The documentary The Mill captures events from December 2017 to May 2019 from when Northern Pulp Nova Scotia Corp. announced its plan for a new effluent treatment plant (ETF) to replace Boat Harbour (scheduled to close in January 2020) up to the initial response from Nova Scotia Environment, the ministry responsible for approving the proposal submitted by Northern Pulp. On March 29, 2019 Minister Margaret Miller announced that this submission was incomplete and a Focus Report was requested to address 19 major points where clarification or further answers were required. Northern Pulp was given a year to respond.
Over the same period of time the documentary follows the response of the Pictou Landing First Nation, a fishing dependent community, as well as that of the Fisherman’s Associations of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island to Northern Pulp’s proposal to have the effluent pipe from its new effluent treatment facility (ETF) discharge into the waters of the Northumberland Straight. That response can be summarized by their slogan ‘No Pipe’. Northern Pulp’s response to the fishers’ campaign was ‘No Pipe, No Mill’ and the threat that if the mill closes the result would be the loss of approximately 2700 jobs in rural Nova Scotia.
The standoff continues. On September 2019 Northern Pulp submitted it’s Focus Report and Nova Scotia Environment is expected to provide a response by December 17, 2019.
Who are the key players in what may be the most important decision facing the Province of Nova Scotia in the 21st century?
Under the leadership of Chief Andrea Paul and her Council, the Pictou Landing First Nation (PLFN) has been clear that they are against a pipe in the Northumberland Straight. More recently, they have also stated that the Northern Pulp mill should close.
The Boat Harbour Act passed unanimously in the Nova Scotia Legislature in 2015 recognized PLFN’s claim that the appropriation of Boat Harbour (or A’se’k in the Mi’kmaq language) as a treatment facility for the pulp mill was an injustice that affected their lives, health and livelihoods. The showdown between PFLN and Northern Pulp over a spill of raw effluent lead to the Province’s decision to close the Boat Harbour ETF in January 2020.
As a First Nation, PLFN has a historical and legal status defined by Section 35 of the Canadian Charter of Rights. A right that most recently has been acknowledged by the Nova Scotia Court of Appeals that ruled as on September 17, 2019 that PLFN must be consulted on any negotiation between Northern Pulp and the Province of Nova Scotia. This was decided against the objections of the Province.
If the Government of Nova Scotia approves Northern Pulp’s proposal for a new ETF and extends the deadline to close Boat Harbour expect Pictou Landing First Nation to defend itself through every legal avenue available.
The Government of Nova Scotia
On September 17, 2019 the Nova Scotia Court of Appeals in it’s ruling on The Province of Nova Scotia vs. Pictou Landing First Nation found it reasonable to consider the NS Government in a conflict of interest vis. a vis. Northern Pulp due to the history of partnership between the two entities. The Court ruled that PLFN has the constitutional right to be consulted on any negotiation between the Province and Northern Pulp NS Corp. with respect to the construction of a new EFT.
By December 17, 2019 the Minister of the Environment for Nova Scotia will approve, not approve or defer approval on Northern Pulp’s proposal for a new effluent treatment facility. This proposal includes an effluent pipe into the fishing grounds of the Northumberland Straight.
The Premier, Stephen McNeil will make the decision whether to keep the promised deadline imposed by the Boat Harbour Act to close the provincially owned EFT in January 2020.
Paper Excellence Canada is a registered Canadian company based in Burnaby, B.C. It owns Northern Pulp NS Corp. as well as several other pulp and paper mills in Canada and Europe. It’s part of the Paper Excellence Group owned by Jackson Widjaja a member of one of Asia’s wealthiest families, who under the holding company Sinar Mas, owns Asia Pulp and Paper, one of the world’s largest pulp and paper companies.
Northern Pulp through Paper Excellence is integrated into a global pulp and paper supply chain and supplies the highly valued Northern Bleached Softwood Kraft pulp used as an additive to products like toilet paper and paper towels.
As owner of Northern Pulp, Paper Excellence is also the party that would determine the course of action to take with respect to the Government of Nova Scotia who they hold responsible for reneging on their lease of Boat Harbour by closing it ten years before the lease was to expire. Paper Excellence determines whether the mill will close or not and uses the threat of the loss of 2700 jobs as leverage in its negotiations with the provincial government.
Industrial Forestry And A 100-Year-Old ‘Cheap Wood Policy’
The evolution of Nova Scotia’s industrial forestry policy over the past 100 years has been tied to the pulp and paper industry. In the 19th c and carrying over to the First World War there has been a history of provincial governments’ providing massive leases of Maritime timber resources to foreign, mainly American capital. The thinking of the politicians was that the land was poor and the government was poor and by leasing its natural resources cheaply, outside capital would make the investments that would result in jobs. After the war, the pulp and paper industry grew and several mills were developed in Nova Scotia often with the help of significant government inducements.
Successive Nova Scotia governments have supplied tax relief, loans, low cost land leases and low stumpage fees. As documented in Joan Baxter’s book, The Mill, the government of Robert Stanfield in 1967 reduced the price of price of a cord of pulp wood to a dollar a cord, 75% less than the then market rate of $4 a cord. Part of the logic was also to keep labour costs low.
Today, the integration of the industrial forestry sector with the Northern Pulp mill is entrenched. The financial model on which the forestry sector depends is still based on cheap wood. Stumpage fees have gone up but the question remains is the value of Nova Scotia’s timber resource still based on pulp? With climate change new ideas about forests as an integral part of the defense against extreme weather and other impacts have now raised questions about the premise of industrial forestry and its dependence on the pulp mill.
Whatever decision Nova Scotia Environment makes it will be contested in court. If the proposed new ETF is not approved the owners of the mill have grounds to sue the Province for breach of contract. If approved new and pending litigation would result from those opposed to the project.
Ecojustice, billed as Canada’s largest environmental law charity, set up an office in Halifax and is representing Friends of the Northumberland Strait, a citizen’s group, in its fight against the proposed effluent pipe.
In a decision released September 17, 2019 the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal refused to overturn a lower court ruling that the province must consult the First Nation before providing funds to the pulp mill to construct a new treatment facility.
What Pictou County shares with other communities across Canada and the world is the looming crisis of legitimacy in governance and the management of public resources. Struggles such as Pipe vs. No Pipe confrontation are focus points in a struggle between resource exploitation and environmental conservation. The momentum of thousands of environmental flash points occurring around the world challenges our concepts of governance and democracy. The Courts play a fundamental role in shaping the goals of society in arbitrating conflicts such as the one over the future of the Pictou County pulp mill. From this perspective it could be argued that the decision the Nova Scotia Government makes with respect to Northern Pulp’s proposed ETF will significantly shape the province’s destiny in the 21st century.
The Federal Government
With the outcome of a federal election looming, the role of any federal government after October 21st is speculative. The federal Liberal Government is aware that Boat Harbour is a ‘political hot potato’ and Justin Trudeau has clearly delegated the issue to the Nova Scotia Government. That said Minister of Catherine McKenna recently expressed interest in the matter of a federal environmental assessment of the proposal under newly revised federal criteria. The federal government must order its own assessment prior to any Provincial approval. A federal assessment cannot be conducted once the approved project is underway.
This matter will have to wait until after the election.