Northern Pulp closure feels like 'a death in the community,' says warden
Pictou County, N.S., mill shutting down after premier refuses to grant extension to legislated shutdown date
The warden of Pictou County, N.S., where hundreds of mill workers are set to lose their jobs, is calling the timing of the premier's decision on Boat Harbour "absolutely atrocious."
On Friday, days before Christmas, Premier Stephen McNeil announced he was keeping his promise to the Pictou Landing First Nation and would not allow Northern Pulp's effluent treatment facility to operate beyond the Jan. 31, 2020, deadline.
Without a place for the mill to send its waste, Northern Pulp says it's forced to shut down, taking with it 350 direct jobs and more than 2,000 forestry-sector jobs across the province.
"It feels almost like there was a death in the community," Robert Parker told CBC's Information Morning on Monday. "There's sort of a pall over everybody and the sense of disbelief."
The premier's decision is a blow for a part of the province that's no stranger to watching industry uproot, Parker said.
"We're looking at a loss in our economy here of a million dollars every week. That's going to affect every business in Pictou County, as well as a whole lot of individuals in a terrible way," he said.
The warden fielded calls from worried families all weekend, but said he had no hope to offer them.
The $50-million fund that McNeil promised to help workers in the sector with retraining, education and emergency needs is nowhere near enough, Parker said.
Parker wants more money set aside and for people in the forestry sector to decide how it's spent.
McNeil told Information Morning that $50 million is a "substantial amount of money."
"It's unfortunate that people choose to use the words inadequate," he said.
As for the timing of his decision, McNeil said he had no choice but to wait for the province's environment minister to decide whether to grant an environmental approval last week.
Gordon Wilson said Northern Pulp's environmental studies for its proposed replacement facility didn't have enough information, and gave the company two years to complete more.
"If I had made the decision earlier, I would have been interfering with the process," McNeil said. "I would have been accused of circumventing the regulator. That's not what this is about. We wanted to give this company an opportunity to co-exist."
Community divisions could get worse
People in Pictou County have long been divided over whether the mill's economic benefits outweigh its potential impacts on the environment, and there are concerns those divisions will only get deeper now.
"I've heard a few stories already that makes it sound like it might get a little bit worse," said Shelly Chandler, reverend of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Pictou.
"I pray that it doesn't," she added, noting that she views the decision as an act of reconciliation with Indigenous people, and the Pictou Landing First Nation in particular.
Chief Andrea Paul said last week that McNeil's decision was "a long time coming," and that she's grateful to the government and her community.
Dennis Slaunwhite, who has lived in Pictou his entire life, said he feels sorry for people who will lose their jobs, but he also thinks it's the right decision for the mill to close.
"I've been around to see [the mill] be built, now I'm here to see it go down," said Slaunwhite. "I think it's time."
Before Northern Pulp, Pictou County saw the closure of companies like Maritime Steel, Trenton Works and Scotsburn.
Nancy Dicks, the mayor of New Glasgow, said when major employers shut down, people leave. In 2016, the region had some of its lowest census numbers ever, she said.
She expects many of the employees losing their jobs with Northern Pulp won't stick around to get retrained.
"We tend to use the word jobs, but in fact these are people," she said. "They have faces, they have families, and in my opinion, it's heartbreaking for this to happen."
1-800 number will be set up
McNeil said his government met with people in the forestry industry over the weekend and is in the process of finding new markets for the province's wood chips.
Northern Pulp buys about 42,000 truckloads worth of wood chips, bark and round wood from sawmills and woodlots each year.
The premier also said a 1-800 number will be set up for families and companies needing support.
Parker believes the Boat Harbour decision, likely the biggest McNeil will make as premier, is one of the first major examples of environment trumping economy in Nova Scotia.
He said his council met with McNeil a year ago and "pretty near begged" him to get involved in the Northern Pulp file and find a solution.
Parker believes if the premier had stepped in then, families wouldn't be going into Christmas with so much uncertainty now.
"I think if we had have acted a year ago, we could have come up with a win-win. We came up with a win-loss instead," he said.
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With files from CBC's Information Morning, Frances Willick and Michael Gorman