxter’s book was published in the fall, she figured it would “come and go” without much of a ripple, like her previous books.

But Northern Pulp communication director Kathy Cloutier chose not to let the book pass unnoticed. In a message to employees and retirees obtained by Baxter, Cloutier called the book “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.” She attached a form letter to be sent to Coles and its parent company, Indigo, threatening a boycott if the Dec. 2 signing went ahead.

Baxter, whose previous signing in Truro sold all of three copies, was dumbfounded. “I would say that they are so used to bullying to get their way over there that they don’t even realize that it’s unacceptable,” she says.

Neither Cloutier nor the mill’s general manager Bruce Chapman, who cancelled the event at the lodge, accepted requests for interviews. In a written statement, Chapman said the company “respects the diverse and many voices in the community” and is committed to operating responsibly.

To attack the lodge, the mill is basically showing its disrespect for the tourism industry

“As we’ve faced challenges meeting regulatory requirements, we’ve continued to make progress, and are committed to doing even more to operate in a sustainable manner,” he wrote.

Robert MacLellan has worked at the mill for more than 30 years, and as a former shop steward he is not afraid to call out managers if he sees something wrong. But he read Baxter’s book and thinks she exaggerated the mill’s impact.

He also says he would not have attended a party at the Pictou Lodge after hearing about Surrett’s comments at the conference. “When they’re attacking you, you’re not going to go,” he says. He adds that he has no problem with valid criticism, but when critics of the mill are “making it up,” he says, he takes it personally.

Surrett acknowledges that his stance has sown division. “It’s hard to speak up. I play beer league hockey with a lot of guys that work at the mill. I have neighbours who work there,” he says. “This issue constantly divides the community here in Pictou County.”

But if Northern Pulp hoped to squelch criticism by taking on Baxter and Surrett, the plan backfired. Baxter reports that book sales have taken off since the controversy first made the news. And on Dec. 17, an association of fishermen worried that mill effluent will devastate fisheries in the strait held a party at Pictou Lodge to make up for the cancelled Northern Pulp event. Surrett says he received a standing ovation from the 200 people in attendance.

“Overall an emotionally overwhelming event for me, and it has really inspired me,” he says.

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