Joan Baxter is an investigative reporter living in Nova Scotia, Canada.
She spent much of her life reporting on how corporations have come to dominate the emerging democracies in Africa.
Little did she realize the extent of corporate control in Canada.
Now she knows.
Baxter is out with an expose – The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest – that details the foreign corporations that owned a local pulp mill and how they got their way with the provincial and federal authorities.
Baxter expected the book to sell maybe a few hundred copies. But then the company made a bad move.
What made you decide to write this book?
“It was happenstance,” Baxter told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “I had just finished a book on African food and farms – Seven Grains of Paradise. It’s about multinationals taking over Africa’s food systems, diet, foods and lands.”
“I was just finishing up that book when I returned from Kenya in the spring of 2016. One morning, I woke up on a beautiful day, a few weeks before summer would begin in June. I walked out my door and just about fell over because of the smell of the pulp mill, which is forty kilometers from my house. It was so strong that I tried to go for a jog and I couldn’t.”
“That pulp mill has been around for half a century. I had never paid any attention to it. We always knew it smelled. I didn’t know where its effluent was going. Turns out it was going into a sacred lagoon of a first nation people. They had been tricked into handing it over in 1967. I hadn’t paid any attention to it. I assumed that if it was causing real harm, my provincial and federal governments would not be letting it run.”
“I made a phone call to the mill and was told that the reason I was smelling it was because of the direction of the wind. I said to the man – I guess on the days I’m not smelling it, someone else is. We left it there.”
“Then I called the Department of the Environment and didn’t get anybody. I then went online and saw that there was a group called Clean the Mill. They put up an amazing website with a remarkable amount of research. There were a few pdfs missing. They hadn’t finished posting all of the reference material. I sent them an email saying I would perhaps be interested in writing an article about their work and about the mill.”
“I got a phone call back from a well known musician here in Canada – Dave Gunning. He’s a folk musician. He’s part of that Clean the Mill group. He talked to me for two hours. I had 27 pages of notes. And I said – this isn’t an article, this is a book.”
“I thought I was going to do a history — fifty years of this pulp mill. What I realized is that citizens had been fighting against that mill since before it opened. That mill’s effluent goes out into the Northumberland Strait, which is one of the world’s best lobster fishing grounds. Those people had been protesting before it started. So had people with land in the area. And then wave after wave of citizen groups came forward, got organized, tried to get the government to respond and protect them from the water and air pollution, the destruction of our forests, which were being clearcut and sprayed with herbicides.”
“But the citizens had been beaten down. The government always seemed to side with the mill, which has been owned by five large foreign corporations – Scott Paper, Kimberly Clark, Neenah Paper, then two firms out of New York – Blue Wolf Capital and Atlas Holdings and most recently by Paper Excellence, which can be traced back to the Widjaja billionaire family in Indonesia.”
“The mill has always been foreign owned and yet government after government has sided with the mill, allowed them to exceed their emissions standards, never cracked down on them with tougher regulations governing what they were emitting and when, threw money at them over and over again, signed an indemnity agreement that made the people of Nova Scotia responsible for all of the wastes coming out of that mill and for any reconfiguration of the mill if they were required to improve the effluent treatment system.”
“That’s the kind of collusion that has happened over fifty years. And that is what shocked me. People again and again were trying to get the government to do what it is elected to do – protect the citizens and their environment – when in turn each government, one after another, seems to have been captured by these corporations and bowed down and caved to their demands.”
Did you have doubts about spending a year of your life documenting the history of this pulp mill?
“I had doubts, yes. You forgo any income. It’s more than a year, it’s sixteen months. And you know it’s extremely sensitive. I live in rural Nova Scotia. And there are people in the forestry sector who now hate me. There are people at the mill who now hate me. I knew that this was going to be very sensitive and controversial. Not only am I not going to make any money, I’m going to make a lot of enemies. And I was also very concerned about a SLAPP suit. (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation). I had a lawyer look at the book. We don’t have any anti-SLAPP legislation in Nova Scotia. I thought that if they were foolish enough to draw attention to the book, they might try and shut me down with a SLAPP suit. I had huge doubts. It’s a very local market. It might sell in parts of Nova Scotia and sell a few hundred copies at most.”
“As fate would have it, the communications director over at the mill – the communications director for Paper Excellence Canada – did something very foolish. The book was sleeping its way into oblivion when she wrote a letter, sent it out to all of the employees and former employees of the mill, getting them to fill out this letter and send it to the head office of Canada’s largest book chain and to the local bookstore in New Glasgow where I was supposed to go and do a signing on December 2.”
“The letter said that if the bookstore and Chapters Indigo — Canada’s largest book chain — that if they went ahead with my appearance and signing of books at the bookstore, that they would boycott every bookstore in Canada belonging to this company. There were also apparently threats made to the staff of that local bookstore that if I came and made an appearance, they would disrupt it and somebody might destroy the book in front of me.”
“In the end, the company and the head office told me that they were going to cancel that book signing. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to cause problems for the bookstore staff. As I say, it’s a very small community. There is a lot of division. Some people’s livelihoods depend on the mill. Others feel they are dying of cancer because of the mill.”
“People went there the day I was supposed to be signing the book because they wanted to have the book signed, found that it had been cancelled and took to social media. And the thing exploded. A book that might have sold a few hundred copies and not really have accomplished anything went from total obscurity to national media headlines in Canada. And as a result, the book is now into its third printing. Beyond my wildest expectations, I’m getting an amazing amount of positive feedback from people across the country.”
“I know personally that this book has now been delivered to every single member of the provincial government, to the relevant members of our national parliament, high powered business people in Nova Scotia. Very prominent people have supported the book and are holding politicians to account.”
“I don’t know how it’s going to end.”
“I cannot find a single politician who dares to even say – close the mill. It’s a political hot potato.”
Are the citizen groups now saying that?
“A lot of the citizen groups have gone from being diplomatic – we need to clean the mill up – to saying – clean the mill up or close it down.”
And the reality is that it’s not cost effective to clean it up.
“The problem is that because of the various agreements, and the indemnity agreement that was signed in 1995, the people of Nova Scotia are liable for the effluents. The government is going to pay for it and not the mill itself. The government is not going to pump $500 million to rebuild that mill. That is not going to be politically feasible. But that’s what they would have to do to build a clean mill that people are asking for.”
“The lawyer for the mill who signed the indemnity agreement is now with the government.”
What is your next writing project?
“Something to do with corporate capture. I would like to do something on a national level. Look at how our federal institutions seem to be in the grips of some very large industries — agrochemical, oil and gas, mining.”
[For the complete q/a transcript of the Interview with Joan Baxter, see 32 Corporate Crime Reporter 2(12), Monday January 8, 2018, print edition only.]