Nova Scotia

Pressure prompts store to axe event featuring book critical of Northern Pulp

Nova Scotia author Joan Baxter says she's shocked by a New Glasgow, N.S., bookstore's decision to cancel her book promotion event after receiving pressure from Northern Pulp supporters. The Pictou County mill is the subject of the book.

Author Joan Baxter says she's shocked Coles in New Glasgow chose to pull out of her book signing

Nova Scotia author Joan Baxter says she's shocked by a New Glasgow bookstore's decision to cancel her book promotion event after receiving pressure from Northern Pulp supporters. The Pictou County mill is the subject of the book. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

Nova Scotia author and journalist Joan Baxter has worked in African countries run by brutal dictators, where journalists often fear for their lives.

The last place she believed she would feel oppressed as a writer would be in her home province.

But that's what Baxter believes happened last week when a New Glasgow bookstore cancelled an event scheduled for Dec. 2 featuring her latest book, The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest.

Coles, owned by Indigo Canada, told Baxter on Nov. 27 it couldn't go ahead with the event.

The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest by Joan Baxter. (Pottersfield Press)

Supporters of Northern Pulp, the current owners of the mill featured in Baxter's book, opposed her appearance, Baxter said Monday.

There was a concern that both the Coles store and the Highland Square Mall, where it is located, might be targets of unspecified protests. Highland Square Mall is owned by Crombie Real Estate Investment Trust, which acquired it in February from Empire Company Ltd., the parent company of Sobeys.

"I was very upset and I said I can't believe this is happening in Nova Scotia," Baxter said. "If they [the bookstore] received any threats, they should have been reported to the police and also to me, so if I knew I needed to take any precautions."

'Aggressive conversations'

On Monday, Indigo said it cancelled the event because of "comfort and safety" concerns.

"A number of events leading up to the signing, including aggressive conversations directed to store staff, have led us to cancel this event as our commitment to a joyful and safe experience may have been compromised," spokesperson Kate Gregory said in an email.

"We do not take this decision lightly, but we must respect the comfort and safety of all customers, staff and authors in our stores."

However, Baxter said she wasn't afraid for her personal safety.

"I had no fears of going. I've worked as a journalist in Africa for years. I've covered wars, coups, I wasn't going to be afraid of a book signing in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia."

Book 'demeaning,' mill says

Northern Pulp communications director Kathy Cloutier said the company does not condone aggressive actions.

"In fact, employees and others were encouraged to voice their opinions — should they choose to — in the form of letters rather than specific actions such as protests," she said in an email Tuesday.

"Indeed a letter was created by me for which employees, retirees and their families were able to sign and submit of their own free accord."

Northern Pulp workers object to the book "depicting their workplace in such negative unbalanced fashion," Cloutier said in her email.

"To have a book demeaning their day-to-day work life can understandably elicit passion in wanting to stand up for their contributions to the mill and workforce of the forest industry in Nova Scotia."

Kathy Cloutier is communications director for Northern Pulp. (CBC)

Baxter said she initially took the news of the cancelled event quietly "because I really felt for the people who work in the bookstore. I knew they were in a really difficult position and I understood that. I agreed I wouldn't make a fuss about it."

But the word got out and social media lit up with tweets and Facebook posts by people appalled that threats from mill supporters could suppress an event publicizing the book in Pictou County.

Book not intended as a condemnation

Baxter lives in Colchester County, close enough to Pictou that she said she can smell the mill on some days.

She began in her book in 2016. She described it as a chronicle of how the mill came to be, the controversies that accompanied its construction and growth, and its effect on the province's economy, environment and the health of people who live in surrounding communities.

Baxter said it's not a condemnation of the mill or the forestry industry, which employs 6,100 in direct jobs and another 5,400 in spinoff jobs, according to a January 2017 Forest Nova Scotia report.

"I'm not an activist. I'm a working journalist," she said.

Emotional subject in Pictou County

It wasn't an easy book to write as Northern Pulp refused to give her interviews. Baxter said her attempts to speak to former Nova Scotia premier John Hamm, who is chairman of Northern Resources Nova Scotia Corp., which owns and operates Northern Pulp Nova Scotia and Northern Timber, were also rebuffed.

Her requests for interviews with current Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil also were turned down, she said.

"It's not just a symptom of our times, but it tells you what an emotional subject this is in Pictou County. Because there are families divided — families that depend on that mill completely and families who blame cancers on the mill."

Baxter is not sure what will happen next.

"It's very, very new. My stomach has been churning all weekend. How's this going to play out, I don't know."

Indigo has hosted two signings Baxter's book in Dartmouth and Truro and says others may be possible.