June 2, 2016.
Joan Baxter remembers the day.
She was back home in northern Nova Scotia and decided to go out for a walk. That’s when she was hit by a strong-smelling pollution.
“I felt like I had just been hit in the head by a bucket of acid,” she said.
She called the Northern Pulp mill to see what was going on.
“They said it was probably just the direction of the wind.”
To her the answer wasn’t good enough, so she started doing research for what initially she planned to be a freelance article. It turned out to be a book that consumed her for the last 14-15 months.
In the book, The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest, Baxter meticulously documents the history of the Pictou County mill using archival material, government records, consultant and media reports, and poignant interviews with people whose lives have touched by the mill and the pulp industry. By weaving these personal stories into the historical narrative, she brings to life five decades of controversy and citizen-led campaigns to have the mill clean up its act, and to have government protect the people and environment.
What she found from talking to people impacted in different ways is that most of them don’t blame the mill or the workers, but the government for not stepping in to protect them.
“It’s a local story, but I think it’s a much bigger story,” Baxter said.
That bigger theme in her opinion is how international development has negatively impacted communities with corporations essentially taking governments hostage by threatening to leave and take their jobs with them if they don’t get their way.
“Jobs are so precious in places like Nova Scotia that governments cave to them,” she said.
As someone who has covered stories in less developed countries, Baxter said Canadians can delude themselves by thinking that everything is carefully regulated and therefore safe.
“Sometimes we don’t realize we don’t have as much protection as we think we do.”
Through her writing process, Baxter said she was really disappointed by the lack of transparency and response from the provincial government and Northern Pulp.
She said she made repeated attempts to get input from Northern Pulp, but they declined to participate.
She was able to talk with the engineer who designed the mill though and did her best to find out the information to present an accurate and fair picture of the situation.
Critics may attack sections of her book as being inaccurate, she says, but her response is she tried her best to get the most accurate information.
In addition to documenting the 50 years of protest surrounding the mill, Baxter hopes that it will encourage future leaders to think more about the decisions that have been made in relation to the mill and future decisions related to other corporations.
“I hope some of the politicians will read this book and say let’s stop making mistakes,” she said.
This book wouldn’t have been possible, Baxter said, without the help of people in Pictou County who have been willing to sit down and share their stories and personal research. She said the Clean the Mill Facebook group members were particularly helpful.
“The amount of research they’ve done on their own time is amazing.”
She also thanked Dr. Gerry Farrell for allowing her to use his photo of Northern Pulp on the cover of her book.
Baxter will be launching the book in Pictou County at the Nova Scotia Museum of Industry, 147 North Foord St., in Stellarton (Exit 24 off Trans Canada Hwy) on Tuesday, Nov. 21 from 7 to 9 p.m.