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The mill town occupies a special place in the Canadian psyche. Or at least it did for most of the 20th century, when countless communities across the country owed their existence to the pulp and paper plants that churned out newsprint for North America’s fat metropolitan dailies.

Lured north in the early 1900s by Canada’s vast boreal forest and abundant hydro resources, rich American newspaper publishers carved entire towns out of the wilderness to house the workers who ran the plants that fed voracious U.S. presses. Without a thriving American newspaper industry, vast swaths of this country might never have been opened up.

For almost seven decades, The New York Times was printed mostly on newsprint from the Kapuskasing, Ont., mill it co-owned with Kimberly-Clark Corp., more than 1,200 kilometres from the presses in Times Square. There was always a delicious irony in the fact that “all the news that’s fit to print” (The Times’ motto) was long printed on Canadian paper.

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Colonel Robert McCormick set out even further in search of the ideal location for a paper mill to supply his family’s Chicago Tribune, building a plant and hydroelectric generating station in 1936 more than 1,700 kilometres from the Windy City in Baie-Comeau, Que. The McCormicks’ Quebec North Shore Paper Co. provided jobs for hundreds of French- and English-Canadians from across Quebec who had struggled to find work during the Great Depression.

In the imagination of one young boy growing up in Baie-Comeau, Col. McCormick – who would visit from time to time, once bringing the Chicago Black Hawks with him – represented everything his hometown could never offer. Fame and fortune, yes, but also the career advancement and intellectual fulfilment that his millworker father had never known.

So it was that Brian Mulroney’s father told him, in 1955, as he was considering an apprenticeship at the mill instead of a postsecondary education: “I appreciate the offer, Brian, and we do need the help. But the only way out of a paper mill town is through a university door.”

The latter part of that quotation, lifted from the former prime minister’s 2007 memoirs, is now inscribed on a plaque at the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government, which was inaugurated earlier this year at his alma mater, St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S. And to many Canadians who grew up in mill towns, the quote likely echoes the words of their own parents.

Only someone disconnected from his or her own country’s history could take umbrage at the elder Mr. Mulroney’s words of advice to his son. Yet, St. Francis Xavier president, Kevin Wamsley, felt compelled to apologize this week after a former student suggested the quotation depicted mill towns as “impoverished and embarrassing.”

“As a social worker in training, I need to speak out against oppression and discrimination,” Meaghan Marie Landry wrote on Facebook. “Just because postsecondary education is your idea of success, that doesn’t mean it’s everybody else’s. Living in a paper-mill town is not an obstacle that you need to overcome.”

Only, for Canadians of Brian Mulroney’s generation, it definitely was. After all, for most of the 20th century, Canada was a collection of company towns. You never knew when the rug was going to be pulled out from under you. Canada’s commodities-based economy rode a cycle of boom and bust that always hit mill and mine workers hardest. What millworker could be blamed for wanting a better future for his (they were almost all men) children?

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Mr. Mulroney almost sabotaged his chance at a political career when, in 1982, as president of the Iron Ore Co. of Canada, his company shut down its mine in Schefferville, Que. Having grown up in a company town, Mr. Mulroney knew better than anyone that by closing the mine he was condemning the remote community of 4,000 to a certain death.

Dozens of Canadian mining and paper-mill towns have experienced a similar fate. Canada’s annual newsprint production peaked in 1989 at about nine million tonnes; it has since plunged to about a third of that level. The Baie-Comeau mill has been one of the lucky ones; it is still in operation, albeit with far less capacity, under its current owner, Resolute Forest Products.

As for the folks in Baie-Comeau, they don’t seem to have been offended by the quotation on the plaque. They recently commissioned a bust of Baie-Comeau’s most famous son that sits outside the town hall. More than 500 locals packed a church for the commemoration ceremony in May.

True to form, Mr. Mulroney joined the choir to belt out What a Wonderful World. Had he stayed in Baie-Comeau, he might never have known.

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