Last week, as Joan Baxter was on the road promoting her new book, The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest, she got a call from Chapters headquarters to let her know that her book-signing event scheduled for the New Glasgow Coles bookstore would not be happening. The veteran journalist was shocked at the decision, which came without an explanation. Baxter later learned that the communications director for Northern Pulp, current operators of the titular mill of her book, had circulated a form letter to employees and retirees of Northern Pulp, accusing Baxter of “profiting off negativity towards Northern Pulp and its past and present workforce,” and threatening a boycott of Coles and Chapters if they continued with the book signing event.
The cancellation made national news and has since spurred a further two scheduled signings for Baxter in Pictou County: on December 9th, 1:00 pm at Water Street Studio in Pictou, and on December 16th, 1:00 pm at The Art of Divination in Stellarton. Atlantic Books Today called up Joan at her home in Colchester County, to ask about the book signing fiasco and the politics surrounding her book, The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest.
Atlantic Books Today: When did you find out the signing would be called off?
Joan Baxter: It was actually a few days before the signing that I got a call from the Chapters people telling me that they were ‘rescheduling.’ So it wouldn’t be going ahead on December 2 in New Glasgow. They had checked with Truro but they were fine with it. There were people in Truro who were actually quite positive about it.
At that point I was really upset. I said I can’t believe this is happening in Canada, for gosh sake. I said I need to know what was said and what was done that would lead to this. Because if whatever happened was serious enough that you are cancelling, then surely I should know about it and the police should know about it. And I never was told what happened.
At that point I thought this book was just going to slip into oblivion. The media weren’t picking it up; it wasn’t getting any coverage.
And then–and this is inevitable, because it had been advertised before–people went into the bookstore to get the book signed and were told it was cancelled. They went on social media and of course they directed their ire at Coles and Chapters. And I said to any media that called, before you go after the bookstore find out who made this decision. And try to get from them what the threats were and on what basis the cancellation was made. And then we got a copy of the letter.
Atlantic Books Today: Were you surprised the letter campaign was initiated by Northern Pulp considering that in the book the heaviest criticism seems levelled at the Nova Scotia government?
Joan Baxter: Well, that was the message of the people that I interviewed. Almost without exception they said, a mill is a mill, it’s a business, that’s what it does. It’s the government that’s not doing its job. Almost everybody said that. So I get upset when I hear people say, ‘oh, it’s critical of the mill.’ No, actually the government has come off much worse.
The mill itself… Maybe I talk about the corporate structure behind it. But I think it’s our politicians who’ve got into bed with the mill who come off the worst in the book. And that’s not my message, that’s just history. Just things that happened. [Northern Pulp communications director Kathy Cloutier] in her letter called it “non-factual rhetoric.” There are 856 end notes at the end of The Mill. Almost every line has a reference.
Atlantic Books Today: Were you surprised by this aggressive action from the mill management?
Joan Baxter: Honestly, it’s a statement of how they have functioned for 50 years in that community. They bullied people into submission. And the fact that [Kathy Cloutier] would do that and think she could get away with it in 2017 suggests to me that they don’t even realize this is unacceptable.
And it’s completely backfired on them. This book, that was a sleepy little thing that would have made a tiny blip, perhaps, has now turned into a huge wave of negative media publicity for them. People are sending me messages telling me I should thank [Cloutier]. Which I don’t intend to, because I think this is unacceptable.
Atlantic Books Today: What concerns you most about this reaction from Northern Pulp?
Joan Baxter: What worries me is you’ve got a real issue going on right now in Pictou County with the province trying to fast track, for the mill, this new effluent treatment and disposal system without going through the full environmental assessment which would require a year at least, and open consultation with the community.
And the fishermen’s association and fishermen from New Brunswick and PEI are over there. They’ve been having these information sessions and one person said to me the Northern Pulp and Unifor guys are kind of showing up in their jackets and anyone who goes to oppose this thing might feel intimidated.
The government of this province, the elected officials, the mill, everybody should be trying to tone things down before someone gets hurt. I think things are really volatile right now, and I don’t want to be part of that volatility, I don’t want to pour oil on the fire. But I feel like this campaign is like Northern Pulp doing exactly that.
Atlantic Books Today: The book brings to light how the different communities around the mill have been pitted against each other. Is this more of the same?
Joan Baxter: On Monday night I went over to the Pictou town council meeting, because Northern Pulp has been sending out letters to the town councils there to get them to endorse the fast track on the environmental assessment. So the fishermen’s association and a new
group called the Friends of Northumberland Strait are going to the councils and presenting on why this isn’t a good idea and why they need a full environmental assessment to see if it is going to hurt or destroy the fisheries.
And it was so uncanny, I felt like I’d been thrown back in time to the way I was picturing the very meetings that I was writing about that took place 50 years ago, when the fishermen would come in and say, “you are destroying our lobster fishery” and the government and the mill would say, “no, we’re not.”
And that’s exactly the way it’s playing out again. And it’s happened so many times. And I mean, people are so emotional, they cry. Even at this meeting the other night, people are close to tears. The fishermen are so frustrated.
And I don’t know what I would do if I were the government, because previous governments have dug us into such a huge hole with that indemnity agreement (which makes us responsible for not just the clean up of Boat Harbour, but also for any reconfigured facility to treat their waste), either way it’s going to cost the government a fortune.
It’s really hard to know what they are going to do, but I sure would love to hear some of the politicians speaking out. The silence is deafening.
Atlantic Books Today: One thing that’s clear is that you made the effort to speak to a number of different communities in your research.
Joan Baxter: I did make the effort. First and foremost I am a journalist, and I wanted to write a book that would be dispassionate and have a balanced view of the whole thing. I really tried to get as many varied opinions as I could, including people who have worked at the
mill for years and years. There was one man who was their PR guy for years and who is now head of the Pictou Chamber of Commerce, he was the first person to say no.
I was really surprised when John Hamm [former Nova Scotia premier and chair of the board at Northern Pulp] didn’t even answer my letter.
I was even more surprised when the mill management just gave a blanket ‘we’re not going to participate.’ I found that strange especially since they have a communications person, and they have so many advertisements, and yet they wouldn’t talk to a journalist writing a book about the pulp mill.
And I was extremely disappointed in the union. I tried really hard to get someone from the union to speak and they just didn’t even answer me. And that I find distressing.
Atlantic Books Today: You could say reading The Mill was a bit distressing.
Joan Baxter: Every time I’d go through to edit it, I’d have to stop and take a deep breath and say how could they do that? What were they thinking? And I know they were just kind of shunting… Because we dug that hole right at the very beginning. It may be unique on the planet that a government agrees that its citizens are going to pay for a big industry’s waste. I read somewhere in a pulp industry magazine that nobody has ever agreed to take care of a pulp mill’s waste before. Good old Nova Scotia, as soon as they did that, that and stealing a sacred body of water from the Mi’kmaq, they dug a hole that every government since has tried to just push ahead to the next group of people so they won’t have to deal with it.
And the hole just gets bigger and bigger and more expensive for us to come out of.
Atlantic Books Today: What is it about Nova Scotia’s relationship with large resource-based industries?
Joan Baxter: I’ve agonized over that. I wouldn’t say Nova Scotia is unique in that. In the age of neoliberalism what we are seeing here
is happening absolutely everywhere. It’s called corporate capture of democracies. But I think, especially when I look at the personalities of the people in the 60s, I feel like there was a certain naïveté, innocence, and maybe inferiority complex that allowed them to be taken
advantage of by these big corporations who really exploited us. I’m not sure that’s ever changed.
I’m forgiving of the early governments, because at that time they didn’t know any better. Now we do. Or we should.
Atlantic Books Today: Is there anything you’ve wanted to say that hasn’t come up in an interview yet?
One of the things I realized when I was researching this book is how many different media we had back in the 70s. We had conservative, left, middle of the road, investigative. And now we are down to what…? So I’m worried.
I’d really like to see more journalists delve into the myths about us.