This is the second of a series of articles resulting from a yearlong investigation into Paper Excellence, already Canada’s largest pulp and paper producer and now much bigger following its acquisition of the logging giant Resolute Forest Products on March 1. These articles are part of “Deforestation Inc.” a collaboration of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and 39 media outlets, involving 140 journalists in 27 countries. The Examiner partnered with journalists in France (Le Monde, Radio France), Canada (CBC, Glacier Media), and the United States (Inside Climate News) to produce this series. Read Part 1 here. In this second article, we look at Paper Excellence’s presence and behaviour in Nova Scotia through the eyes of Pictou Landing First Nation Chief Andrea Paul. Chief Paul, who had far more interaction with the company representatives than almost anyone else in Nova Scotia, says she will never support Northern Pulp, which is a Paper Excellence company.
Pictou Landing First Nation Chief Andrea Paul recalls the events of that morning as if it were yesterday.
It was June 10, 2014 and Pictou Landing First Nation (PLFN) community members were just learning of the pulp effluent spill. As word spread, they headed to the site, gathering at Indian Cross Point on the edge of the East River on the Pictou Harbour shoreline in northern Nova Scotia, where 47 million litres of untreated and highly toxic effluent had spilled on Mi’kmaq burial grounds.
Chief Paul tells the Halifax Examiner she remembers PLFN member Tonya Francis lighting a sacred fire and holding a water ceremony for healing at the site, while others formed a blockade on the main road, shutting down the mill.
The 3.6-kilometre long effluent pipeline carrying the effluent from Paper Excellence’s Northern Pulp mill on Abercrombie Point to the Boat Harbour treatment facility had ruptured.
In the words of Judge Del Atwood, who later fined Northern Pulp $225,000 for the spill, the pipeline break was “an accident waiting to happen.” There were “visible cracks, leaks, and extension erosion of the pipeline at the rupture site” and that section of it hadn’t been inspected since 2008, despite several leaks of the pipeline in previous years.
For Pictou Landing First Nation, the 2014 pipeline break was just the “latest environmental insult” to their territory.
Judge Atwood, quoting Chief Paul, noted that the spill, “triggered anger and fear” which could only be understood as part of the decades-long environmental degradation of PLFN territory, beginning with the construction of the pipeline when the pulp mill was built in 1967, and then the transformation of their precious estuary “A’se’K” (meaning “the other room”) into Boat Harbour, a toxic pond full of reeking pulp effluent.
It was one of the most egregious cases of environmental racism in Nova Scotia.
Pictou Landing First Nation had had to live for nearly half a century with the stench of the Boat Harbour treatment facility on their southern doorstep, while the treated effluent flowed into the Northumberland Strait on the beach flanking the north side of their community.
To make matters even worse, prevailing winds in the area often shrouded Pictou Landing in the suffocating stench of the pulp mill’s airborne pollution.
And now untreated effluent had spewed all over sacred burial lands on the edge of Pictou Harbour.
Chief Andrea Paul had just been to the site of the spill that June morning, and was heading back to the road where PLFN community members were forming their blockade, when her phone rang.
It was Pedro Chang, deputy CEO of Paper Excellence.
‘You are not a good neighbour’
Chang hadn’t been in touch with Chief Paul for a long while at that point, but now he was calling her from British Columbia, where Paper Excellence was headquartered, to talk about the pipeline break.
“And of course he addresses me as ‘big sister’ as he always did, and talks to me about resolving this issue, and about being a good neighbour,” Paul tells the Halifax Examiner. “And I laughed and said, ‘Oh my God. Are you serious trying to tell me that Northern Pulp are good neighbours?’”
“It was all just exhausting, just so exhausting watching everything unfold,” says Paul. “I just pretty much said [to Pedro Chang], ‘No, absolutely not. You are not a good neighbour. Northern Pulp is not a good neighbour. And we’re not ending this blockade for anything at this moment.’”
The standoff over Boat Harbour
The blockade lasted two weeks, during which Pictou Landing First Nation “felt relief,” according to the PLFN victim impact statement to the court. “The air pollution from the mill had stopped and the odours from Boat Harbour were not as strong as they had been.”
PLFN only agreed to stop the blockade after the province pledged it would legislate an end to the use of Boat Harbour for mill effluent, and then remediate the site and restore the original pristine tidal estuary. A year later, in 2015, the government of Premier Stephen McNeil passed the Boat Harbour Act, giving Northern Pulp until January 2020 to come up with an environmentally acceptable alternative facility for treating and disposing of its effluent.
But in December 2019, Nova Scotia’s environment minister determined that the Northern Pulp proposal was still missing important information, and he asked for a full environmental assessment report for the new treatment facility, which would take time to prepare.
Time during which Northern Pulp would have no place to treat and dispose of the mill effluent.
Paper Excellence requested that the McNeil government amend the Boat Harbour Act so the mill could continue to use Boat Harbour for another year, or until it had a new effluent treatment and disposal system approved and up and running.
McNeil refused to do so.
In January 2020, Boat Harbour was closed to pulp effluent, and Paper Excellence put the mill into hibernation.
Six months later, Northern Pulp and six affiliates— part of the Paper Excellence conglomerate that was working on scooping up Eldorado in Brazil for billions of dollars and had just swallowed Catalyst Paper in British Columbia — declared themselves insolvent in the British Columbia Supreme Court, with their owner Paper Excellence their largest creditor.
Divisions over the mill’s future
But tensions over the mill’s future had been running high in Pictou County and throughout Nova Scotia for years. Shortly after the pipeline break in 2014, emissions from the mill suffocated the town of Pictou, and it turned out Northern Pulp had been breaking production records even as it was operating without all its pollution control equipment working.
The tension escalated again in late 2017 when Northern Pulp made public its plan to treat mill effluent beside the mill and then pipe it directly into the Northumberland Strait.
On one side were those who supported the mill and wanted the provincial government to approve the new treatment facility and amend the Boat Harbour Act to allow Northern Pulp to continue to use Boat Harbour until it had a new treatment system up and running. The pro-mill lobby included mill workers and the union Unifor, Forest Nova Scotia, several prominent mill owners, and many forestry contractors and truckers.
On the other side were those who opposed the plan to pipe pulp effluent into the Northumberland Strait — Pictou Landing First Nation, fishers from three Maritime provinces, community groups such as Friends of the Northumberland Strait, and environmental organizations and concerned citizens from across the province and across the Strait in Prince Edward Island.
Their “No Pipe” campaign culminated in a rally on Pictou’s waterfront in July 2018. It drew thousands of people from the three Maritime provinces, and several other Mi’kmaq chiefs who joined Chief Andrea Paul in fishing boats that crossed Pictou Harbour for the event.
Not a household name
And yet, for all the media coverage the controversy over Northern Pulp generated — and it generated a lot — noticeably absent from much of that coverage was any attention to or even a mention of Northern Pulp’s owner, Paper Excellence.
Even today, with Paper Excellence poised to become by far the largest pulp and paper producer in Canada, the name is hardly a household name.
When Paper Excellence does make headlines in local media, it is often for donations it has made to community groups or non-governmental organizations, and the stories come from Paper Excellence press releases. To wit, there is this one proclaiming the company made a “historic donation” of $150,000 to Ducks Unlimited, this one about donations totalling $70,000 to the Canadian Red Cross, and this one about $100,000 to the Pacific Salmon Foundation.
In 2021, Paper Excellence says it donated about $1 million to local charities across Canada.
The company doesn’t talk quite so much about the millions of public dollars that make their way into Paper Excellence coffers. In January 2023, the federal and provincial governments pumped $18.8 million into the Paper Excellence Crofton pulp mill in British Columbia; a year earlier it was $8.6 million from the BC government to upgrade four mills in the province.
In 2010, a year before Paper Excellence bought Northern Pulp, the mill owners benefited from a $75 million 30-year loan from the provincial government towards the $82 million purchase of 475,000 acres of timberland in Nova Scotia from Neenah Paper. But the loan deal included a hidden gift — the government immediately repurchased 55,000 acres of that land for $16.5 million — nearly twice the price Northern Pulp had paid per acre for the entire acreage. The province said “some” of the land it was buying would be “for protection.” But assuming the acreage of the entire Northern Pulp purchase was equally valued, the province paid about $7 million more for it than Northern Pulp had.
That 2010 loan is not being repaid while Northern Pulp is under creditor protection.
Northern Pulp also received $28.1 million from the federal government’s green transformation fund just weeks before Paper Excellence bought the mill in 2011.
Nova Scotia Public Accounts show that between 2011 and 2022, the Department of Natural Resources (DNRR) gave Northern Pulp $4.5 million from its “Forest Sustainability Agreements,” to distribute to private landowners or contractors for silviculture work on private land. In the same period, it gave Northern Pulp $8.4 million for work on Crown land where the company had a harvesting licence.
DNRR spokesperson Adele Poirier says this funding is “not subsidies” but “incentives to carry out sustainable forest management,” but she does confirm that all the funding comes from the provincial budget.
Public Works (then Transport and Infrastructure Renewal) gave Northern Pulp more than $16 million between 2011 and 2022, including $6.1 million for its environmental assessment and $10 million towards decommissioning the pipeline from the mill to Boat Harbour.
The federal government will chip in $100 million for the cleanup of Boat Harbour, but the province will pick up the rest of the tab. That cleanup could cost $314 million, or more, and the responsibility for that lies with successive provincial governments that went to expensive lengths to keep the mill chugging away.
Which also helps explain why there is a $450 million lawsuit that Paper Excellence and Northern Pulp have filed against Nova Scotia for “indemnified losses” incurred because of the closing of the mill.
But this lawsuit, like government generosity to Northern Pulp, receives relatively little media coverage, and when these issues are covered, there is rarely much, or any, attention paid to Paper Excellence and its owner Jackson Wijaya, and the corporate empire to which they are linked by family ties.
Pictou Landing First Nation Chief Andrea Paul, who had more interaction with Paper Excellence brass than most people in this country because of the proximity of the Northern Pulp mill and its effluent facility that PLFN wanted closed, tells the Halifax Examiner in all that time she never heard the name Jackson Wijaya from Northern Pulp or Paper Excellence representatives.
‘The solution to pollution is dilution’
The first time Chief Paul learned the pulp mill had been bought by Paper Excellence was when she met Pedro Chang. She thinks it was 2012 or 2013, and Chang introduced himself as the CEO of the company that had just purchased the mill.
“He was very polite,” Paul says. “Like the way he would even address me. He used to call me “Big Sister Chief Andrea.”
She recalls showing him the stinking lagoon at Boat Harbour, and his telling her not to worry because “the solution to pollution is dilution,” the first time she’d ever heard that claim.
At a later meeting in Pictou Landing, Chang claimed they had not been aware there was a First Nations community in the area, something she says she didn’t believe, because “there was no way of not knowing Pictou Landing First Nation was a part of the conversation” about the pulp mill.
Paul recalls having conversations with Chang and other Paper Excellence executives about stopping the mill’s use of Boat Harbour as a pulp effluent facility.
One of these was David Kerr, whose LinkedIn page says he was Vice President Operations for Paper Excellence from 2013 to 2017, after which he spent two years as president, director and COO of Asia Pulp & Paper’s new and gigantic Oki pulp mill in Indonesia. ICIJ partner Glacier Media contacted Kerr for comment about his time with Paper Excellence, but Kerr said he was retired and not willing to speak about previous employers.
Another Paper Excellence representative with whom Chief Paul had contact was Bruce Chapman, who had worked at the Northern Pulp mill since 1996 and been promoted to general manager in November 2014.
In late November 2019, Chapman sent Chief Paul a text message asking to meet with her, “just you and me.” He suggested they meet in the Chamber of Commerce offices in New Glasgow. “It would be private,” he wrote.
Paul says the meeting made her uncomfortable. The band council meetings were just a week away, and there were malicious rumours being spread about her picking up a “cheque every month at the Mill.”
She told Chapman she was not comfortable meeting with him in private and suggested that PLFN and Paper Excellence lawyers meet instead.
The meeting didn’t happen.
ICIJ asked Paper Excellence about the purpose of the meeting Chapman proposed. Their reply:
As Paper Excellence does regularly with key stakeholders for all of its mills, the Company and its representatives engaged with Chief Andrea Paul and the Pictou Landing First Nation to ensure that their views and perspectives were understood and taken into consideration in any potential future operations of the Pictou mill. Paper Excellence remains committed to the Pictou mill and recognizes it as an important economic driver within the local area. All of Paper Excellence’s engagement with stakeholders is proper and to speculate otherwise would be defamatory.
Paper Excellence and the government of Nova Scotia have shared interests in creating and maintaining good paying jobs in the communities in which we operate and doing so in a sustainable manner.
Paper Excellence did not answer ICIJ partners’ questions about Pedro Chang’s communication with Chief Andrea Paul, or whether he still works for Paper Excellence, or why Jackson Wijaya never reached out to her.
‘They are not friendly people’
In 2021, Chief Paul posted on Facebook some personal reflections of what she endured — including racist attacks — during the time Northern Pulp and its supporters were urging the province to amend the Boat Harbour Act so the mill could continue to use Boat Harbour:
There were so many days that I would sit in my living room all alone and just cry. So many days I felt so alone. So many days of feeling frustrated and thinking to myself – this company has so much money and so many more resources. But do you know what I had – my community. They were my strength in my darkest days.
So – do I support Northern Pulp[?] NO. I will never be able to support this company and I will give it my all to fight this EA [in 2021 Northern Pulp registered a new proposal for a mill transformation and effluent treatment facility to Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change for a new environmental assessment.] So if you are wondering – wonder no more. They are not friendly people.
Looking back on it all now, Chief Paul says it was like being in a relationship with a toxic partner:
You’re trying so hard to end the relationship, but they don’t take no for an answer. They keep saying, “I’m going to do better. I’m going to do this and I’m going to do that.” And then if it’s not working with you, so they go out and tell other people that it’s your fault. That’s exactly how I felt, like I was like dealing with a person who had that kind of a mentality. But it was a corporation. And they were putting stuff out in the media about how awesome they are. They were making this and that donation. And [saying], “We’ve been trying to have these meetings with the community. Chief Paul is refusing to meet with us.” They try to make you look bad.
‘It felt like my abuser was at my door’
In September 19, 2022, Chief Paul once again took to Facebook to speak about her most recent interaction with Northern Pulp, this time with Jean-Francois (JF) Guillot, Chief Operating Office of Paper Excellence Canada, Northern Pulp and Prince Albert Pulp.
Guillot had written to Chief Paul on September 16, saying he was contacting her “to build relations and introduce myself respectfully and formally,” and “to provide an update on the work Northern Pulp is undertaking as part of its Provincial Environmental Assessment for mill transformation” in Pictou County.
Guillot wrote that he had assumed responsibility for Northern Pulp following its shutdown in 2020, and that:
I (We) recognize the conversation around Northern Pulp has been difficult but we want to start off on the right foot with this transformation plan and to actively engage First Nations’ input so that it reflects the feedback of community. We are extending an invitation to speak with Chiefs across Mi’kmak’i to present our Mill Transformation Plan and the work underway.
Chief Paul wrote on Facebook that she had met with Guillot during the summer, and reiterated to him how her community was healing “since the closure of the toxic site and shut down of the Mill.”
She said she attended a meeting about a receiving water study for the proposed effluent treatment disposal system, and the consultant spoke about his engagement with Indigenous fishers. When she asked who they were, Northern Pulp representatives admitted they were talking about engagement in 2019, so there had been no new dialogue.
I was so personally affected – I couldn’t even speak at the end when they asked for my closing comments. I was emotional – I was sad and angry and felt so shaky and trauma triggered. People can say what they want. They have no idea this journey that PLFN has experienced. It literally felt like my abuser was at my door wanting to come in … As long as I live – I personally will never support this mill. I see they are now looking to speak with the Chiefs. Whatever they can do to lift themselves up and create relationships with the promise of employment and opportunities.
Healing from the ‘pain and suffering’
Asked how the healing process is going, Paul talks of the joy she felt seeing children swimming on Lighthouse Beach just in front of her community in the summer of 2021, where the water is now clear and clean, with no pulp effluent running into it from Boat Harbour.
Chief Paul says she doesn’t know what other First Nations’ relationships look like with Paper Excellence elsewhere in the country.
“Maybe they’re in a state where if they sign on to some sort of agreements with them, they really see that there would be a benefit for their communities,” she says, adding:
But we haven’t seen those benefits at all. It’s been pain and suffering on so many different levels. Loss of land, loss of land use. There are things you see, but there are thing you don’t see that need to be spoken about. People need to understand that part of it. I feel bad if they believe good things will come of it. I haven’t seen that.
And to this day, Chief Paul says, she has never heard the name Jackson Wijaya mentioned by anyone from Northern Pulp or Paper Excellence.
Next in the series: As Jackson Wijaya’s Paper Excellence rapidly swallows up pulp and paper companies in North America, it adamantly denies having connections to Asia Pulp & Paper, owned and chaired by his father. Leaked correspondence and the ICIJ investigation suggest otherwise.