(EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is the first in a series of articles that The Advocate will be exploring as we begin to understand the impacts of the Northern Pulp closure, new market opportunities for the forestry sector and the visioning of a greener community working towards a sustainable future.)
There is a deepening rift in a community that prides itself on the precedent of standing together. It’s a community that has been polarized by different mindsets and opinions about how we prosper. It’s a community that has forced the hand of government to make a decision that will help make reparations to our First Nations people and local environment that suffered from the collateral damages of big industry pollution for over 50 years. It’s a community where many are celebrating the end of toxic effluent being pumped into Boat Harbour. But it’s also a community where the people who worked at the mill, its many contract businesses and forestry sector workers, are feeling abandoned and fearful about their future.
It’s a dangerous conversation to wade into in Pictou County. Since the first blockades of the survey boats in Pictou Harbour in 2018 to the announcement made by Premier Stephen McNeil in the days before Christmas that Northern Pulp would be shutting down operations, tensions have stayed at the high-water mark. It’s a divide that has had very personal impacts on both sides and even for those stuck in the middle who only want what is best for their community. Stories are starting to emerge about mill workers leaving their community to purchase groceries and gas. Even for their favourite cup of joe in order to dodge any conflict and projected shame. These are stories that we are not used to and can only be equated to the amalgamation vote in 2016 when lines were also drawn in the sand.
But this time the stakes are higher. While there are still many pieces at play that will factor into the shutdown of the mill, including the continuation of wastewater flowing to the Boat Harbour lagoons until April to aid in the facilitation of the shutdown, the jolt to the local economy is just starting to be felt.
Sarah Wiseman, CEO of the Pictou County Regional Enterprise Network, says it’s time that the community embraces these difficult conversations and she wants to create a collaborative approach that will eventually help the community heal.
“Usually when you have a company with significant layoffs, closure, you have a community that rallies with nothing but support. This is a very different situation. People were divided before it (the mill closure) even happened and are divided on their response,” says Wiseman.
The start of the healing process will not be an easy undertaking when finding immediate work is the prescription that everyone is looking for. The day that the announcement came out Wiseman says that she was in the process of contacting many of the agencies that would be key players in rebuilding what was lost with the mill closure, but she realizes that there are processes and protocols with the way things are done even though it can be frustrating for the people directly affected who don’t have the luxury of time to wait.
Locally, close to 350 people working at the mill would have received their pink slip by the end of last week. An estimated 10,000 work in the forestry sector in various parts of the province; half of those individuals have been or will be directly impacted. How many of these people are living in Pictou County is what Sarah Wisemen says is what the REN is trying to sort out.
“The role of the Pictou County REN should likely be the collecting of information and passing it along to the province. I think this is important because when big decisions are being made they know what is happening on the ground,” says Wisemen.
The harvesting of this information has not been easy. Most figures rest in different government silos but part of knowing what to do to assist the individuals affected by the closure is to have an idea of capacity.
In response to this, the Pictou County REN is hiring a part-time community outreach and communications co-ordinator. Wiseman says that it’s just a first step. They have a small staff, only herself and two others, so collecting data and doing the work that she believes is in front of them will be a challenge. She sees the role being more of a navigator than providing solutions and acting as a concierge so if there is any way to connect people to something local they have the process in place.
The other important role that Wiseman says the REN can play is the open communication in the community.
“The most time sensitive gap that we have to start to fill right now is the communication to the community that we care. We are not offering magical solutions, but we are doing something because right now it feels like there has been a lot of dead air,” she says. “How do we tap into that cohort of people who feel unsupported, who are not accessing government services and who do not know about the REN? We need a communication plan to reach these people.”
The mandate of the REN makes it a neutral player in response to the issues. Because its stakeholders are the six municipal units, Pictou Landing First Nations and the province, all the new agency can do is look forward. Because of its stakeholders the REN is not in the position to judge. Its members sit on either side of the fence.
“We are not in a position to look back. It is what it is. Whether you agree with the mill closure or not, something had to change. It couldn’t keep happening the way it was,” says Wiseman of the 50 years of mill operations under different ownership.
Moving forward, the REN could become the most important stakeholder in any progress and healing process; however, Wiseman says that they don’t want to assume the leadership but they want to work towards a collective voice. They are the first agency to start the uncomfortable conversations and address the elephant in the room.
“Even to start the dialogue is complicated,” says Wisemen who stepped out of her comfort zone as a lawyer a year ago to accept the challenges of influencing local economic development as head of the REN. She adds that she is certain that the people who worked at the mill are not getting the same sympathy as other community members did when Michelin had its big layoffs or when Sobeys went through its restructuring.
“Even for those not in any camps, the news has all been headlines for one side or the other. The truth is somewhere right in the middle.” As a lawyer, Wisemen knows that the truth is always more grey and complicated.
Time is also a complicating factor. While Nova Scotia’s forestry transition team has announced a $7 million fund to help keep the sector alive, it will be more than two months before details of the fund will be released.
“We can’t ask people who have to pay their mortgage to wait around to hear what this is going to look like. We are not going to have these community members here to hear about these solutions so the least we can do is get some of these people through our door and see how we can help. Right now, the only support is the call-in 1-800 number or going to NS Works. I don’t think the majority of people are doing that.”
Other than the government fund and a recent motion made at a municipal council meeting to help support the costs of relocating machinery to other markets, a move Wiseman says she would prefer not see right away just in case another solution is close at hand, any other innovation is being kept quiet until it is fully vetted, or does not yet exist.
The REN had been working on other projects that would have positive benefits on the community but Wisemen says she is even careful about celebrating any of those opportunities that have nothing to do with that sector at this time until there is a public acknowledgement and respect for what their people and families are going through.
“There is nothing we can do in the next three years that is going to be anywhere close to what we are going to lose if we don’t get these families to stay.”
How long the rift in the community of Pictou County will last is as much an unknown as how long it will really take to bring Boat Harbour back to its days when it was a healthy estuary. While the healing of the different factions of the mill and environment may take some time, the people of the Pictou Landing First Nations have been waiting 50 years for the healing to begin.
Hope and healing are closely tied together. Hope opens the brain to new mindsets and creates new pathways to solve problems and create new goals. It is also said to help foster empathy and understanding. Pictou County is living in the most uncomfortable place of change and uncertainty. Sarah Wiseman hopes that with a new dialogue the healing could start sooner than later.