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Film Battle over future of Nova Scotia pulp mill reflects wider Canadian debate, filmmaker says

As tense lines are drawn over Northern Pulp’s plan to pump wastewater into the Northumberland Strait, filmmaker David Craig sees a wider tale of how Canadian communities can become divided as the interests of heavy industry are pitted against the natural environment.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

For filmmaker David Craig, a new documentary depicting the fraught emotions over the future of a rural Nova Scotia pulp mill is not solely a local story.

Rather, as tense lines are drawn over Northern Pulp’s plan to pump waste water into the Northumberland Strait, he sees a wider tale of how Canadian communities can become divided as the interests of heavy industry are pitted against the natural environment.

“People are now seriously asking the question ‘What is the limit to resource exploitation?’ ” the 67-year-old seasonal resident of Pictou County said in an interview.

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“It’s a microcosm of a much larger national story and international story. And it was taking place in front of my eyes, in my neighbourhood.”

The hour-long production titled The Mill, a co-production from Craig’s firm Site Media and Vertical Productions, is set to air on Aug. 29 at 9 p.m. ET on CBC POV Docs. It is the filmmaker’s directorial debut.

The documentary depicts the subsidiary of Paper Excellence as relying on inexpensive raw materials, while providing well-paid jobs at the centre of a rural forestry industry that supplies the factory with logs and wood chips.

However, a historic wrong to a Mi’kmaq community is finally coming to an end – setting the stage for a developing showdown.

After more than 50 years of dumping effluent from the Abercrombie Point mill into Boat Harbour, the provincial government has committed to a legislated deadline to end the existing outfall by Jan. 31, 2020.

The opening interview with Andrea Paul, the chief of Pictou Landing First Nation, is shown amid stark aerial views of the foaming, brown waters emerging in the lagoon behind her, which her people used to call A’sek.

“It’s affected people so much inside … That was where (the people) went,” she says. “When they were hungry, that was where they went. If they were sick, this was where they got their traditional medicines … All of that was taken away from them.”

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Craig shifts the perspectives back and forth, including the mill manager’s view that he and the more than 300 workers are also crucial parts of the community.

No rank-and-file mill worker spoke in the documentary. At times, their perspective is heard second-hand through the voice of a dogged, local reporter who attempts to find all the viewpoints in the struggle. Craig says the film was inspired by Joan Baxter’s book, The Mill: 50 Years of Pulp and Protest, and that he purchased rights to make a film from the book.

Whether the matter will be settled with rational, public debate – or have a harsher ending – is not fully answered, but the faces of the players are depicted in depth and with a human touch.

Images of the Northumberland Strait flip between a tranquil sunrise and a day of fierce winds beating spray against a fishing boat’s bow.

A young fisherman, Colton Cameron of Caribou, N.S., speaks of his passion for going out on these waters to fish for crab, lobster and mackerel.

“It’s nothing but joy,” he says.

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Minutes later, the scene shifts to a hall meeting with the Northumberland Fishermen’s Association planning strategy to somehow block the proposed dumping of waste water into the strait.

“There will be an all-out war,” says a fisherman in the back row at the gathering.

For years, Craig gave little thought to the mill as he drove by it on his way to catch the ferry to Prince Edward Island. Over the years, there were community controversies over air pollution from the mill, but on the whole there was a “live and let live” atmosphere to the debate, he says.

However, when Northern Pulp made clear its alternative to the Boat Harbour lagoon was to send its 85 million litres a day of treated waste water into the Northumberland Strait, tensions rose.

In one scene, Krista Fulton, co-founder of Friends of the Northumberland Strait, captures the widening divide within the community.

“I feel like there’s a big division now. My neighbour, she is an executive at Northern Pulp. We don’t even wave to each other any more … It’s become uncomfortable,” she tells the filmmaker.

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The film follows the developing saga from living rooms, to town hall meetings organized by Northern Pulp, to an exuberant, 3,000-person “No pipe” protest on the water and waterfront of Pictou last year.

It comes close to the present with footage of the provincial environment minister declaring Northern Pulp needs to provide more answers before its pipeline and effluent treatment project can proceed.

Craig says he wanted to create a documentary that “showed the decisions can no longer be made by a few individuals behind closed doors,” adding: “The climax of the story is yet to come.”

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