Northern Pulp mill front and centre in Central Nova election race
At stake are hundreds of jobs, the environment and a promise to right a wrong done to an Indigenous community
Like the clouds of smoke, steam and, yes, smell emerging from its stacks, the future of the Northern Pulp mill hangs over the election underway in the federal riding of Central Nova.
At stake are hundreds of jobs, the environment and a promise to right a wrong done to an Indigenous community in northern Nova Scotia.
"I've spent more time on this file over the past few years than anything else I've done as a member of Parliament," said Liberal incumbent Sean Fraser, who easily won the traditionally Conservative seat in the red sweep of Nova Scotia in 2015.
But Fraser is getting no credit from opponents on the left who are demanding he take a stand on the mill, which has deeply polarized the riding.
For many, the issue boils down to the "pipe" and the "extension."
The mill will close, at least temporarily, when its current wastewater treatment facility at Boat Harbour is shut down in January by provincial legislation.
The Boat Harbour Act was a commitment made in 2015 to the Pictou Landing band ,which has unhappily lived next to the mill's wastewater discharge point for decades.
What pipe and extension really mean
With closure of its current treatment site looming, the company has asked the province to keep Boat Harbour open for at least another year while it plans a new facility on the mill site at Abercrombie Point, Pictou County.
That is the "extension."
Defenders see it as a way to ensure the mill's survival, and with it, jobs inside the plant and outside in the forests and sawmills tied to Northern Pulp.
Owned by Paper Excellence, the mill wants to discharge treated effluent from a pipe that runs into the Northumberland Strait.
That is the "pipe."
The pipe has been loudly opposed by local fishermen.
Some agreed to a permanent injunction after Northern Pulp sued them for intimidating a company survey crew in the Northumberland Strait.
Fraser says no to pipe, for now
Fraser said an extension is up to Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil, although Fraser said he "would have a hard time" going back on the commitment to Pictou Landing.
As for discharging treated effluent into the Strait — he's against it, for now.
"We don't have enough information yet to assess whether it's safe, let alone conclude that it's safe, so at this time we simply don't have enough information to allow it to go ahead," he said.
Fraser said the divisiveness has been deeply unhealthy, citing the case of a youngster who quit playing hockey because a parent works at the mill and he was getting bullied at school.
"I view my role as being one to help take the temperature down," he said.
Canyon still studying the mill issue
The Conservative candidate is country singer George Canyon.
He acknowledges the tensions created by the Northern Pulp situation, but he refuses to be pinned down.
"I cannot give you my personal opinion. I'm educating myself," Canyon said.
The Pictou native, born Fred Lays Jr., is a late entrant in the race.
Canyon lives outside Calgary where he considered, but opted not to seek the Conservative nomination in an Alberta riding in the last election.
Canyon was parachuted into Central Nova this time by national party headquarters after the winner of a contested nomination withdrew without explanation.
It was so abrupt Canyon was on tour during the first 10 days of the campaign.
But he's back in Nova Scotia, studying up on the issues and talking to all sides.
"That's what I've been working really hard over the last four weeks to do, getting all the information I can to make sure I'm fully educated on the situation and that's going to apply to every situation in Central Nova, not just the mill," he said.
"It's vital that I'm well versed before I can make any kind of statement about anything."
Eastern Shore MPA
There is one exception.
In an interview, Canyon said he identifies himself as a member of the Eastern Woodlands Métis Nation of Nova Scotia. Later, the Conservative Party said he in fact identities as Mi'kmaq. A further clarification from his campaign said he is "proud of his Mi'kmaq heritage but is not a status Mi'kmaq."
Canyon has taken a position on the Eastern Shore marine protected area. He's against it, saying the conservation protection threatened fishermen's livelihoods.
Fraser tried to take the issue off the table prior to the election when the Liberals scrapped the proposed MPA.
"We're no longer even talking about an MPA," Fraser said.
Caution from the front runners on the mill, meanwhile, has frustrated opponents.
"No pipe, no extension," said Betsy MacDonald, running for the New Democrats.
"It's a situation that requires leadership and I'm prepared to provide that leadership."
Green candidate Barry Randle has lost patience with the mill.
"I think mills close in communities all the time. It's an unfortunate fact of life," he said.
"They've had five years to come up with some sort of solution and they haven't come up with anything other than this proposal to pump the effluent out into the fishing grounds, which is, frankly, the most controversial thing that they could have done and was, in my opinion, designed to fail," he said.
Fraser has his own line for voters attracted to the Greens and NDP: Don't do it.
"I think people who are thinking about voting Green or NDP in this riding, in many ridings across Canada, need to think long and hard. Do you want to wake up on Oct. 22 with Andrew Scheer as prime minister, who opposes every single measure we've put forward in the past four years to reduce our emissions?" Fraser said.
"If you're thinking about parking your vote, you have to ask yourself, do you want to make a difference or do you want to make a point?"
To that, Randle said his party has credibility on issues like climate change.
"For years, we've been shouting in the wilderness," he said. "Now all of a sudden, everything we say is becoming policy."
People's Party land swap
People's Party of Canada candidate Al Muir said if the band agrees, he proposes to keep Boat Harbour as a treatment facility and, in exchange, the mill would give the band some of the land it owns.
"I'm suggesting that they provide the native population with reasonable substitute lands that only they can accept and that only they would decide if this would work for them," he said.
"They could be ocean frontage waterways, watercourses similar to the land that they've lost."
St. Francis Xavier University history professor Chris Frazer is running for the Communist Party of Canada, while Michael Slowick is running as an Independent.