HALIFAX – A Nova Scotia MLA is raising freedom-of-speech concerns after a Toronto-based retail chain cancelled a local book signing amid controversy over the book’s portrayal of an area pulp mill.
Pictou West MLA Karla MacFarlane says the decision to cancel the Dec. 2 book signing at the Coles bookstore in New Glasgow, N.S., was the “wrong move.”
“I feel like freedom of speech has been infringed upon here. If there was a book written pro-mill, I would want that to be sold too,” she said Wednesday.
Joan Baxter’s book, “The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest,” explores the impact of the Northern Pulp mill near Pictou in northern Nova Scotia.
MacFarlane questioned how a multimillion-dollar corporation was forced to shut down the book signing, though a spokeswoman for Indigo Books & Music Inc., which owns Coles, said late Wednesday that the bookseller has been in touch with the author about a possible larger off-site event in the future.
A spokeswoman for Paper Excellence Group, the parent company of Northern Pulp, said the mill’s management wrote a letter objecting to the book signing event.
Kathy Cloutier said the letter was written at the request of employees, and that the mill encouraged its workers, retirees and their families to sign the letter and submit it to the bookstore “of their own free accord.”
Northern Pulp’s employees “are proud of their work within the mill and its community,” she said in an email. “To have a book demeaning/diminishing their day-to-day work life can understandably elicit passion in wanting to stand up for their contributions to the mill and workforce of the forest industry in Nova Scotia.”
But MacFarlane said the letter appears to have put “a lot of pressure” on workers to publicly object to the book.
Kate Gregory, a spokeswoman for Indigo, said the bookseller’s “number one commitment is to our customers and staff to ensure that they have a joyful and safe experience in our stores.”
“A number of events leading up to the signing in New Glasgow led us to cancel this event as our commitment to this experience may have been compromised,” she said. “This was not due to pressure from the mill.”
Gregory did not detail what events prompted the cancellation, or whether threats to safety were reported to police.
However, she noted book signings were held in Dartmouth and Truro, and that the book is also available on the company’s website.
The Abercrombie, N.S., mill has been a long-standing employer in the region. It currently has more than 330 workers, and invests over $315 million a year into the provincial economy, according to the company.
However, the pulp mill has also faced public outcry over foul-smelling air pollution, toxic effluent and water pollution.
Earlier this year, the mill was issued a fine after a stack test revealed it was emitting particulate matter above the allowable limit.
Tourism operators and fisheries workers have also voiced concern with the mill’s environmental impact on the region and on other industries.
Former Nova Scotia premier John Hamm, chairman of the pulp mill’s board of directors, said the region needs a safe, environmentally responsible mill that can survive economically
“This country is littered with communities that have lost their mills and the results have been devastating to those particular communities. I don’t want our community to be one of those,” he said.
While Hamm said he “absolutely” believes in free speech, he said debate over the mill must be evidence-based.
“We must not let misinformation cloud our judgment on this issue,” he added.
But MacFarlane said Baxter is a “voice of reason” and that she knows mill workers who have read the book.
Ultimately, she said it’s possible to be critical of the mill’s environmental track record while still supporting its viability and jobs.
“I hear from mill workers all the time that they want to secure their jobs but they want to do it in the safest, environmentally responsible way possible,” she said.
MacFarlane said opposition to the book generated by the mill has likely served to raise the author’s profile.
“I think that her book will be sold out because of this situation.”