by Peter Thompson
Pictou is a sleepy town of about 3000 people on the north shore of Nova Scotia. Despite its small size and its place on Canada’s margins, Pictou has been featured twice in the pages of ActiveHistory.ca over the past decade. First in Lachlan MacKinnon’s 2014 piece, “The Power-Politics of Pulp and Paper: Health, Environment and Work in Pictou County,” and then in Colin Osmond’s “A’Se’k — Boat Harbour: A Site of Centuries’ Long Mi’kmaw Resistance” (2019). In addition to its outsized presence on ActiveHistory.ca, the Northern Pulp site at Pictou County’s Abercrombie Point has also been the subject of Elliot Page and Ian Daniel’s documentary There’s Something in the Water and the CBC documentary “The Mill.” Each of these reinforce a central fact about Pictou: visual representations of the town found in tourist advertisements and in the memorial complex found on the waterfront itself elide darker elements of its history, including environmental racism and Indigenous dispossession. (See also Ingrid Waldron’s 2018 book, There’s Something in the Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous and Black Communities.) In this post, I will look at how two sites on the Pictou waterfront—a plaque memorializing the passage of the Ship Hector and the Northern Pulp site itself—communicate ideas about history, progress, settler colonialism, and deindustrialization on the north shore.
The title of Judith Hoegg Ryan’s 1995 popular history of Pictou, The Birthplace of New Scotland: An Illustrated History of Pictou County, Canada’s Cradle of Industry, juxtaposes two important myths about northern Nova Scotia: the region’s often unapologetic embrace of its settler roots and Pictou County’s contributions to Canada’s industrial development.
Like many other industrial regions of North America, Pictou County has experienced a relentless period of deindustrialization over the past five decades. Since 1992, the region has lost its conventional mining base and most of its industrial manufacturing. In 2020, the Northern Pulp mill, which employed 300 people, closed. Until the bitter end, the mill held an ambivalent position in the region with the stability of the well-paying direct and indirect jobs it provided pairing uneasily with government bail-outs, effluent that smelled like rotten eggs, heightened cancer rates, and the destruction of a traditional Mi’kmaw hunting and fishing ground called A’Se’k (also known as Boat Harbour).
The history of the mill has been covered in this space before, but the short version is that, in the 1950s, the Nova Scotia government facilitated the development of a kraft paper mill in Pictou in an effort to increase investment in rural areas such as the north shore. For decades the mill dumped waste into A’Se’k, creating one of Canada’s worst examples of environmental racism. The mill struggled with profitability for most of its existence and survived largely on government bail-outs. In 2014, the mill spilled 47 million litres of toxic untreated effluent into local wetlands, triggering a blockade and widespread protests that—among other things—highlighted the danger to the local fishery. The Nova Scotia government gave Northern Pulp until 2020 to find a more environmentally palatable way of operating. And when these efforts failed, the mill closed, setting off a different round of protests, mostly by workers and owners of local woodlots whose livelihood relied on the mill’s operations. The site has sat idle since this time and is the subject of ongoing litigation with no concrete plans to reopen the mill. The racial politics of the situation—members of the white working class whose livelihoods were at risk in some cases blamed and even threatened Pictou Landing First Nation for these developments—exacerbated the visceral reaction to the mill’s closure. As Hoegg Ryan’s book cover inadvertently highlights, Pictou’s industrial history and its experience of deindustrialization need to be understood through the lens of race and settler colonialism.
Of course, this history is wrapped up in ideas about work, industrial development, and resource extraction. In his work on copper mining in the American midwest, Eric Kojola argues that sites such as Northern Pulp are linked in our collective imaginary to images of masculine labour, stable white communities, and pioneer narratives of taming the land and making it productive. In their 2019 article, “‘The depth of the plough:’ white settler tautologies and pioneer lies,” Travis Wysote and Erin Morton, citing Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, discuss the cultural phenomenon of “settler nativism,” which they describe as the “seemingly innocuous ways that European violence cleared land to establish white settlers as originary to the land itself.” (480) They argue that, in the case of Mi’kma’ki, there is a two-step process in which the occupation of the land and the displacement of the Mi’kmaq is naturalized through the development of agricultural and industrial techniques and then bolstered through cultural expression. These inter-related processes locate settler society as both historically rooted in the land and as part of an unquestioned future. Wysote and Morton argue that this is a key feature of Nova Scotia’s public space, as the province has been home to “an entire postwar rehabilitation and commemoration project during the twentieth century, funded by the Nova Scotia provincial government in its homage to maintaining settler futures through preservations of the past.” (487) This is certainly the case on the Pictou waterfront where the interaction of two key sites—a monument marking the first Scottish settlement in Pictou and the hulking shuttered mill itself—form a memorial complex that solidifies the presence and future of Nova Scotia’s settler society even at the same time as the closure of the mill undermines narratives of progress.
If the mill site itself is a monument to modernization and the relationship between extraction and settler colonialism, we can think about it in relation to a monument right across the water that celebrates Pictou as the birthplace of New Scotland. The monument commemorates the arrival of the Ship Hector to Pictou in 1773, with the inscription reading, “two hundred Highland Scots arrived [which] began a wave of Scottish immigration to Nova Scotia that would last for decades.” It goes on to describe the stories that subsequent waves of settlers heard about the courage of the first arrivals establishing settlements against great odds. The monument proclaims that it, the Hector Heritage Quay, and the replica of the Ship Hector complete the tourist experience on Pictou’s waterfront, which “are a testament to [the settlers’] courage and to Nova Scotia’s ties to Scotland.” It is worth pausing here to think about the values that this monument communicates in terms of the settlement of Pictou and the culture of “New Scotland” that flowed from the passage of the Ship Hector and the establishment of these settlements: the monument presents colonization not even as a benevolent event, but as more of a non-event.
The changing visual composition of the Pictou waterfront reminds us that, over time, various forms of Mi’kmaw resistance to the mill underscore the uneasiness of settler claims to the space in spite of memorials such as the one I describe above. While the mill is a symbol of the violence and environmental racism inherent in the settler colonial project, it is also a symbol of the fragility of that project. It is important to think about the ongoing process of deindustrialization in Nova Scotia in the context of the province’s experience of settler colonialism. And this brings forward some difficult issues. But if the mill is a monument like the stone plaque, it is a monument whose story is much more difficult to control. Its uncertain future and its prominence in the landscape of the birthplace of New Scotland makes us think about the history of industrial colonialism in Pictou and potentially opens up new ways of imagining this space.
Peter Thompson is a professor in the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies at Carleton University. He has published widely on representations of deindustrialization in the literature and popular culture of Atlantic Canada and Appalachia. In 2019, he published a book, Nights Below Foord Street: Literature and Popular Culture in Postindustrial Nova Scotia with McGill-Queen’s University Press.
This post is part of a series titled The Politics of Deindustrialization in Canada, edited by Lauren Laframboise. The authors in this series are affiliated to the Deindustrialization and the Politics of Our Time (DéPOT) project. DéPOT is hosting its annual conference in June 2023 in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.