Northern Pulp Mill in hibernation. Photo: Joan Baxter

On the morning of July 15, Iris Communications’ Sean Lewis sent out a press release on behalf of Paper Excellence. It was chockablock with carefully calibrated and curated PR, informing us that Northern Pulp’s 54-year-old pulp mill in Pictou County was set to become “a “best-in-class operation” and “one of the world’s cleanest, most environmentally focused, and community-based pulp mills.”

And oh, by the way, in just two hours Northern Pulp would be holding a virtual “technical briefing” on the “transformation concept,” which media could access online, and if they wanted to ask questions they could dial in on a special number.

The media briefing consisted of two men speaking for more than an hour, and then taking a handful of submitted questions.

Graham Kissack (left) and Dale Paterson (right)

They were Graham Kissack, Paper Excellence vice president environment, health & safety, and corporate communications, and Dale Paterson, an “experienced pulp and paper consultant” who heads the Northern Pulp Environmental Liaison Committee.

It was a surreal performance, as the two men attempted to cancel the mill’s history since Paper Excellence bought it in 2011, ignore the ugly details of its far-far-less-than-stellar political, social, and environmental record in Nova Scotia, and convince whatever media were tuned in that the company has turned over a shiny new leaf.

(The Halifax Examiner has reported extensively on Paper Excellence, its pulp mill in Nova Scotia, its pollution, political machinations, its attempt to strong arm the province into approving its proposal for a new treatment facility that would release treated effluent directly into the Northumberland Strait, and Northern Pulp’s creditor protection case in the British Columbia Supreme Court, and some of that coverage is available here, here, here, here, and here.)[1]

But to listen to Kissack and Paterson as they ran through their slides outlining the “total mill transformation” they claimed Northern Pulp is planning, a credulous newcomer to the mill saga might almost believe that Paper Excellence is a saintly organization interested in nothing more than the health of Nova Scotia’s forests, economy, workers, air, and water. There was, obviously, no acknowledgement that the company that is ultimately owned by and part of the gargantuan and controversial corporate empire of the multi-billionaire Widjaja family of Indonesia, scattered in tax havens around the planet, and plagued by a poor financial, social, and environmental record.

For those who are not familiar with Paper Excellence and the Northern Pulp mill, it probably looked extremely encouraging.

The lofty ideals and pledges about all the “dramatic improvements” to be made to the mill site and the company’s behaviour were flowing fast and furiously.

Graham Kissack presents slide on how the mill will improve its appearance

Kissack spoke of the “sustainable future we envision,” for the mill, and the two men listed a host of planned improvements, including reduced odour and lower emissions, “best-in-class wastewater quality,” and tertiary treatment of effluent that would be released into Pictou Harbour, although the “exact location will be determined through further environmental study and community engagement.”

They also said the transformed mill would reduce its water consumption by 45%, taking 45 million litres of fresh water — the equivalent of 18 Olympic swimming pools — every day from the Middle River. Although this still sounds like rather a lot, it is, admittedly, an improvement over the staggering amount of nearly 90 million litres the mill was using daily before it went into hibernation in January 2021.

Northern Pulp mill in operation at night. Photo courtesy of Tony DeCoste Photo-Video

The company’s vision for the mill even involves repainting it and putting on new siding to improve its appearance, said Kissack, who noted that this was one of the areas for improvement identified by the Environmental Liaison Committee. Whether paint and siding will do the trick is questionable. The aging mill couldn’t really be uglier; people in the area have been known to suggest it belongs in “Mordor,” the fictional Land of Shadow ruled by the Dark Lord Sauron in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Northern Pulp wants “reconciliation”

Neither Kissack nor Paterson offered even a hint of apology to the people of Pictou Landing First Nation for all those decades of environmental racism and pollution in Boat Harbour, which the people of Canada and not Northern Pulp will be paying to remediate, or the numerous pipeline spills on sacred Mi’kmaq burial grounds, or the pressure the company put on the Nova Scotia government in 2018 and 2019 to allow the mill to continue to use Boat Harbour for its effluent until it had a new alternative treatment facility.

Graham Kissack speaks of the “sustainable future” he envisions

Nor was there any acknowledgement of the role that mill owners have played over the years in promoting environmentally harmful forestry policies in the province, including clearcutting and herbicide spraying that have decimated the biodiverse Acadian forests.

Instead, Kissack unleashed a torrent of platitudes and vague pledges.

“In terms of the future here, it’s focused on unity, input, engagement, and feedback,” he said. “It’s one that embraces the Lahey Report both on our own land as well as the Crown lands that we manage. It looks at and deals with reconciliation and outreach and partnerships with local First Nations, especially Pictou Landing First Nation and other local communities.”

“We really need to do better in terms of sharing information with the entire community, about who we are and what we do, and how we do it,” Kissack said. “And so we look forward to working with all those First Nations and Indigenous peoples in the area to take an interest in this project.”

Responding later to a submitted question about consultation with Pictou Landing First Nation (PLFN), Dale Paterson of the Environmental Liaison Committee (ELC) said:

We are striving to really improve our relations with PLFN. We keep PLFN] Chief Andrea [Paul] posted on issues as we move forward. We have not had a lot of detailed discussion with Chief Andrea. We will continue to reach out. We will continue to strive to reconcile our differences and have fruitful discussions with Chief Andrea and PLFN.

After the press briefing, the Examiner contacted Chief Paul for her reaction to these comments. She said she caught only the end of the briefing so was not sure what all was said, but added, “I would like to know how they define reconciliation.”

Pictou Landing First Nation Chief Andrea Paul addresses hundreds of fishermen and protesters at a July 2018 “No Pipe” rally in Pictou to speak against Northern Pulp’s proposed effluent treatment facility. Photo courtesy Gerard J. Halfyard Credit: Gerard James Halfyard

As for consultation, there hasn’t been any. Said Chief Paul:

Dale Paterson sends me emails. I haven’t talked to them [Northern Pulp and the ELC] nor met with them. Dale wanted to meet back in April however I was off recovering from surgery. I was not invited to a meeting they had with the mayors. I didn’t even know about this. I will be meeting with my council, legal and engineering, next week to review what they have presented and will comment further after that meeting.

In 2020, when the Environmental Liaison Committee was formed, Chief Paul posted on Facebook that she had refused to join because there is “no trust” between PLFN and the company, and she did not want her community to be used as an opportunity for Northern Pulp “to appear as being sincere.”

Who’s paying for the “transformation”?

But questions about the company’s new charm offensive and attempt to garner support for its latest mill plans go far beyond the local ELC and what it has been doing to try to garner local trust in Pictou County.

There are also big questions about the financing of the mill “transformation” that the company is talking about — who will finance it and how?

In July 2020 after the mill went into hibernation, Northern Pulp Nova Scotia Corporation and seven related companies declared themselves insolvent and petitioned the British Columbia Supreme Court for creditor protection, seeking relief from debt payments.

As the Examiner reported here, the total debt was about $311 million, with $4.4 million owed to 245 small creditors, employee-related liabilities amounting to $7.1 million, and nearly $85 million owed to Nova Scotians, much of it dating back to 2010 when the NDP government of Darrell Dexter gave Northern Pulp a 30-year loan of $75 million to buy 475,000 acres of land in the province.

But, as the Examiner reported, “the bulk of Northern Pulp’s debt — $213.3 million — is owed to one of the petitioners’ owners, Paper Excellence Canada Holdings Corporation.”

And Paper Excellence Canada Holdings Corporation is, in turn, a subsidiary of Paper Excellence B.V., which is a subsidiary of Asia Pulp and Paper, which is a subsidiary of the gargantuan Sinar Mas, which is controlled, as mentioned earlier, by the multi-billionaire Widjaja family.

And so the largest creditor by far that Northern Pulp was seeking protection from was, well, its own parents, none of which can be described as cash-strapped.

That didn’t stop Northern Pulp from asking the Nova Scotia government to provide it with $50 million in financing, which the province refused.

However, the province did agree to freeze repayments on the nearly $85 million in outstanding loans, as the Examiner reported here.

Meanwhile, Paper Excellence companies, which are the ultimate parents of Northern Pulp and its affiliates petitioning for creditor protection and pleading poor in the BC court, have been buying up mills all over the place.

In February 2021, Paper Excellence BV finalized its acquisition of Eldorado Brasil Celulose, one of the largest global producers of pulp and paper.

More recently, in May 2021, Paper Excellence announced that it was purchasing the US-headquartered pulp and paper giant Domtar, with four pulp mills in Canada, in an “all-cash transaction” with a value of “approximately $3.0 billion.”

So, not all that poor.

Using the online tool provided for submitting questions at the media briefing, the Examiner asked why Northern Pulp, a Paper Excellence company, is in creditor protection and yet is now talking about a refit of the mill worth $350 million (the online tool limited the length of questions, so there was no opportunity to ask about the company’s ability to spend billions on new mills while not being able to make payments to Nova Scotia on its outstanding loans).

This is Kissack’s reply to the question about how a company unable to pay its debts could envision a mill refit worth $350 million:

The quick response is when the organization [by which he meant Northern Pulp and its affiliates] sought protection 12 months ago we were in a position where we had bills piling up and we lost all of our revenue stream and we had to protect the organization. And that’s what works, that’s what CCAA [Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act] is designed to do. So that’s what we did. Where we are today, I think is quite different than where we were 12 months from now. And we still are working on all of the plans around financing the new site. And that’s still going to take time.

Not all that helpful, but there was no option to submit a follow-up question.

“Tentative green light from government leadership”

But then came another question from another unnamed media participant, who asked how the proposed transformation project would be funded, whether it would be through the company or if they would be seeking government funding.

Kissack’s reply was intriguing, to say the least:

I intimated earlier on the call it’s still early days as to where we are in terms of establishing our funding and how we’re going to get there. Right now, we have a tentative green light from government leadership around the project. But the specifics are still being built out and recognize where we are today and recognize the time frame I shared with you. You know, we still have many years in front of us to fasten down those details.

According to CBC reporter Michael Gorman, Northern Pulp submitted its most recent proposal for a “transformed mill” and a new effluent treatment and disposal facility to Nova Scotia Environment earlier this spring.

At the time of the Northern Pulp media briefing on July 15, the department had not yet announced whether the project would require a Class I, or a more rigorous Class II environmental assessment.

Then, coincidentally (or not), just a few hours after the media briefing, Nova Scotia Environment issued its own press release saying that Northern Pulp’s effluent treatment plant project would be subject to a Class II assessment, as it “involves changes to the pulp mill itself, as well as the design and construction of a new effluent treatment plant.”

The company now has to register its new project, and an environmental assessment panel will be appointed to review the project and report to the minister, a process that typically takes 275 calendar days to complete, said the press release.

Still, if Kissack is to be believed when he said during the media briefing that Paper Excellence had a “tentative green light from government leadership,” for the project, that would suggest the company had already gone over the heads or behind the backs of regulators in Nova Scotia Environment to speak with and get tacit support from higher-ups in the Liberal government.

Which is, well, worrisome. But also par for the course when it come to the Pictou County pulp mill that has had an over-size influence on politics and forestry policies in this province since even before it opened in 1967.[2]

Graham Kissack shows estimated timeline for mill “transformation”

No pipe, no mill … no wait!

What was perhaps most remarkable — and curious — about the media briefing was the stark difference between the tone and messaging coming from Paper Excellence and Northern Pulp now, compared to back when it was warning the province what would happen if the McNeil government failed to approve its proposal to treat the effluent on site and pipe it 14 kilometres overland into the Northumberland Strait beside the Caribou terminal for the ferry to PEI.

Throughout the environmental assessment approval process for that proposal, whenever there was criticism from PLFN and fishermen and others concerned about the effluent being piped into the Strait, the standard Northern Pulp response was “No pipe, no mill.”

Why the change in message, and what should Nova Scotians make of it?

Hoping to follow up on this, I called the designated phone number to register that question. After identifying myself and being prompted to pose my question by the operator, I noted that it seemed odd that the company had changed its mind and its tune. It is, after all, the same company, with the same owners, and as the Examiner reported here and here, pollution, environmental misdeeds and lack of community trust were not unique to Paper Excellence’s mill in Nova Scotia; the same is still happening at its Fibre Excellence mills in France. It has also been busy closing mills or running them at reduced capacity in BC, while managing to wrangle tax breaks for itself.

So, I asked, “Why should Nova Scotians trust this company now when they’re speaking completely differently from what they were saying three years ago?”

Before I finished voicing the question, the operator interrupted to thank me for calling, an automated voice cut in to inform me the briefing had ended, and my phone went dead.

Plus ça change?

[1] This is a more complete list of Halifax Examiner articles on Northern Pulp and Paper Excellence:

May 12, 2021.  Northern Pulp is “insolvent,” but the company that owns it, Paper Excellence, is on a $3 billion buying spree.

Feb. 24, 2021. The French Connection. People in southern France are battling pollution at a paper mill owned by a corporate behemoth: Paper Excellence Canada, the owner of the Northern Pulp Mill in Nova Scotia.

Jan. 7, 2021. Paper Excellence in France: different country, same game plan.

Dec. 9, 2020. Northern Pulp is misleading the British Columbia Supreme Court about how the environmental assessment process works in Nova Scotia.

Nov. 6, 2020. Excellence in paper profits.  Court documents show that after Northern Pulp made $59.9 million in loan repayments to its corporate owner Paper Excellence, it asked the province of Nova Scotia for $50 million in new financing, over and above the $85 million it already owes the province. The province declined to provide new loans, but did agree to a freeze on all payments from the existing loans.

July 19, 2020. Corporate shell game: Part 1. Northern Pulp seeks protection from creditors in a BC court – and its largest creditor is its owner, Paper Excellence.

July 21, 2020. Corporate shell game. Part 2. Northern Pulp-affiliated companies say that without major concessions, they won’t be able to pay back nearly $86 million they owe to the province of Nova Scotia. So far, however, the government has not caved, and is not agreeing to new financing.

May 12, 2020. Nova Scotia government doles out $10 million more for Northern PulpThe effluent pipeline may have been turned off but the provincial money pipeline continues to flow.

April 10, 2020. Northern Pulp statement off-based and ill-timed during the COVID-19 crisis.

Jan. 31, 2020.  The province issues tough new orders to Northern Pulp.

Jan. 24, 2020. Northern Pulp takes province to court: The saga continues. The unfolding saga of the 53-year-old Pictou County pulp mill operated by Northern Pulp Nova Scotia – a Paper Excellence company that is part of the corporate empire of the billionaire Widjaja family of Indonesia – continues to get “curiouser and curiouser” as Alice in Wonderland once remarked.

Jan. 10, 2020        Northern Pulp, past and future: “It ain’t over till it’s over”.

Dec. 20, 2019.   The Northern Pulp saga is a “really, really, really, really difficult time” for Pictou Landing First Nation.

Dec. 17, 2019.  No federal assessment will be required for Northern Pulp’s proposed effluent treatment project.

Dec. 17, 2019           Pictou Landing First Nation: “We are sticking to the January 31, 2020 date.”

Dec. 11, 2019           Northern Pulp lobbyists and the revolving door with government.

Dec. 9, 2019.  Saltwire finds one scientist who thinks Northern Pulp’s effluent isn’t toxic.

Dec. 8, 2019. Deciding Northern Pulp’s future: A tangled mess of dubious science, loans and liabilities will determine who government officials will act in coming days – and how much it will cost Nova Scotians.

Nov. 21, 2019. Northern Pulp’s “political game”: It’s decision time for the Nova Scotia government. It will either approve a pipeline for pumping mill effluent into the Northumberland Strait, or won’t. And it will either extend the Boat Harbour Act, or won’t. Those affected by the mill operation are laying out their case and preparing next moves.

Oct. 6, 2019. Pictou Landing First Nation to Stephen McNeil: Honour the Boat Harbour Act and No Pipe in the Strait.

Oct. 3, 2019. Northern Pulp’s sci-fi future

July 8, 2019. Northern Pulp Mill’s missing environmental data.  The mill says its effluent comfortably meets federal regulations, but a new study published by Dalhousie researchers suggests there is no way to know.

April 9, 2019. Nova Scotia has a mercury problem. Facilities associated with Northern Pulp’s proposed effluent pipe are immediately adjacent to a mercury-contaminated toxic waste site left over from the Canso Chemicals operation.

Mar. 7, 2019. The Canso Chemicals mystery: With the chemical plant long gone, why is the company still alive? And what about all that mercury pollution?

Mar. 5, 2019. Northern Pulp’s environmental documents, missing mercury, a pulp mill that never was, and oodles of contradictions.

Feb. 21, 2019.  Northern Pulp says it “cares” – but for whom and what?

Feb. 1, 2019.  “Everything won’t stink so bad”: the countdown to Boat Harbour closure begins.

Nov. 3, 2018.  Containing Northern Pulp’s mess: A half century of toxic waste in Boat Harbour, a leaky pipeline, and what happens next in the mill saga.

April 26, 2018. Dirty Dealing. Part 4. Message control and the Northern Pulp Mill’s cancer-causing air emissions.

Mar. 20, 2018.  Battle for the mill: The plan to pipe effluent from the Northern Pulp mill into the Northumberland Strait is dividing the community of Pictou, pitting neighbour and fishermen against mill workers.

March 8, 2018. Dirty Dealing. Part 3. Elevated levels of cancer-causing air emissions from Abercrombie Pulp Mill, peer-reviewed study reveals.

Feb. 13, 2018. Dirty Dealing. Part 2. Wading through the quagmire of Northern Pulp’s fast-tracked environmental assessment

November 27, 2017. Dirty Dealing. Part 1. Northern Pulp Mill and the province are set to roll of the dice with Boat Harbour’s replacement, but a cleaner alternative exists.

[2] The political influence that the pulp mill owners have had over the years on policies in Nova Scotia, including the involvement of former Premier John Hamm as chair of the Northern Pulp Board for years, is detailed at great length in my 2017 book, The Mill – Years of Pulp and Protest. In my submitted question at the media briefing, I asked if – given Paper Excellence’s stated intention to be more open and engaged with the community – the company was ready to issue an apology for having orchestrated a campaign in 2017 to successfully have my book signing at the Coles bookstore in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, cancelled. Paper Excellence VP Graham Kissack replied that he was sorry he wasn’t aware of the “issue” or the “events,” which suggests he needs to look a little more closely at Northern Pulp’s recent history as the event made the front pages of newspapers across the country.

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Joan Baxter is an award-winning Nova Scotian journalist and author of seven books, including "The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest." Website:; Twitter @joan_baxter

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  1. So the Mill owners are talking about reduced emissions in the air. That is very vague. How about no emissions in the air? The residents of Pictou county area have put up with the Mills air pollution for too many years already?

  2. In the video by Kissack and Paterson not a single mention of the fishermen. In the fall of 2018 a local fisherman asked the NP delegation, at the Wellness Centre in Mount William, Pictou County, this simple question- ‘Where does the pollution in the water go?’ Of course the purpose of the question was to expose that aquatic life would be affected no matter where the outfall; that holds true for Pictou Harbour too. All Kissack mentioned in this most recent video, was that the pollution would be “diluted”- another “high level” word?

  3. I suspect that worldwide demand for its products has increased significantly. Not many places in Pictou County where a person can make $100,000 a year plus benefits. The town is dead.

  4. “Why should Nova Scotians trust this company now when they’re speaking completely differently from what they were saying three years ago?”

    We’ll all be in good hands with Iain Rankin who brought in the Biodiversity Act to effectively implement the Lahey Report to protect our forests from….oh wait a minute.

  5. Great work of public service. Thank you.
    Spoiler alert: The key bit is the the end, an unanswered question posed to the company by the article author…
    “Why should Nova Scotians trust this company now when they’re speaking completely differently from what they were saying three years ago?”

  6. Asia Pulp & Paper (Paper Excellence) is always on the hunt to scam access to more wood fibre in Canada.

    Is it possible they could get more in Nova Scotia (and/or do better at keeping what they have?) by putting on a show of pretending to build a glitzy new mill ?