Nova Scotia

From pulp and paper to marijuana, the rebranding of Queens County

In 2012, the Bowater Mersey pulp mill was shut down and hundreds of people were suddenly without work. But now one of its old warehouses has been transformed into a marijuana grow facility, bringing with it dozens of jobs.

'We are very anxious to get our product out there on the market,' says CEO of cannabis producer Aqualitas

Aqualitas is now growing cannabis at the old Bowater-Mersey mill site near Liverpool, N.S. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

Queens County in Nova Scotia is embracing a new type of crop cultivation.

For decades, the forestry sector was the biggest employer in the area. But in 2012, the Bowater Mersey pulp mill was shut down and hundreds of people were suddenly out of a job.

Seven years later, there's a cannabis production facility on the former mill site and 50 people are working there.

Owner Aqualitas set up its operation in one of the old Bowater warehouses.

It's an investment that hasn't come cheaply.

The large warehouse is one of the newer buildings on the site, but it still cost $20 million to get it ready for cannabis production, says Aqualitas CEO Myrna Gillis

An Aqualitas employee displays some of the cannabis grown at the Queens County facility. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

Last week, the company, which has its head office in Bedford, N.S., finally got the news it had been waiting for. Health Canada had awarded Aqualitas its marijuana sales licence.

It came after four years of planning, and 14 months of growing its cannabis crop. Now the company can sell its product on the medical, domestic and international markets.

"You kind of feel like you've just run a marathon," Gillis says. "Now we are in a sprint because we are very anxious to get our product out there on the market."

Gillis said the company's first order will be with the medical market but within a month Nova Scotians should see Aqualitas products on Nova Scotia Liquor Corp. shelves. There will also be a shipment heading to Poland to be used in medical research.

The new cannabis operation has allowed some people to return to their roots along Nova Scotia's South Shore.

Aqualitas is already planning to expand to other sections of the old Bowater-Mersey mill site. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

While there is an office staff of nine in Bedford, the rest are in Brooklyn, Queens County, just outside Liverpool.

Kathy Grezaud worked in Ontario for 25 years but is now back working in her home province, in the small town where she was raised.

"Having the opportunity to come here and see this happen in this town and [producing] something that is such a benefit to so many people, it's just incredibly exciting," she said.

Even though Aqualitas just got its sales licence last week, there is already a plan to expand its footprint on the old Bowater mill site.

Gillis estimates that within a year, there could be as many people working at Aqualitas as there were at the mill when it closed seven years ago.

Trent Hupman, a longtime Bowater worker, is now the facilities manager at Aqualitas.

"It's great to see all the local people here getting back to work and there's also a lot of new faces in town too," he said. "With expansion on the horizon, it's just really great for the community."

These koi fish provide nutrients for some of the cannabis plants grown at Aqualitas. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

Aqualitas is growing cannabis organically, using two different methods. One is a more traditional approach in soil; the other is an aquaponic system.

In addition, the facility has more than 1,000 live koi fish at the plant — the waste produced by them is used as nutrients for cannabis plants.

"We have a commercial sized aquaculture system located right on site," said Gillis, who worked as a lawyer before she took her current position.

Gillis's team is also working with Acadia University on potential new products, including edibles and a wellness beverage.

Aqualitas has been extracting oil from its plants under a restricted sales licence for oils. Gillis says she expects those restrictions to be lifted before summer.