Nova Scotians don’t yet grasp scope of economic massacre post-Northern Pulp

The Chronicle Herald
January 25, 2020

In his Jan. 11 column, Jim Vibert opined that the transition fund established by the province to help affected sectors of our economy cope with the closure of Northern Pulp is not sufficient.

Let me crunch some approximate numbers. The day after our premier made the announcement that will most likely close the Pictou mill, the price of timber paid to woodlot owners in Nova Scotia dropped $30 per cord.

There are over 30,000 small woodlot owners in the province. I estimate that, on average, they have an inventory of around 75 acres of marketable wood containing about 30 cords per acre. The loss: over $2 billion. $2 billion!

The premier announced, a few days ago, that $11 million will be taken out of the $50-million transition fund to help the forestry sector. It is not clear to me if any of that will actually go to the woodlot owners to compensate for the drastic reduction (30-50 per cent) in stumpage rates.

Even if the entire $11 million were used for that purpose, the compensation would be minuscule, almost meaningless — a sick joke. A woodlot owner suffering a $50,000 loss would receive $250 from the transition fund.

Hurricane Dorian caused an estimated $11 million in damage. The province set up a compensation fund of $11 million — 100 per cent compensation. Woodlot owners: half a penny on the dollar!

True, the loss is just a paper loss for now, and may just possibly be partially erased as other markets are found. There is a glimmer of hope, a faint glimmer.
The province has set up a transition team to explore all the options, but as Mr. Vibert pointed out, five of the 10 team members are government employees, and not just your average civil servants. Four are deputy ministers — people who are paid over $168,000 a year and have generous expense accounts.

What forestry expertise do they possess? Julie Towers, deputy minister, Lands and Forests, may have some. What genuine empathy will they have for thousands of desperate rural folks? Not a single one of the province’s more than 30,000 small woodlot owners was deemed worthy to sit on the team. There’s a Nova Scotia Community College president and the chair of a large landowners’ group, and Jeff Bishop, the executive director of Forest Nova Scotia, and Greg Watson, manager of a forestry co-op. The latter two give me some hope that the voices of the small woodlot owners will be heard.

Robin Wilber, who has a close association with forestry people as the owner of Elmsdale Lumber, was cut from the committee the day after he suggested that Northern Pulp could perhaps be put on “hot idle” with a view to restarting operations after environmental requirements were met. So much for exploring all the options.

The head of the transition committee, Kelliann Dean, should have been replaced immediately (or removed from the team altogether) for her perplexing decision to sack Mr. Wilber for expressing an opinion.

I’ve heard people say, and have read views, that Northern Pulp had plenty of time to meet its environmental requirements before the deadline of Jan. 30, 2020, and that the company dragged its feet. Well, maybe. Consider, however, that 10 years after the city of Halifax made the decision to build a plant to treat the raw sewage that had been spilling into the harbour for centuries, the plant was not yet operating. What government couldn’t achieve in 10 years, government demanded private industry do in five.

And Halifax did not have to complete 63 environmental studies, and didn’t have to deal with endless protests, and blockades and ever-changing demands.

Did the premier make a courageous decision on Dec. 20 when he refused to extend the Jan. 30, 2020, deadline, or did he make a rash promise five years ago?

Maybe both. I believe the premier to be a man of integrity and a person who has genuine concern for the people of the province. However, I think a leader with more foresight would have set up a transition team the day he set the deadline for Northern Pulp back in 2015.

Is my expectation of the second-highest-paid premier in Canada too high? I remember that the Mulgrave ferry was not taken out of service until after the Canso Causeway opened. The government of the day did not close down the ferry and then strike a committee to explore other transportation options, nor offer the people of Cape Breton a five-cent subsidy per airplane flight off the island to hold them over.

I don’t believe Nova Scotians have been given a chance to fully comprehend the scope of the economic and social repercussions of forcing Northern Pulp to close.

The staggering losses incurred by woodlot owners is just one. The emergencies faced by the contractors, equipment operators and truckers is nothing short of a crisis. If something dramatic is not done in a hurry, the fallout will extend much further. There will be major layoffs and hundreds of families facing hardship. There will be family breakups, huge increases in welfare payments, bankruptcies, outmigration and suicide rates. Stores will close and property values will drop significantly in many parts of the province, and with that, the tax base. There will have to be cuts in provincial services and government salaries or the deficit will balloon. Forest-fire intensity will increase as more deadwood is left on the forest floor.

The environment needs to be protected, Boat Harbour needs to be ameliorated and the waters of the Northumberland Strait need to be kept clean. With good planning and careful, scientifically-based decisions, we could have these and the pulp mill, too. St. Francis Xavier University professor Jim Williams, who stated his case in an opinion piece in The Chronicle Herald in December, also thinks so. I don’t think he’s an idiot or misinformed.

So far, the small woodlot owners have been patient and hopeful. I can well imagine what would have happened if our teachers and nurses and other government employees were told on Dec. 20 that their salaries would be reduced immediately by 30 per cent. Every school and hospital and government office across the province would be shut down; there’d be mass marches and riots; the city of Halifax would be brought to a standstill; the legislature would be surrounded, not allowing the exit of one MLA. There would be a state of emergency until the cuts were reinstated.

Are the woodlot owners just ignorant country bumpkins to be shut out and placated with a half-cent on the dollar? If they were to organize into a 30,000-strong united force, I could just about warrant that one of them would be on the transition team and probably more than one.

Henry Van Berkel lives in Ashdale. He is the author of Walks by Big Alex’s Pond.

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