Northern Pulp, Part 3: Economic threat strains Pictou County’s social fabric

Aaron Beswick (
Published: Jan 18 at 9:06 a.m.

Part Three of a four-day series by journalist Aaron Beswick looks at how Nova Scotia became so tied to Northern Pulp and what would happen if the pulp mill shuts down. Tomorrow: Pollution in the Northumberland Strait. Also read Part One and Part Two.

Camille Davidson and Barry Randle were tired of working hard and still being broke.

They looked around their mill town on Salish Sea, British Columbia, and didn’t see life getting any easier.

Home to what was once the world’s largest pulp and paper mill, Powell River was down to just three paper machines run by Catalyst Paper.

So in 2008, Davidson and Randle loaded their two elementary-aged children, cat and dog into an RV, along with what material aspects of their former life could be crammed in, and started driving east.

They headed for a new life in Nova Scotia despite never having been here before.

After three weeks touring the Eastern Shore, Maitland and Old Barnes, they dropped anchor in Pictou County.

Within three days they both had jobs — Davidson as a cook and Randle at Grohman Knives.

“I had no issue with the mill when we came here,” said Davidson.

“I get it. I’m from a mill town.”

Seven and a half years ago they risked it all again, starting up The Stone Soup Café and Catering.

When the wind blew across the harbour, carrying the mill’s sulphur-smelling cloud, diners would be driven from their balcony.

The effect on their business came with concerns about air quality and their own health.

They’re not alone in their worries.

A broad spectrum of the population of Pictou County and farther along the Northumberland Strait have been raising concerns over Northern Pulp’s pollution into both the air and water.

Though they never intended it, Davidson and Randle found themselves in the midst of a debate that has grown ugly.

“I’m sympathetic to the people who work there and the financial stress they are under,” said Davidson.

“But I come from a mill town that used to employ 2,000 people in the early '80s and is down to a few hundred.”

Small businesses

On the other side of the county, Andy MacGregor took three binders from the shelf behind his desk.

They are filled with consultant’s reports, Hansard minutes from the legislature and news clippings from the long-running dispute over a replacement effluent treatment site for Boat Harbour.

Like Davidson and Randle, he is a business owner.

And like them, the owner of Thorburn-based MacGregor’s Industrial Group is worried not just for the financial future of his community, but for the bitter division growing in it.

“There’s a strong-handed approach from both sides and I don’t know how they are going to ever find common ground,” said MacGregor.

“People don’t realize how bad things are getting here. It’s very tense and I don’t know if the community will ever heal itself.”

Northern Pulp’s ecological footprint in northern Nova Scotia is as significant as its role in the economy.

More than 60 million litres of effluent come from the mill, which directly employs 339 people with an average wage of $74,000 a year.

Thirty tractor-trailers are contracted locally, hauling the kraft pulp it produces to the Port of Halifax, from which 1,700 ocean freight containers travel annually to primarily Asian markets.

Then there are the sawmills and independent harvesters and woodland truckers who also rely on the mill.

MacGregor says that many of those opposed to the mill’s proposed effluent treatment plant aren’t basing their thinking on the available empirical data for the technology. And he fears other industries will be targeted next.

“What really bothers me is that as a businessman, I have to base my decisions on science and all the factual evidence I can gather so I can make informed decisions,” said MacGregor.

“But at the end of the day, if people aren’t willing to listen to what’s proven, then what’s next — are they going to go after Michelin Tire, the power plant?”

The mill’s effects on the economy aren’t all positive.

There are other restaurant owners like Davidson and Randle who say tourists and even local customers are driven away by the sight and sulphur smell of the mill.

There are the fishermen who are also an integral part of the area’s economy and who have said repeatedly that they will block any route for the pipe into the Northumberland Strait because it will damage their livelihoods.

An economy is a living thing — its breath and blood are the daily transactions, whether it be for a cup of coffee or a tractor-trailer load of black spruce, that create the whole.

A former mill town

So what happens to Pictou County if Northern Pulp closes may be too big a question for anyone to answer.

But Pictou County doesn’t have to look far for an example of a town that has lost its mill.

The volunteers at the Queens County Food Bank noticed the trauma to their economy in the months that followed Bowater Mersey’s closure.

In 2012, 320 jobs disappeared overnight in Brooklyn.

“There has certainly been an increase and it hasn’t really gone down since,” said Charlotte White of visitors to the food bank.

The 80-year-old volunteer doesn’t count the hours she puts in.

But she does count the people who come through the food bank’s Liverpool doors every month.

The food bank serves between 174 and 200 families in a community of 2,500 people.

As far as she can tell, none of the users of the food bank now are former mill employees.

And from her long view of Liverpool, she can’t attribute it all to the mill’s closure.

“That’s the economy of Nova Scotia,” said White.

“That’s the way things are going everywhere.”

She doesn’t get many seniors — most of the food bank users are between the ages of 20 and 50 in a community with, according to Statistics Canada, an average age of 48.

Many have near minimum wage jobs in the service sector and families to feed.

“This town has been recovering,” said White.

“It’s a different town now, but it has been getting better.”

It is a different town, not a broken one.

An effort to draw retirees, which includes a flashy website, has had some success.

The former mill site isn’t an industrial desert, either.

The province purchased the site, along with woodlands, after the company’s bankruptcy in a move that helped shore up the underfunded pension plan of those out of work.

The mill site was turned over to InnovaCorp, a Crown economic development agency.

Now it’s home to modular home constructing company Lloyoll Built, Covey Island Boatworks, and Aqualitas. The last has spent upwards of $15 million expanding and renovating a former 40,000-square-foot warehouse into a marijuana production facility.

“How could it not have looked like doom initially when Bowater closed?” said Jonathan Lloy, owner of Lloyoll Built and president of the South Queens Chamber of Commerce.

“There was a short-term pain, but I’m really proud of this town and what people have done here.”

Lloy moved his company into one of the former Bowater warehouses in 2016 and has expanded — his company now employs 16 people. The company builds prefabricated custom structures that are shipped all over Atlantic Canada.

Liverpool fights back

Then there are the numbers.

According to Statistics Canada, a year before the mill closed, Queens County had an unemployment rate of 11.1 per cent with an average income of $29,677.

The 2016 census gave the county a 14.9 per cent unemployment rate with an average income of $29,977. That unemployment rate dipped down to 14 per cent in 2018.

Fitting with White’s assessment, 1,370 of Queens County’s working-age population (18 to 64 years old) fall under Statistics Canada’s low-income threshold — double the number of seniors who do.

So while there are fewer good paying blue collar jobs, new ones have emerged in a more diversified economy.

The population has gotten older and there are fewer children.

But Queens County, with Liverpool at its heart, hasn’t been devastated due in large part to local business people.

“If I was to say something to Pictou, it would be that the transition is hard but leaders and winners do emerge,” said Lloy.

There are differences between Pictou and Queens counties.

The economy in Pictou County is already more diversified — it has Michelin Tire, the corporate headquarters of Sobeys in Stellarton, along with its service sector, high tech, fishing and forestry industries.

Northern Pulp is the third largest source of property tax to the Municipality of Pictou County — paying $354,284 this year, behind Michelin Tire’s $531,443 and the $818,601 paid by the Maritimes and Northeast Pipeline.

Brian Cullen, the county’s chief administrative officer, said removing Northern Pulp would require a commercial rate increase of between two and 2.5 cents per $100 of assessment to offset lost revenue.

Seventeen years ago, servicing the forestry industry accounted for 54 per cent of MacGregor Industrial Group’s bottom line. That’s now down to six per cent — a feat accomplished by expanding the Thorburn industrial fabrication, machining and supplies business into the mining industry, tire manufacturing industry and construction industries.

Preparing for worst, hoping for best

MacGregor employs 62 people with an average wage of between $45,000 to $50,000 a year.

Though he predicts a permanent shutdown of Northern Pulp would result in his having to lay off between six and 10 people, he doesn’t see it being the end of the business his parents started 43 years ago.

“I can understand the mistrust — Boat Harbour was created by not so many truths being told,” said MacGregor.

“People say they will come out with government programs for those who are put out of work. But if you lose an industry like that in this global marketplace, you’re not getting it back.”

Resolute Forest Products, the owner of the Bowater mill, closed the plant because of a long contraction of the North American newsprint market that everyone saw coming.

The market for the northern bleached softwood kraft pulp produced at Northern Pulp has been getting stronger over recent years because the trees needed to make it can’t be grown in the developing economies near the equator to which much of the world’s pulp and paper production has moved over recent decades.

The mill faces a closure because as one longstanding pillar of the economy, it has found itself at odds with another, the fishery.

Those are wounds Liverpool never had to contend with.

Charlotte White only had so much time to talk because she had mouths to feed.

And a looming move next summer of her food bank to a building without steps at the bottom of the hill in Liverpool which she hopes will make it easier on those who need her.

“People are people and they should be treated that way,” said White.

“The environment is very important but also industry is very important. I’m glad I’m my age and not young.”