This is the first segment in a two-part series examining the fallout of the closure of the Northern Pulp mill. To check out the rest of our series, click here.
Tina Hicks has worked at Northern Pulp for 18 years as a process operator at the bleach plant.
But with the looming closure of the mill, Hicks is now contemplating a move across the country for work in the industry.
“I had planned on working three more years,” said Hicks. “I could retire in two and a half but now I’ll have to work eight more years until I am 65.”
Northern Pulp will shut officially shut the paper mill down on Jan. 31 as part of the Boat Harbour Act, a government agreement with the mill’s parent company Paper Excellence and the Pictou Landing First Nation and province.
The mill has been operating in Pictou County under various owners since 1967 and has faced consistent criticism for its poor environmental record and has been dumping treated effluent into a series of lagoons located near First Nations’ land for decades.
After the province refused to provide Northern Pulp with an extension to operate past Jan. 31, the mill has been forced to close, leaving more than 300 workers out of a job.
Hicks like many of her colleagues at Northern Pulp are highly skilled with technical training and bring in good money for their work, but with no paper mill, she says there are few jobs available that could meet her current salary.
“We’re stunned, angry and we don’t know which direction to go in,” said Hicks. “You’re taking a highly-skilled workforce … and these are jobs you don’t leave because they are good-paying with good benefits.”
The 57-year-old single mother just came back from a meeting with a career support worker and is now having to write a new resume and prepare herself for the job interview process, something she wasn’t prepared or thought she would need to do again.
The job prospects in New Glasgow are limited and don’t match her interests or skills, as Hicks is trying to find a job in the sector. Paper Excellence has offered her and other employees the chance to relocate to British Columbia to continue working in a paper mill located there.
Another job offer came from a pulp mill in northern Ontario, a different company that set up for a two-day job fair in New Glasgow earlier this month, trying to attract skilled workers from Northern Pulp to its team.
Hicks will have to make a tough decision; her family’s here in New Glasgow, so she’s leaning towards moving to northern Ontario, which is closer.
“It’s a long way away from my family,” said Hicks. “I am lucky that my (two) sons are grown up, but I’m a single parent and so it just kills me that I have to leave them behind, and I also have a seven-year-old granddaughter.”
Mayor Nancy Dicks says more than 75 mill workers call New Glasgow home and the potential loss of workers and taxpayers like Hicks is a major concern.
“The effect in our community socially is a concern as well,” said Dicks. “And you have to realize people with good incomes, these are people that are out spending money and people that are going out to eat and buying in our community and so there’s a concern for our businesses and how they will be affected.”
The issue with Northern Pulp and the Boat Habour dumping site and its failure to find a new wastewater site has been a divisive issue in the community.
But Hicks says the workers understand that Boat Harbour has to go, they don’t disagree with that they just feel the environmental process was an uphill battle the company couldn’t win.
“It is a travesty (Boat Harbour) and it does need to go,” said Hicks “But this company (Paper Excellence) is the first company that’s ever owned it (the mill) that was willing to put money into but everybody is looking at it, as though it’s too little too late.”
In a way Hicks welcomes a move, the backlash in the community over the mill’s operation and the looming closure, she says the workers have faced undue criticism.
“I gave up on a few friends and I’ve kind of isolated myself and removed myself from groups that I used to be with,” said Hicks. “I just don’t go to anything anymore, I got to work, I go get my groceries and I come home because I don’t want to deal with the public.”
If Northern Pulp reopened, Hicks isn’t sure she’d come back, it would a tough decision and another big move.
“I’d probably finish out my service with my new company,” she said.
Global News has repeatedly reached out to Northern Pulp and it’s parent company Paper Excellence for comment but has received no response.
The government will begin remediation of the Boat Harbour site when the plant shuts the mill on Jan. 31.