Joan Baxter stands in front of the pulp mill on the Abercrombie side of Pictou Harbour. Steve Goodwin photo

The cancellation of a book signing by Tatamagouche author Joan Baxter on Dec. 2 has had ripple effects throughout the community that are combining into a wave of support for the book.

Baxter was scheduled to be at Coles in the Highland Square Mall to sign copies of The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest. However, days before, the event was cancelled due to what Coles’ parent company called “aggressive conversations directed to store staff.”

These “aggressive conversations” came about after Northern Pulp’s attempt to squash the book signing.

Company communications director Kathy Cloutier wrote in a letter to mill staff that, “In my opinion, this book is a non-factual rhetoric filled account of the mill and its history and, quite frankly, something that is offensive to anyone who has an association to the mill.” She went on to say, “Many of our employees have signed the attached letter and forwarded it off to the Highland Square book store as well as Coles/Chapters headquarters in Toronto.”

The letter referenced says: “I consider this book to be an attack on the ongoing operations of a local business which has been in operation since 1967 and has been a significant economic contributor of this county and province.

“This book is a direct insult to the nearly one thousand combined employees and retirees, many of whom continue to live in this region. This is one person profiting off negativity towards Northern Pulp and its past and present workforce that have raised families, put children through university and continues as a generational employer.”

It ends with, “Should management (local or headquarters) follow through with this book signing promotion, I will NO longer be a patron of Coles in New Glasgow or any other Coles/Chapters locations.”

In an interview, Cloutier said, “The mall is a very public place on a Saturday afternoon a few weeks before Christmas. Our employees want the freedom to be able to shop there and not have their work demeaned. Northern Pulp’s employees, retirees and their families are proud of their work within the mill and its community. To have a book demeaning/diminishing their day-to-day work life can understandably illicit passion in wanting to stand up for their contributions to the mill and workforce of the forest industry in Nova Scotia. “

When questioned about censoring the book she noted, “No one said don’t stock the book or don’t sell the book. This was not about limiting free speech but rather one of Northern Pulp employees and retirees and families being able to mingle in their home mall without a celebration-type event regarding their workplace promoted negatively.”

As to the aggressive behaviours Cloutier said, “We at Northern Pulp are not aware of, nor would we condone, any form of aggression. In fact, employees and others were encouraged to voice their opinions — should they choose to — in the form of mailed letters rather than specific actions such as protests.”

And regarding the letter Cloutier said, “During conversations with employees it was they who put forth ideas of voicing their objection to this book depicting their workplace in such negative fashion. From these discussions, and at their request, indeed a letter was created for which employees, retirees and their families were able to sign and submit of their own free accord.”

Kate Gregory, senior manager, public relations for Indigo/Chapter commented about the cancellation, “We do not take this decision lightly, but we must respect the comfort and safety of all customers, staff and authors in our stores.”

Baxter is defending the book store and its employees and believes the finger of blame is being pointed in the wrong direction: people should be blaming the aggressors and not Coles.

“To see the book stores and the book sellers bearing the brunt … the finger is pointed in the wrong direction. Why go after the little book store? I support book stores. Coles has been wonderful in its support of Read By the Sea literary festival…”

She added, “I think it is important to note that in writing this book I asked the mill management and board chair for interviews; I contacted the union rep. I was told in an email that after discussion with the board and management they would not be participating in this project. So, I tried.”

Baxter, an award-winning author, journalist, researcher and development consultant who worked on the book for 16 months, said she finds the boycott unacceptable.

“It’s like something from another country.”

She continued, “This has caused a lot of heartache and division that just didn’t need to be there.”

Baxter says she is indebted to those whose information is contained in the book, which includes newspaper articles, work by citizens and activists who researched and documented the issues and those who loaned their scrapbooks and photo collections. She said it meant years of archive research was less necessary.

“Without all that work done by all those people since the 1960s, I would never have been able to write this book,” she said. “It’s amazing how many people kept scrapbooks. They were absolutely invaluable.”

She considered writing The Mill in 2016 and later talked to Pictou County musician Dave Gunning, who shared what he compiled about the mill.

“He was an encyclopedia,” she said.

Baxter said governments have not done their duty to protect citizens – including those she talked to – from the air and water pollution the mill has generated.

“I interviewed people who have been protesting since it opened,” she said. “It’s amazing how many people were involved over the years. I’m fascinated with the non-violent, non-confrontational way they have protested. They don’t want the mill closed. They want it cleaned up and I wanted to give them voice. There have been protests through successive governments that let them down. It doesn’t matter what government is in power. They all caved and they failed to protect us.”

*with files from Steve Goodwin