Nova Scotia

Northern Pulp is no longer in production. So what's ahead for Pictou County?

For years, the Northern Pulp mill has been a huge economic driver in Pictou County. Now, faced with its closure, people in the community are wondering what's ahead? An expert in the sustainability of rural communities talks about what happens when industry leaves.

'When a small town or rural community loses a major employer there's no clear path forward,' says expert

With Northern Pulp no longer in production, Pictou County faces an uncertain road ahead. Other Maritime communities have faced a similar problem. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Pink slips and a blank slate for the future — that's the reality hundreds of Northern Pulp workers face now that the Abercrombie, N.S., mill has halted production.

The last day of January was the deadline for the mill to stop pumping effluent into Boat Harbour.

While the loss of the mill is new territory for people in Pictou County, loss of an industry is an old story for rural places across the region.

Archie McLaughlin was working at the NewPage paper mill in Port Hawkesbury, N.S., when it closed in 2012 after almost 50 years of producing paper in the town.

NewPage employed 600 people at the mill, 400 people in the woods and hundreds of others in indirect jobs. 

The mill was purchased and reopened under a new employer, but McLaughlin says today's workforce is half its former size.

"I was lucky enough to get rehired with the new company," he told CBC's Maritime Noon. "So my situation was not so bad, but it was very hard on a lot of other people that didn't get back to work."

Stephen McNeil's government allocated $50-million dollars to help mill workers and lumber workers transition from Northern Pulp. (CBC)

Dalhousie University sustainability expert Karen Foster has looked at academic studies from around the world for answers to the question of what happens after a community loses a major employer.

"This is not a new problem, not a novel problem, and unfortunately it is a tough road ahead," said Foster, who is Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Rural Futures for Atlantic Canada.

How to survive and thrive

Basil Stewart was mayor of Summerside, P.E.I., when a local air force base where 1,300 people worked shut down.

CFB Summerside was on a list base closures announced in 1989.

"I remember that morning at 5:30 a.m. I got the call from a radio station," said Stewart, who was mayor from 1985-2014 and returned to the office in 2018.

Thirty years ago, thousands protested the closure of CFB Summerside. (CBC)

A special task force put together a report that showed up to five per cent of P.E.I.'s population would be affected by the closure — 33 per cent of the population of Summerside.

Instead, the former base property found new life as Slemon Park, a business and residential area with a thriving aerospace sector.

The shutdown of CFB Summerside became known by some as "the most successful base closure in Canadian history." 

"Last year, we had $40 million in building permits and it appears this year is going to be the same, so things have turned around," Stewart said, noting it was 30 years since the shutdown.

"Our economy now is really booming here is Summerside."

30 years after Northern Pulp?

"When a small town or rural community loses a major employer there's no clear path forward," according to Foster.

"I do think that people in the community could look at examples of other places that have gone through this to get some idea of what a transition plan might look like, even though there's a diversity of them."

Foster said three effective strategies stand out from her research. They are community engagement, leadership and adaptability to economic trends.

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With files from CBC's Maritime Noon

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